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putin-jinping-handshakeBack in May 2014, two months after Russia invaded Crimea, its energy giant Gazprom signed a $400 billion contract — the biggest in its history — to supply gas to China.

Over the next five years, Gazprom built a gigantic pipeline, the Power Of Siberia, capable of withstanding temperatures as low as -62c. This extraordinary feat of engineering snaked 1,800 miles across the Siberian wilderness, from the Arctic Circle to the Chinese border.

It was formally opened with great fanfare in December 2019 — and its nine ‘compressor stations’ began pumping billions of cubic meters of gas south into China as billions of dollars in revenue headed north into the Kremlin’s coffers.

The pipeline symbolized the interconnected nature of these two very powerful autocracies.


In recent months, following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow has been hoping to sign another deal with Beijing, this time for an even longer pipeline: the Power of Siberia 2.

Ever since a series of mysterious explosions ruptured three of Russia’s four Nord Stream undersea gas pipelines to Germany in October 2022, Moscow has found itself unable to find a market for the 146 billion cubic meters of gas it used to pump to the EU every year.

Gazprom recently posted its first loss in more than 20 years and its share price plunged 5.5 per cent.

But now it has emerged that Beijing is now playing hardball in negotiations over the putative new link — making life difficult for Vladimir Putin.

The Chinese are seeking to drive down the price they pay for Russian gas, and want to commit their country to buying only a small fraction of the pipeline’s planned annual capacity. As a result, the deal has stalled.

Moscow is clearly holding out for better terms — but Kremlin strategists would do well to bear in mind the old Chinese proverb: ‘A person who waits for roast duck to fly into his mouth must wait for a very long time.’


The truth is that China very much has the upper hand, not just when it comes to the pipeline, but in every aspect of the relationship between these two countries.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is a wily old fox: he knows that, with an economy 800 per cent larger than Russia’s, and with ten times its population, he holds all the cards.

Increasingly isolated on the international stage by its actions in Ukraine, Russia is fast becoming a vassal state of China.


After last month’s summit between the two countries in Beijing, President Xi bid farewell to Vladimir Putin with a warm hug: a gesture widely construed as a vivid illustration of their burgeoning bromance.

But the pow-wow in the Chinese capital was no meeting of equals.

Indeed, the official Chinese account of the meeting didn’t even mention the new gas pipeline, while Putin himself was reduced to announcing — rather sheepishly — that ‘mutual interest in implementation has been confirmed’.

But what of their geopolitical mutual interests?

More important than any pipeline deal, however, is the two states’ desire to effect a shift in the global balance of power.


China and Russia both want to see a ‘multi-polar world’, where the Americans don’t call the shots and they can invade weaker and smaller neighbors or encroach on their national waters without any tedious consequences.

While China pays lip service to the West’s condemnation of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, in reality it sees Putin’s war as a useful litmus test of the West’s willingness to react to a direct assault on the existing world order.

As Russia’s economy is undermined by sanctions from the West, and its army loses thousands of troops a week in Ukraine, China is paying very close attention and working out how, when and if it should make its move on Taiwan, the breakaway republic off its southern coast.


Meanwhile, as Russia weakens, China only draws strength from its neighbor.  The Telegram messaging app that the Moscow elite uses to gossip anonymously is full of misgivings about this situation.

What if, contrary to the Kremlin’s dark warnings about ‘UkroNazis’ and ‘NATO aggression’, Ukraine and the Western powers posed no real threat to Russia?

What if the real strategic threat to Russia emanates not from the west, but the south?


Ever since China gave up large tracts of Manchuria to Russia under the 1860 Convention Of Peking — one of a number of treaties it signed in the 19th and early 20th centuries that are now known collectively as the ‘unequal treaties’ — it has eyed the land it lost with ever-growing acquisitiveness.

Indeed, Chinese maps still call Vladivostok by its original name, Haishenwai, and — as recently as 2020 — Chinese and Russian diplomats were embroiled in a row over Russians celebrating the 160th anniversary of the port on the Sea of Japan it acquired all those years ago.

China’s resentment is all the more marked because the bulk of Russia’s natural-resources wealth is in Siberia, the Russian province that swallowed up what was once Outer Manchuria.

About eight million people inhabit this vast and desolate space — but the two Chinese provinces immediately across the border have more than 55 million people between them. Chinese is already often heard in Russia’s far east.

While Hong Kong and Macau have both been handed back to China (by the UK and Portugal respectively), the 1860 convention is one of the few ‘unequal treaties’ that has not expired, or that China has failed to renegotiate.


Now it could be Russia that starts accepting unequal treaties because China has it over a barrel.

Ever since the war in Ukraine began, China has been Russia’s most highly valued trading partner.

Apart from supplying it with a wide range of industrial and consumer goods, Beijing has also propped up its war machine by providing critical components, such as machine tools and microelectronics.


In effect, Russia sells its sanctioned oil to China on the cheap and then sends back the cash these sales generate to China to pay for replacements for goods that have been sanctioned.

There can hardly be a better definition of a ‘client state’.

What does all this mean for the democratic world? Perhaps the most obvious point is that it’s futile to suggest that China is the ‘real threat’ and Russia is a ‘distraction’.


The reality is that Russia is becoming a proxy and a tool of China. Letting Russia run amok is like flashing a thousand green lights at China.

We can only hope that more and more of Russia’s 147 million citizens come to the realization that NATO is not eyeing up the steppe, and that the Ukraine war is a needless atrocity.

If Russians value their sovereignty and independence, endless war and a voluntary capitulation to China are no way to preserve them.


Neil Barnett is Neil Barnett is chief executive officer of Istok Associates Ltd, a London-based corporate intelligence and investigations consultancy specializing in geopolitical analysis.  He writes frequently for the Telegraph, the Spectator, Jane’s Defense Weekly, and the Daily Mail.