Russia doesn't just look West, it looks East - and increasingly so. China’s economy has developed very rapidly over the past two decades, becoming the world’s largest exporter from a low base. Its goods have flooded Russia, eating into the EU’s export share. The changing global environment has helped re-orient Russia’s economic relationships eastwards, especially towards China. Chinese-Russian ties are also developing in the context of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative.
This raises the question of the extent to which China might be able to displace the EU in Russia, in terms of trade, investment and lending. In a Bruegel working paper (written with the support of the EU Russia Expert Network on Foreign Policy), we assessed the deepening of Russia’s economic ties with China and what this might mean for the EU.
The data sheds light on some key issues EU policymakers should pay attention to. Since 2002, the EU’s share of Russia’s imports has dropped from 53% to about 40%, while China’s share has risen from less than 3% to 21%. Therefore, the EU still dominates, but what China exports is changing – and that should also give cause for concern. The share of domestic content in the goods China sells to the world has been increasing, and Chinese exports are increasingly substituting EU exports on the Russian market, especially in capital-intensive sectors. Notable overlaps are vehicles, industrial machinery, electronics and metal components.
In investment, China’s encroachment on the EU’s position in Russia is less evident. While Chinese investment worldwide surged in 2016 and 2017, China’s exposure in Russia is limited and remains much less than the EU’s. Chinese investment in Russia even dropped into negative territory, to -$13 million, in 2018.
The industry focus of Chinese investment has also been very different to the EU’s. In 2018, the biggest target of Chinese direct investment in Russia was the real-estate sector. EU companies have much broader interests in manufacturing and several service sectors, including wholesale and retail. Nevertheless, the 2019 acquisition by Chinese oil companies of stakes in one of Russia’s most strategic companies, the natural gas producer Novotek, seems to indicate that Russia is becoming a major strategic partner for China.
EU lending to Russia, meanwhile, has declined in the context of sanctions. But Chinese project finance in Russia has steadily increased. Nevertheless, the EU still has much greater financial exposure than China in Russia. EU portfolio investment in Russia is clearly larger than Chinese portfolio investment. As for bank lending, while there are no official statistics on the role of Chinese banks as cross-border lenders, the signs are that Chinese project finance, while increasing, still does not equal even one-third of the EU’s lending flows into Russia.
Europe thus remains Russia’s largest trading partner, lender and investor, but China is catching up quickly, especially on trade and project finance. It is in the trade data that competition between the EU and China on the Russian market shows up most clearly, with the EU losing market share and China ramping up the value-added of its exports to Russia. While it is hard to draw any causality from our descriptive analysis, previous empirical work we conducted on this topic using sectoral data does show that China has taken market share from European exports in key sectors where the EU has long kept a comparative advantage.
 Garcia-Herrero, Alicia and Jianwei Xu (2016), The China-Russia trade relationship and its impact on Europe https://bruegel.org/2016/07/the-china-russia-trade-relationship-and-its-impact-on-europe/