For Now, China Has Forgiven Russia for Rebuffing It Over the Coronavirus

Moscow closed the border and banned Chinese citizens in an attempt to stop the pandemic. Now, Beijing has reached out a hand by sending medical aid to Russia.

A construction site of a new COVID-19 hospital outside Moscow
A worker walks past billboards on the construction site of a new COVID-19 hospital for patients infected with the novel coronavirus outside Moscow on April 1. ASILY MAXIMOV/AFP via Getty Images

Even as the world struggles with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, geopolitical maneuvering continues. China has seized the outbreak as an opportunity to lend a very public hand to countries now battling the disease. Already Beijing has promised or delivered humanitarian aid to countries ranging from Estonia to Iran, from Pakistan to Spain.

Now, China has even begun to direct aid to those who have slighted the country in recent months. Russia made China and its citizens (and, sometimes, anyone who looked Chinese) the primary targets in the battle to contain the coronavirus. Not only did China turn out to be the wrong target, but the move endangered the Kremlin’s most reliable strategic alliance. But China seems to have forgiven Russia—or seems to value their relationship more highly than any slight.

When the new coronavirus first broke out, Russia’s main vulnerability seemed to be its 2,600-mile-long land border with China, the first epicenter of the pandemic. In January, the Kremlin moved with surprising speed to shut that border, becoming one of the first countries to introduce a blanket ban on all Chinese visitors. Until recently, it looked like this strategy was working. At the beginning of last week, there were only 438 confirmed coronavirus cases in Russia among a population of 146 million. But that was before a sudden surge brought the number to 1,836 cases and nine deaths as of March 30.

Russian measures directed against China weren’t limited to border closings. In Moscow, thousands of miles west of the Russo-Chinese border, bus drivers as well as tram and metro conductors were purportedly ordered by the city’s state-owned transport operator to monitor any Chinese passengers. Drivers were reportedly even told to call the police if they had any “persons of Chinese nationality” in their vehicles.

It turns out, however, that Russia wasn’t importing its coronavirus cases directly from China, but via Europe. No place better illustrates this than Khabarovsk, one of the largest cities in the Russian Far East. Located just 20 miles away from the Chinese border, Khabarovsk now has eight confirmed cases of the coronavirus. With the border closed, none of the cases came from China—instead, at least five have been traced to Russian citizens who had recently visited Europe.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

The Khabarovsk cases have laid bare the faulty logic of Russia’s coronavirus containment strategy. Even as Chinese citizens were turned away, flights from Spain and Italy—the European hot spots of the pandemic—continued to enter Russia unhindered. One reason for this preferential treatment of European nations during the crisis is that Russia continues to view itself as a European nation, despite its strategic shift to Asia. (Indeed, Moscow seized the opportunity to remind Rome of their historic ties by sending a military convoy carrying medical specialists and equipment to Italy.)

Russia’s treatment of China did not go unnoticed in Beijing. On Feb. 25, tensions came to a head in the form of a rare diplomatic spat between the Chinese Embassy in Moscow and the local authorities. The embassy sent a letter to the Moscow city government, asking it to end what the embassy said was discrimination against Chinese citizens on public transportation. Such measures were unbefitting of an ally, the letter warned, and “do not exist in any country, even the United States and Western countries.”

Despite these tensions, personal relations between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his “best and bosom” friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, appear to be unaffected. On March 19, during their first official phone call since the virus outbreak, Putin was quick to flatter Xi, denouncing U.S. President Donald Trump’s insistence on using the term “Chinese virus” while commending China’s “remarkably efficient” handling of the crisis. For Putin, China has become more important since Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014. Since then, China and Russia have accelerated cooperation between their governments, economies, and militaries. Official and diplomatic contact operates smoothly.

This bonhomie has failed to materialize on the ground, however. The Chinese are at best ambivalent about their Russian neighbors, and Russians often openly express hostility toward their Chinese counterparts. Ordinary Chinese and Russians, it seems, do not share Xi and Putin’s personal chemistry. The virus has exposed this fragility: In February, the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling organization, published data showing that since the outbreak, the share of Russians who view China negatively has grown from 18 percent to 24 percent. Sinophobia is more common among Russia’s population than its leaders admit, particularly in the Russian Far East.

Khabarovsk is a good example. When the city’s main news website published a story that said 24 Chinese citizens were under quarantine in a specialized zone, readers’ comments described them as parasites who feed off the Russian state. This runs in stark contrast to the Russian state media’s narrative of an “unbreakable bond” between the two countries.

In reality, it is Khabarovsk’s economy that is dependent upon China. As a result of the virus, the city’s tourism and services sectors are already in a dire state. Prior to the border closing, approximately 45,000 Chinese organized tours had been expected to travel to Russia in March alone. If the restrictions are not lifted before summer, tour operators are expected to lose $400 million. Even before COVID-19, attracting non-Chinese visitors—even ones from other parts of Russia—to Khabarovsk was an uphill battle. Replacing these tourism revenues with other income is now nearly impossible and will require support from the Kremlin.

Compounding these economic problems, Khabarovsk is experiencing a severe shortage of medical-grade masks after speculators stockpiled them last month. Reports also suggest that the Russian elites in Moscow are hoarding urgently needed ventilators for personal use. As late as early March, Khabarovsk’s branch of the Russian Red Cross was still collecting medical equipment to dispatch to Heilongjiang province just across the border—leading to the collection of a modest 56 boxes of supplies. At the national level, Russian support for China included 25 tons of medical equipment flown into Wuhan.

Now, however, it is Russia that is ramping up the emergency response and in dire need of help. Russia is now accepting aid from China. During a phone call with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pledged on March 18 that the Chinese government will promptly provide necessary assistance to Russia. On March 19, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin declared the suspension of all customs restrictions for one month. On the following day, China shipped its first batch of face masks to Russia.

China’s lifeline to Russia won’t be limited to medical assistance. As Russia’s economy falters amid the escalating pandemic, trade with China will become even more important to cities like Khabarovsk along the Russo-Chinese border.

The flow of aid from China to Russia suggests Beijing has forgiven its ally—at least for now. But the long-term consequences of the coronavirus crisis for their partnership are less clear. When a Russian reporter asked China’s ambassador to Russia, Zhang Hanhui, to comment on Russia’s assistance to China at the beginning of the pandemic, he said Russian support had been “sincere, timely, solid, and comprehensive.” Diplomatic niceties aside, China is unlikely to forget that its most important strategic partner cannot be relied on in times of need.

Ankur Shah is a British Indian writer focused on China and Russia. He has written for the Economist, UNESCO, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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