- An 8,000km cross-border gas pipeline project is but one example of nations looking beyond the US to shore up multilateralism and cooperation
Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin had the warmest of words when launching their nations' first cross-border gas pipeline. The 8,000km project is jointly beneficial, providing energy security for China and helping ensure cleaner air in coal-dependent northeastern regions, while yielding much-needed revenue and jobs for Russia. There is also symbolism, of unparalleled friendly ties and cooperation. But behind all of this is the United States, which, through isolationist policies, has brought the sides closer and prompted a search for opportunities in Asia and Europe.
The pipeline is as impressive for its engineering as the vision behind it. Stretching more than 5,000km within China and 3,000km on the Russian side of the border, extreme environmental and geological conditions were overcome in its construction. When fully operational in 2024, it will provide China with 38 billion cubic metres of natural gas each year, about 14 per cent of what the nation consumed in 2018. That is timely given dwindling Chinese production, but also an economic boon for Moscow, struggling under Western sanctions imposed over Crimea.
Common US enemy helps bring China and Russia closer
US President Donald Trump surely did not have such cooperation in mind when starting his trade war against China 18 months ago. His administration saw Beijing as the biggest threat to American global supremacy and the tariffs on Chinese goods and bans on technology aimed to damage growth and competitiveness. The interim trade deal that is believed to be near will not improve relations and the tech war will continue. Unsurprisingly, China has been drawn to improve ties with its neighbours, looking to Asia, Russia and Europe to make up for what has been lost. Xi and Putin made frequent reference to the US during the inauguration of the pipeline through a video link. Xi said the development of Sino-Russian ties would be a "foreign policy priority for both our nations", while his counterpart contended the goal of US$200 billion in mutual trade by 2024 was now closer. Two more pipelines are being discussed.
Beijing is pragmatic about foreign relations. Ties with Washington have soured and those with Moscow warmed, but that is the result of circumstances and necessity. China has long maintained a policy of not being overly reliant on one nation, which is why so much effort has been put into the Belt and Road Initiative. Closer cooperation between China and Russia does not mean foregoing efforts to improve relations with the US. Trump's policy of pressuring rivals and allies alike on trade and technology is counterproductive. China, Asia and Europe are being pushed closer and projects such as the pipeline are a natural outcome. The world needs multilateralism and cooperation, not Trump's zero-sum approach to relations.
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