China’s ties with Russia are growing more solid

There are signs of Russia’s growing willingness to help China build missile-warning and defence systems, and to sell it advanced rocket engines, overcoming qualms about China selling Russian technology to others. (File Photo: Reuters)
There are signs of Russia’s growing willingness to help China build missile-warning and defence systems, and to sell it advanced rocket engines, overcoming qualms about China selling Russian technology to others. (File Photo: Reuters)


  • Our columnist visits a future Russian outpost in China’s most advanced spaceport

CHINA’S FIRST tropical spaceport, Wenchang, is proof of national swagger. During the cold war, China launched rockets from the Gobi desert and other desolate inland spots, for fear of enemy attack. Once China was more confident that it could deter invaders, though, Wenchang became a fine gateway to space. This close to the equator, on the southern island of Hainan, the Earth’s rotation gives a boost to every launch. The palm-fringed coastal site allows the largest Long March rockets to be delivered by sea. Wenchang finally opened in 2016. Its well-guarded launch areas are flanked by a science-education centre (closed to foreign visitors), replicas of rockets, statues of flag-waving astronauts and other tourist kitsch, like a Communist Party homage to Florida.

Here, in this showcase for Chinese technology, a privileged foreign friend—Russia—is being given a precious piece of real estate. Moscow Power Engineering Institute, a large Russian technical university, has been invited to open a branch in Wenchang with room for 10,000 students of aerospace engineering and science. Russian and Chinese scholars and officials held a ground-breaking ceremony in January. Though the 40-hectare campus is bare earth for now, Chinese media have already announced that, unusually, the Hainan institute will be a Russian-led academy, rather than a joint venture with a Chinese university.

Russia’s outpost in Wenchang will be next to a vast, partly built space-technology park. On a muggy weekday a forest of cranes rises above future laboratories, a satellite-assembly shed and a radar receiving station. The prime site is evidence that Sino-Russian space co-operation, long held back by mutual suspicion between the countries, is surging ahead.

Examples abound in a study published last year by the China Aerospace Studies Institute, a research arm of the US Air Force. The study details Russia’s growing willingness to help China build missile-warning and defence systems, and to sell it advanced rocket engines, overcoming qualms about China selling Russian technology to others. It describes Chinese and Russian agreements to link up their respective satellite-navigation systems, Beidou and Glonass. The two countries have pledged to build a joint base on the Moon and to work together on detecting space debris—a technology also useful for tracking an adversary’s satellites. The study quotes Xi Jinping, China’s supreme leader, linking technical co-operation with Russia to plans for “the reform of the global governance system" (ie, pushing America from centre stage).

The study describes why the countries have moved closer. China wants to harness Russia’s decades of expertise in space. Russia’s space programme needs China’s money. It has also wanted access to Chinese components ever since Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea in 2014 and Russia was hit by Western sanctions. Mr Putin’s all-out war on Ukraine, launched in 2022, has caused ties between China and Russia to grow even deeper. Ordinary Chinese citizens are noticing, including in sleepy Wenchang.

Zhao Chenxi is head of the Russian department at the Hainan College of Foreign Studies, a vocational school in Wenchang. It is a far humbler institution than the Russian-run campus due in her city. But the Moscow school’s opening should make her Russian-language pupils “more confident about their future careers", she says. She may be right. Chaguan met students in a Russian culture class who described Russia as a land of opportunity. Several plan to transfer to Altai State University in Western Siberia. One of them is a 20-year-old surnamed Gao. He calls Mr Putin “very imperious" and the person he admires the most after Xi Jinping.

There are parallels between space co-operation and China’s broader support for Russia. Western sanctions after the Crimea invasion pushed Russia’s space industry to overcome its doubts about China. Today American officials accuse Chinese firms of supplying microelectronics, drone engines and machine tools that Russia’s defence industry uses to make missiles, tanks and aircraft for the war against Ukraine. Those dual-use items undermine Western sanctions meant to starve Russia of weaponry. Imposing sanctions was a rational strategy. Yet they have pushed Russia into China’s arms. Russia sends discounted oil and gas eastwards, and imports Chinese electronics, cars and more.

A partner against the West

Even before Antony Blinken, America’s secretary of state, landed in China on April 24th for a brief visit, the Biden administration and China’s government were arguing, publicly, about commercial sales to Russia that prop up Mr Putin’s war machine. With President Joe Biden and his team imposing ever-higher tariffs on Chinese goods and ever-stricter bans on sensitive high-tech exports to China, they cannot credibly use promises of access to American markets to change Chinese behaviour. Instead Team Biden is taking a twin-track approach. First come threats of American sanctions on Chinese banks that finance sales to Russia’s defence industry. Next, suggestions that Europe’s more open markets may start to close if Chinese firms help Russia to attack Ukraine.

American sanctions are a powerful threat: banks cut off from the dollar lose access to most international markets. It is less clear that China really believes it is risking the loss of European markets. When Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, met Mr Xi in Beijing on April 16th, he raised the issue of dual-use items sold to Russia. China’s leader gave no detectable ground on Ukraine.

For years American and Western politicians have taken comfort in the notion that China and Russia were in an unequal, unstable “marriage of convenience" that suited neither very well. Mutual distrust did constrain ties. But look carefully, including in far-off spots like Wenchang, and Sino-Russian interests are aligning in ways that may prove enduring.

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Ltd. All rights reserved. 

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