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BY EMILY COUCH

As the world scrambles to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, tectonic shifts are taking place in the global political landscape on both strategic and human levels. As the United States has failed to take center stage in handling a new global crisis, it is important for us to turn our attention to how its geopolitical rivals are responding. Russia and China are, of course, the vanguard of the anti-Western bloc, so does the pandemic herald a newly strengthened Sino-Russian partnership? The answer is not as clear as it might at first seem.

Is this apparently new era of Sino-Russian friendship a mere window dressing or a genuine partnership to be reckoned with? Director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States Robert Daly suggests that the answer lies between these two poles.  While stressing that “this is not an alliance,” he highlights that “they both resent American hegemony … so they find common cause, which includes things like joint military exercises both in the northern Pacific and most recently in the Indian Ocean.” Bradley Jardine, the Wilson Center’s Schwarzman Fellow specializing in the Sino-Russian security nexus in Central Asia, agrees: “Before the pandemic, Sino-Russian relations were growing increasingly close, with both sides seeking to reduce U.S. influence around the world. Last year, the two upgraded their strategic partnership, and trade between them reached record highs.”

In the early phase of the outbreak, the tendentious entente seemed to hit perilous waters. At the beginning of the month, BBC Moscow correspondent Sarah Rainsford reported that city authorities encouraged public transport drivers to report anyone who was “Chinese-looking,” while an Associated Press report confirmed that metro workers were instructed to stop riders from China and ask them to fill out questionnaires asking why they were in Russia and whether they had observed the two-week quarantine. Meanwhile, Deputy Mayor Anastasia Rakova reported “daily raids” on the residences of Chinese citizens and the planned deportation of eighty-eight foreign nationals, the majority of whom were Chinese. In response to these measures, the Chinese embassy issued an official protest, calling on Russia to be “moderate and nondiscriminative” in its policy.

In the economic sphere, Russia’s exports to China dropped by almost a third in the first six weeks of the year as the spread of coronavirus reduced demand from China. At the end of last month, a New York Times report highlighted the detrimental economic impact of the virus on Russian cities on the Chinese border, such as Blagoveshchensk, with one business owner stating that “one by one, businesses are being killed by the disease.”

For all the discriminatory measures and gloomy economic figures, it looks like the Sino-Russian entente will emerge relatively unscathed, and perhaps even strengthened, from the pandemic. First, the economic fallout is relatively small-scale. While exports have dropped, China’s gradual recovery from the worst of the domestic epidemic suggests that this is likely a temporary blip before demand once again picks up.

Second, Russia is largely the junior partner in the relationship, so it is notable that the attempts to smooth over initial rifts have all come from the Chinese side. Last week the Kremlin’s summary of a phone call between Putin and Xi appeared to brush earlier tensions under the rug, stressing that “Russia and China established close cooperation in fighting the infection from the very outset” and that both presidents “spoke in favor of further mutual assistance” in the medical sector. Similarly, in an interview with Izvestia, Chinese ambassador to Russia Zhang Hanhui said, “Russia's assistance during the struggle of China against the COVID-19 epidemic was sincere, timely, firm and comprehensive.… Rossiyskaya Gazeta and other leading media outlets have repeatedly published articles and reports expressing support for China in the fight against the epidemic.” The Chinese embassy also retracted its complaint over Moscow’s treatment of its nationals. Jardine argues that the cooling of tensions indicates a joint commitment to countering U.S. hegemony, stating that “the two have been willing to make compromises in the past to balance against the U.S., and they continue to do so now.”

By contrast, neither the Kremlin nor the Moscow city authorities have offered apologies for their policy. China’s conciliatory response suggests that Beijing sees maintaining friendly relations with Russia during the crisis as beneficial. Sure enough, it has found support from Putin in its blame game with the United States over which country is responsible for the outbreak. Russia also joined China’s call for the United States to lift its sanctions on Iran. Regardless of whether this discursive unity is backed up by a substantive strategic alliance, COVID-19 allows both countries to shore up their global image as a united alternative to the U.S.-led order. “China is using this crisis to position itself as a responsible actor,” says Jardine. “At the moment, China is achieving this by providing supplies and aid to affected countries such as Spain and Italy.” In a clear echo of China’s international coronavirus aid strategy, Russia recently sent nine military planes loaded with medical equipment and specialists to Italy. The pandemic, therefore, has reinforced the unequal power dynamic in the entente: where China leads, Russia follows.

While political relations between Moscow and Beijing are likely to weather the COVID-19 storm, the horizon could be grayer for people-to-people relations. Social media users in Moscow have reported crowds moving away from Chinese people, suggesting that, even if the Kremlin is not perpetuating anti-Chinese rhetoric, this kind of discourse has to some extent entered the public mindset. On the human dimension, Daly comments: “Russia does have a fear … which is historical and modern, about being ‘overrun’ to a certain degree by China,” questioning whether “at the level of popular perception, do the Russian people see this as a human pandemic, or as a pathogen from China?” As a student at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, I witnessed the overtly friendly interactions between Russians and Chinese tourists, but the stigmatization—whether state-sponsored or not—casts doubt on whether Chinese citizens will still receive a warm welcome once the travel restrictions are lifted. Whether the virus has a long-term negative impact on the Russian population’s perception of Chinese people will only really be revealed once the world returns to a semblance of normalcy.

And that could be a long time coming.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Emily Couch

Emily Couch

Program Assistant, Europe, National Endowment for Democracy
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region though research and exchange.  Read more