Three weeks before the start of the Kremlin's intervention in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping brandished a "limitless" partnership between Russia and China. The message: to appear as a counterweight to the West.

Since then, trade has exploded, despite international sanctions and the departure of many foreign companies from Russia. Bilateral trade reached $190 billion last year, according to Chinese customs, a record.

The share of the yuan in the currencies used for Russian foreign trade has also soared, rising from 0.5% to 16% in one year, leading to the spectacular reduction of the euro and the dollar in Russian exports (48% now).

In terms of energy, their main source of trade, Moscow and Beijing have also accelerated their rapprochement.

"China and India have replaced the EU as the main export markets" for Russian oil, accounting "in the fourth quarter (2022), together with Turkey, two-thirds of total Russian crude exports," say economists from the Association of Major Global Banks and Financial Institutions (IIF).

"It is absolutely critical for Russia to be close to China, because it no longer has many economic partners," said Elina Rybakova, one of them.

"No other choice"

According to Sergei Tsyplakov, an expert on Russian-Chinese economic relations at the Moscow Higher School of Economics, in one year, "the Chinese have taken on the Russian market the niches freed up by Western companies", especially in the automotive sector.

"It was necessary for Russia to find alternative sources of imports, especially for electronic components," said Anna Kireyeva of the prestigious Moscow school of international relations MGIMO.

But, she told AFP, "in fact, large Chinese companies well integrated into Western markets and the global financial system, such as Huawei or ZTE, have preferred to pause their activities in Russia to avoid possible US sanctions."

The international bridge over the Amur River, between Russia and China, during its inauguration on June 10, 2022 © Handout / Amur region Government press service / AFP / Archives

So, marriage of circumstance or lasting economic alliance?

"Putin wants a balanced relationship with China, +like twins+, but that's not the case," said Timothy Ash, an analyst at BlueBay.

"Russia has no choice" but to turn to China, he told AFP.

"The stability of the Russian economy now depends on China, which gives Beijing a new instrument to influence Russia directly," said Temour Umarov, a specialist in China-Russia relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

An observation, however, disputed by the Kremlin. "In these relations, there is no leader, no follower," Vladimir Putin's diplomatic adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Friday, referring to "two partners who trust each other and largely share the same objectives."

- 'Competitors' -

However, many logistical problems remain to further develop this partnership.

Railway lines in Russia's Far East "are already saturated," Kireyeva told AFP. "And their modernization will take time."

Chinese tourists on Red Square in Moscow, February 24, 2023 © Yuri KADOBNOV / AFP/Archives

The same goes for the region's hydrocarbon infrastructure, such as the Russian oil port of Kozmino on the Sea of Japan coast.

Not to mention that Moscow must currently grant significant discounts on its oil, targeted since last December by an embargo and the capping of its selling price by the West.

The consequences are already being felt on the Russian budget: Moscow's oil revenues plunged by 42% year-on-year in February, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), while Russia markets more or less the same volume.

What further weakens the Russian position vis-à-vis Beijing?

"The two powers are competitors beyond being supposed allies," Ash said. "Beijing likes to see a weakened Russia so that it can exploit it."

"We are only at the beginning of Moscow's process of economic dependence on China," said Umarov. "But in several years or decades, this economic lever could turn into an even more powerful political lever."

© 2023 AFP