Source Asia Sentinel

HONG KONG, SAR: In April, the European Union President Ursula von der Leyen in effect endorsed US trade policy with China, imposing tariffs and restrictions supposedly to make bilateral trade more balanced and ‘fair,’ as President Joe Biden put it.
That should have been worrisome for Beijing, but it didn’t cause any major shock – not only because von der Leyen’s demand doesn’t yet have major buyers in the EU (Germany and France remain ambivalent among other divisions vis-à-vis China) but also because China understands that a lot of these demands from the US and the EU have a geopolitical aspect – that restrictions could weaken significantly if Beijing were to adopt the West’s policy towards Russia.
But China has not taken any step in this direction, nor is likely to. On the contrary, in a calculation deeply influenced by the politico-ideological convergence and ‘best friendship’ between China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Beijing’s ties with Russia have improved markedly, overcoming past Cold War rivalries and fashioning an anti-West “no limits” friendship to upend the US-centered global order.
Even though China has deep trade and economic ties with the West, Beijing appears to be siding more openly with Russia. Russia, although a major trade partner with Beijing, is only sixth in the list of China’s top traders at US$240 billion in bilateral trade. Trade with Russia is only 3 to 4 percent of China’s total global trade.
If the logic of neo-liberal ‘complex interdependence’ were to follow, the depth of China-West ties should have made Beijing side with the US, its leading trade partner, and the EU, a much bigger trade partner than Russia. However, contrary to this expectation, the wedge is growing between China and the collective West on the one hand and growing between China and Russia on the other.
The reason for this lies in the ultimate, long-term value that China thinks friendship with Russia brings. So, for instance, if Beijing’s goal – which its officials are never tired of expressing openly and vigorously – is to build a new, multipolar world order away from US dominance, Xi & Co. can never realistically achieve it with Western help. They need a powerful ally on their side which not only is not from within the West but also shares the same vision of a multipolar world order. Russia happens to be that key ally.
This is a significant development. During the Cold War, for instance, a key cause of rivalry between China and the Soviet Union was the latter’s tendency to force China into playing a junior role. It didn’t work obviously. In the contemporary era, Russia doesn’t share the past obsession vis-à-vis China. There is, therefore, a lot of politico-ideological space available for both countries to work out a common ground.
More than that, if China’s goal is to dismantle the existing world order and build a new one, who will actually dismantle it, or significantly weaken it? Russia happens to be one country that is willing, as is evident from Syria and Ukraine, to use its military power against the West.
From the Chinese (and Russian) perspective, the reason there is a military conflict in Ukraine is the US push to expand NATO to include Ukraine and thus encircle Russia militarily. Russia is now resisting NATO’s expansion and is practically fighting the alliance in Ukraine (with Chinese help, of course). While this conflict has led many in the EU to push China to stop trade and military cooperation with Russia – which is unlikely to do – it has also allowed China to purposefully use Russian military sources to expand its reach elsewhere. 
This is what is happening in Africa, where the US and European forces are exiting, only to be replaced by Russians. More importantly, this ‘exit’ and ‘entry’ are also seeing China deepening its economic footprint in the same countries. Now, with Russian help, China is expanding its foothold in a key continent. Therefore, the more presence it has on this continent, the more countries it has supporting its agenda of a new, multipolar world order. The call for a new order thus becomes global.
The best – and the most recent – case explaining how this logic is working is Niger, a West African country. In early May, Washington announced that it would withdraw its 1,000 troops. Niger’s demand coincided with the withdrawal of French troops as well early in April. Interestingly, Russian troops have already begun to replace the US ones.
With Niger now hosting Russian forces, it has also opened up space for oil flows from the Western African country to China. More than 90,000 barrels of crude oil per day are expected to be shipped from Niger, via Benin’s port of Cotonou, to China. Chinese and Russian presence played a key role in mediating the border conflict between Niger and Benin to allow for the oil to be smoothly shipped to China.
What happened in Niger is playing out in Chad, which has already asked the US troops to leave and invited a group of Russian ‘military trainers’ to move in.
This pattern that combines Russian military sources with Chinese economic ones is unfolding across the whole continent. Compared with China’s almost US$300 billion presence in Africa, Russia’s stands only at US$18 billion. A major chunk of this trade is in the defense sector. In the latest Russia-Africa summit, Russia signed over 40 agreements of military cooperation, with Putin vowing to increase the trade volume to US$ 40 billion in the next five years.
For China, this is significant, for Russian expansion in the African continent directly shrinks Western presence. Therefore, on a more global scale, every anti-West step that Russia takes, even in military terms, translates into a critical step towards creating a new, multipolar world order. In this sense, if China, alongside Russia, can sweep the West out of the African continent, this will be a major geostrategic success.
This is not to suggest that China doesn’t care about its trade ties with the West. But Beijing also seems to believe that their economies are too intertwined at the moment to allow for a “de-coupling” without a major disruption that would hurt the West – especially, the EU – more than it would immediately hurt China.
Therefore, while Beijing is looking to diplomatically manage ties with the EU, as Xi tried to do during his latest visit to Europe, it is also working very closely with Russia to expand its global reach and build an alternative system of geopolitics and geoeconomics via, for instance, the BRICS Plus and fancy ideas that promote using local currencies to settle trade payments (to escape US sanctions) and/or developing new currencies altogether to displace the hegemony of the US dollar.