China-Russia energy cooperation: US factors at work
On 20 May 2021, in presence via video link, the Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin have seen the foundational ceremony of four nuclear plants in two Chinese cities as a follow up of the agreement signed between the two in the same month three years ago (2018) in which they agreed to jointly build units seven and eight of Tianwan nuclear power plant and units three and four of Shudapu nuclear power plant testifying an old proverb ‘enemy’s enemy becomes friend’ as it goes on correctly in society and world politics as well.
Apart from growing multi-dimensional relations and mutual understanding between the two since the collapse of Russia in early 1990s, they both have remained on rivalry/competitive terms with the United States of America and in their closeness America’s negative attitude impacted a lot in last three decades and especially after 1998 when Beijing and Kremlin openly expressed their desire and need to move forward and become a strategic partner in the changing global scenario.
In particular, US relations with China and Russia reached at their lowest during the Presidentship of Donald Trump who due to his whimsical decisions and statements created a lot of tension.
He directly blamed China for the spread of pandemic Corona-19 and also made trade relations with Beijing strained which also harmed American interests more or less.
With Russia too, the US had already strained relations on the issue of Crimea and Ukraine and in October 2018, Donald Trump planned to scrap a Cold War treaty named Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, concluded between the two in 1987, a bilateral treaty, which prohibits both nations from possessing ,producing or test-flying a certain category of cruise missiles and, if this happens, Washington will be free to develop and install weapons on its military bases around Asia leading China to compete resulting in increase of arms race in Asia.
Background of energy relations: Energy relations between Russia and China from the beginning of the post-Cold War phase were marked generally by cooperation and strategic interests.
While China being a fast-growing economy, remained under pressure to secure energy imports, Russia’s economy was driven by the demand for export of natural resources and, as a result, the Kremlin was able to meet the increased energy needs of China in coming years.
For the first time in 1993 China, became a Petroleum importer but in 2011 it was the second largest consumer country of the world.
In addition, China’s consumption of crude oil was increasing day by day and due to geographical proximity with Russia the latter was easily able to export to Beijing.
During the period their primary energy sources remained oil, gas and coal. There has been partnership with regard to nuclear and renewable energy technology.
However, despite gradual growth in energy sphere their relations remain on a limited scale because of mutual suspicions, pricing concerns, inadequate transportation infrastructure and competition for influence in Eurasia.
Apart from this, the settlement of Chinese, Japanese and Korean in Russian energy-rich areas and Beijing’s energy ventures and partnerships with former Soviet Central Asian Republics have been a cause of concern for Russia.
But these energy-related concerns failed to slow down the general increasing trend, beginning from ‘good-neighbourly and mutually beneficial’ in December 1992, evolved into a ‘constructive partnership’ in 1994 and finally a ‘strategic partnership coordination’ in April 1996.
Working on non-proliferation: Viewing the present global scenario of differences of opinion on a number of issues of common concern but, now there is least chance of Russia and America working together on nuclear non-proliferation in years to come.
In the past, they both worked to check/stop the nuclear proliferation in the larger interest of humanity, in particular, by the United States after searching common ground with Soviet Union and later with Russia and China because they all equally understand the dangers and instability associated with the emergence of an additional nuclear-weapon state.
Initially, China favoured spread of nuclear weapons to break the hegemony of super powers but later by the early 1990s it realised the value of curbing nuclear weapons in its own interest and the world as well.
But, in the recent global set-up where America’s bilateral relations with Moscow and Beijing witnessed downturn and they both have come closer to US’s foes, North Korea and Iran with sharp distancing from the United States of America.
Especially after 2014 differences between Russia and the United States widened when Kremlin annexed Crimea and made an attack on Ukraine.
In retaliation while America prohibited US funding for nuclear projects in Russia, the later responded by pulling the plug on key nuclear security programmes and not attending the 2016 nuclear security summit hosted by the US President Barack Obama.
Thus, the greatest obstacle in non-proliferation is the deterioration of US relations with Russia and China, the two big competitors and no any environment of confidence and trust exist among them, challenges to the global nuclear security appear to be growing.
Ways ahead and use of nuclear energy: On the day of inauguration of nuclear energy plants, taking part in the ceremony, both China and Russia agreed to boost ties in a strategic priority area in which Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, called for more cooperation on climate change and said that they should play a constructive role in achieving global sustainable development goals.
The four nuclear power reactors whose foundation was laid down on 20 May 2021, are a part of a US$2.9 billion nuclear energy deal signed in 2018, will use Russian technology and when completed are expected to have a combined annual power generation capacity of 37.6 billion kilowatt-hours, that could be translated into an estimated reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of 30.68 million tonnes per year by lowering fossil fuel use.
On the occasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin also took the opportunity to underline the moving close relationship and said that Russia-China relations have reached their highest level in history with the deterioration of their relations with the United States.
At the juncture, nuclear cooperation is of great significance having its far-reaching political and strategic implications on regional and global politics.
— The writer is Professor and Head, Department of Political Science, B N Mandal University, Madhepura, Bihar, India.