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Sanctions encourage Sino-Russian cooperation

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The past week marked a new milestone in Russia’s efforts to control the Eurasian landmass.  With the inauguration of the “Power of Siberia” natural gas pipeline, Russia has taken another step towards luring China into a strategic dependence. The pipeline is designed to carry 10,000 gallons of liquid natural gas (38 billion cubic meters) a year for 30 years from its Russian origins to Chinese customers 1,865 miles away. This represents approximately one-sixth of Chinese natural gas consumption in 2018. Gazprom plans to start with deliveries of 10 million cubic meters a day and reach peak capacity in 2025. Even more Russian gas may be delivered in the future through Mongolia.

Power of Siberia is the result of a $400 billion deal signed within days of the United States placing sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine. Beijing and the Kremlin had been negotiating for several years to build two pipelines but could not agree on a price for the gas deliveries.  When sanctions were imposed, the pricing question was resolved for the first pipeline. American use of economic coercion had backfired, providing an incentive for the two countries to draw closer together.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated the opening of the pipeline with a joint teleconference. Putin commented the pipeline would help realize the goal of $200 billion in bilateral trade by 2024, doubling the current level of $100 billon. By contrast, over the course of 2019, Chinese imports of American goods have decreased by 26.4 percent, while exports to the United States are down 10.7 percent.

The increased trade highlights the close ties that have developed between the two countries since the United States began using sanctions. In June, Chinese state media commented that Putin and Xi met 28 times since 2013, with the most recent meeting taking place “when the international order is challenged by unilateralism and protectionism and the global economy is dampened by the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies.”

Xi has been ebullient over his close ties with Putin, calling the Russian president his best and bosom friend: “My engagement with President Putin is built on a high degree of mutual trust. That is the solid foundation of our close friendship.”   

By its imposition of tariffs and other punitive measures on Russia and China, the United States has created a vacuum that is enabling the spread of Russia’s affect. Former Ambassador Chas Freeman wrote, “Narcissistic nationalism is not an effective antidote to foreign distaste and disapproval.” The effect on Russia and China has been counterproductive from an American strategic viewpoint.  

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch (R-Idaho) testified, “While U.S. financial preeminence makes sanctions an easy and somewhat effective tool, I have serious concerns about the consequences of their overuse, particularly in the absence of a larger strategy. More sanctions don’t make us tougher on Russia. … More general sanctions actions, when not connected to specific goals, can be counterproductive.” As for China, Henry Kissinger wrote, “A policy that is perceived as having designated China as the enemy primarily because its economy is growing and its ideology is distasteful would end up isolating the United States.” With access to countries that want to trade with America limited, Beijing has turned to Russia’s waiting embrace.  

A Nixonian trilateral balance of friendly relations with Russia and China could increase American influence in East Asia while using the two countries to limit the growth of the other’s influence. Russia and China are historic competitors, and Russia long has feared the growth of Chinese influence in Siberia. China is aware of Russia’s nuclear arsenal on its borders. If America opened itself to better relations with these countries, instead of increasing the speed of its descent into autarky, it would eliminate the need for these two rivals to cooperate with each other.

James J. Coyle, Ph.D., served in a number of positions in the U.S. government, including as director of Middle East Studies, U.S. Army War College. He is the author of “Russia’s Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts.”

Tags China Donald Trump Russia Sino-Russian relations US sanctions Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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