China and the World

Chain reaction

Sino-Russian nuclear plants signal growing amity


China relations “best in history”

When Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin signed their Sino-Soviet Pact on Valentine’s Day in 1950, it was supposed to herald a new era of “Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance”. The treaty included Soviet support for China’s nuclear programme. However the two erstwhile Communist allies rapidly found themselves on opposing sides of an ideological divide. By 1969, relations between the two countries had deteriorated to the extent that they were embroiled in an unofficial border war.

Last week, China and Russia’s current paramount leaders – Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin – were once again exchanging expressions of friendship and mutual aid – this time over a video link. The event was to mark a groundbreaking ceremony involving four Chinese nuclear reactors that are being built with Russia’s most advanced technology.

On the call Putin said that relations between the two countries had reached their “best level in history”. Xi was also effusive, pointing out that thanks to changes “unseen in a century, China and Russia have firmly supported each other and cooperate closely and effectively”.

In less flowery language Xi put forward a concrete three-point energy proposal. This would promote “safety first, deepen scientific and technology cooperation and adhere to strategic collaboration to promote the coordinated development of a governance system for nuclear energy”.

Back in 2018 when China and Russia first signed a nuclear power cooperation deal, there were reservations on the Chinese side partly because of what happened in the 1960s (see WiC414). But what’s also changed since 2018 is the increase in tensions between Beijing and Washington. Netizens have noticed too: in recent days there have been plenty of online comments supporting a closer alliance with Russia as a bulwark against America.

The internet conference between Xi and Putin was arranged pointedly just ahead of the first in-person meeting between Russia’s top diplomats and the Biden administration.

There were no breakthroughs at the summit between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week. But Washington described it as a “good start”, as Blinken told his counterpart that the two countries could work together on issues including how best to deal with Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programmes.

Meanwhile a Global Times editorial pointed to the strategic significance of China and Russia’s cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear power, suggesting that it could set the template for how the international community should tackle nuclear nonproliferation issues.

Yang Jin, an expert on Russia from the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the Global Times that this could help countries like Iran “find fairer solutions rather than letting the US use its technological advantages and sanctions to bully others to cause deadlocks and reversals”.

Xinhua subsequently reported that Xi held a telephone call with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, earlier this week. During the conversation, Xi pledged to support “Iran’s reasonable demands concerning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of the Iranian nuclear issue” and said that China “stands ready to strengthen coordination and safeguard the common interests of both sides”.

Meanwhile, China also hopes that the four Russian-developed reactors will help with its goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2060. The state broadcaster CCTV reported that the two reactors at Tianwen in Jiangsu province and the two in Xudapu in Liaoning province would reduce China’s emissions by as much as 31 million tonnes per year. The four will deploy Russia’s VVER-1200 technology at a cost of $2.9 billion, with commercial operation of the ‘water-cooled water-moderated energy reactors’ set start in 2026 at the earliest.

China and Russia have both expressed a desire to boost bilateral trade, which reached $100 billion in 2020, up from just $8 billion two decades ago. A $200 billion target has been set for 2024. However, in absolute terms, China’s bilateral trade with the US remains far more significant. It has fallen from its $659 billion peak in 2018, but it still stood at $560.1 billion last year.

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