China looks for firmer legal ground for economic ties with Russia

  • Beijing is growing impatient with the lack of progress on integration between the two economies, particularly on the Belt and Road Initiative, analyst says
  • Some form of institutional framework needed to ‘see an impact’

The head of China’s legislature has called for closer ties with Russia’s lawmaking bodies to lay a legal foundation for greater economic integration and political security, as the two countries confront the United States and its allies.

Diplomatic observers said the call was a signal that Moscow and Beijing wanted to expand their quasi alliance beyond defence and trade.

Li Zhanshu, head of the National People’s Congress and a member of the seven-strong Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, said China and Russia should support each other’s core interests with legislation.

“[We] must continue to focus on safeguarding the two countries’ political safety,” Li said in a virtual meeting on Tuesday with Valentina Ivanovna Matviyenko, chairwoman of Russia’s Federation Council, and Ivan Melnikov, deputy chairman of the State Duma.

Li, the third most powerful man in the party and a long-time protégé of President Xi Jinping, also called on his Russian counterparts to step up legislative exchanges of views in disease control to fight “politicised searches for the origin of the coronavirus”.

“[We must] work closely within the international multilateral framework,” he said. “[We must] resolutely oppose starting a new ‘cold war’, bullying and interference in domestic affairs.”

Li said there needed to be stronger legal support for cooperation between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union, a Russia-led single market that covers a handful of former Soviet states.

Zhang Xin, associate professor of international relations at Shanghai’s East China Normal University, said Li’s focus on economic integration underlined Beijing’s impatience over the progress of ties.

“There have been some gains in security cooperation in the past two years but progress on economic integration has been quite slow, despite the high expectations,” he said. “The two state leaders talked about connecting the two pacts [in 2015] but there has been only limited improvement in the years since.”

On Xi’s visit to Russia in 2015, the two countries agreed to connect the belt and road with the EEU, committing to ease the way for cooperation on investment, trade, infrastructure and finance.

They have taken some steps in this direction, upgrading their relationship to “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era” – the highest level in China’s classification of bilateral ties.

Beijing and Moscow also have common ground on issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme and Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign state leader to accept an invitation to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics next year, amid international calls for the event to be boycotted.

But the two nations have focused more on defence and infrastructure cooperation over the years, particularly on energy projects such as gas pipelines and coal deposits.

Zhang said the key setback had been the lack of a coherent body to facilitate trade and investment in belt and road projects.

“It seems Beijing wants a more coordinated approach with legislation on the economic front,” he said. “What Li said means he wants another push.”

Li Yonghui, a professor at the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences specialising in Russia and Central Asia, agreed.

“This integration has been promoted for some years now but there needs to be institutional integration to see an impact,” he said.

“For example, a mutually agreed legal framework is needed to integrate the procedural and administrative customs processes to facilitate trade and economic cooperation.”

Authors: Kinling Lo, Jun Mai, SCMP

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