While the U.S.-Chinese dyad might be the world’s paramount strategic relationship, Sino-Russian ties possess enormous global and regional significance in their own right. This partnership has been a fixture of world politics for almost a generation. Today, leaders on both sides claim not just congruity of geopolitical and ideological interests but the best relations ever. While relations are truly at their historical apex, this identity only fully exists at the global level where both sides, due to their ideological and strategic congruence, collaborate globally against American interests and values. However, at the regional level of Asian security, from Korea to Central Asia, there is as much rivalry as there is cooperation. Although in Central Asia, and to some degree Korea, there is considerable cooperation, considerable rivalry exists in the two states’ approach to North and South Korea, while as regards Japan and Southeast Asia the rivalry is increasingly overt.
Owing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and its lurch toward domestic fascism and anti-Americanism as the motor of its, if not China’s policies, the partnership is manifesting ever more signs of increasing Russian dependence upon and subordination to China and Chinese initiatives in world affairs. Moreover, the structural impossibility of Russian economic reform renders it incapable of competing with China in Asia. When current sanctions and low energy prices are added to Russia’s structural pathologies it becomes clear that Moscow’s dependence on Beijing is growing, despite Kremlin claims to the contrary.
Not a Traditional Alliance
Formally, both states oppose a traditional alliance. Despite visibly greater closeness due to the Ukraine crisis, a classical alliance remains unlikely, not least because it would formally subordinate Russia to China. As Beijing’s behavior in the South and East China Seas demonstrate, Chinese spokesmen’s talk of a new stage of bilateral ties entails Russian subordination to Chinese projects, not the equality claimed by Russian writers. Formal alliance represents a disaster for Russian foreign policy as well as heightened risks and responsibilities for China that will not accept those risks or responsibilities. Yet Moscow’s increasing dependence upon Beijing’s support points toward this trend with disastrous consequences for Russia. Meanwhile, global and bilateral partnership in economics and against Washington’s global agenda continues for several reasons.
Overlapping and congruent ideological and global geopolitical considerations concerning issues linked to the exercise of U.S. power, the Sino-Russian world views and national identity approaches, both sides’ increasing paranoia about Western values even as they discern a retreating America, and the geopolitical necessity for both states of not reenacting the destructive Sino-Soviet clash of 1956-82 will likely ensure continued partnership.
China has become Russia’s largest trading partner and will likely become the main source of foreign investment capital in Russia due to Western sanctions on Russia. Recent large-scale deals with China—e.g. creation of a gas pipeline to China and continuing Russian arms sales—enhance this partnership and reinforce its economic and bilateral dimensions. These ties foster shared interest groups in both governments with a strong interest in strengthening relations built around energy or arms sales. Nevertheless, the consequences of this economic partnership increasingly point to Russian economic and strategic dependence upon China due to Russia’s economic incapacity and unwillingness to reform, international pressure through sanctions, and falling energy prices.
Russia Steps Back; China Steps Forward
Signifying this increasing strategic dependence, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in November 2014 in Beijing that Russia and China confront not only American threats in the Asia-Pacific but also U.S.-orchestrated “color revolutions” and Islamic terrorism. Therefore, “The issue of stepping up this cooperation [between Russia and China] has never been as relevant as it is today.” Specifically he advocated enhanced but unspecified bilateral Sino-Russian security cooperation and within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Shoigu included not only Central Asia but also East Asia, as did his Deputy Minister Anatoly Antonov. Both men decried American policies that allegedly fomented “color revolutions” and support for Islamic terrorism in Southeast and Central Asia.
This overture fundamentally reversed past Russian policy to keep the PLA out of Central Asia and retain the option of military intervention there as an exclusively Russian one. It could signify Russia’s growing dependence on China in Central Asia and elsewhere under mounting Western and economic pressure. But the details remain to be seen. Such an alliance would also reverse Chinese policy that has heretofore shunned military involvement in Central Asia and characteristically sought to displace the burden of those responsibilities onto a third party, i.e. Russia. But there are some signs that Beijing is rethinking this position. On the one hand, China’s Ministry of Defense spokesman, at an international press conference on November 27, 2014, went out of his way to deny that an alliance with Russia existed and said:
I need to emphasize here, though, China and Russia adhere to the principle of no alliance, no confrontation, and not targeting a third party in military cooperation, and therefore it will not constitute threats to any country. It is inappropriate to place normal military cooperation between China and Russia in the same category as the U.S.-Japan military alliance.
On the other hand, however, on December 16, 2014, Prime Minister Li Keqiang proposed that that the SCO become the “guardian of Eurasia.” Obviously this underscored Chinese concern for its showcase policy of a new silk road through Afghanistan and Central Asia to Europe that would come under severe pressure if Afghanistan collapsed. And in August 2014, Russia and China held their largest SCO exercises to date to which China contributed J-10 and J-11 fighters, JH-7 early warning assets and control aircraft, and WZ-10 andWZ-19 attack helicopters. There are also signs that China might actively contribute to the struggle against ISIS and support coalition air strikes even if does so independently and apart from the U.S. coalition. This too would mark a revision of past Chinese policies. If these are genuine indicators of an impending major policy change, they could betoken movement toward a genuine Sino-Russian military-political alliance in Central Asia against terrorism and Islamism in all its forms.
Once established, that alliance would probably expand its scope and remit. After all, Russia’s new defense doctrine proposes to “coordinate efforts to deal with military risks” in the SCO’s common space. It also provides for the creation of joint missile defense systems. While Moscow has previously pursued this goal with the West, this could also be a warning or offer to go with China in creating such systems. Shoigu further stated that, “In the context of an unstable international situation, the strengthening of good-neighborly relations between our countries acquires particular significance. This is not only a significant factor in the states’ security but also a contribution to ensuring peace throughout the Eurasian continent and beyond.” Shoigu added, “During talks with Comrade Chang Wanquan, we discussed the state and prospects of Russian-Chinese relations in the military field, exchanged opinions on the military-political situation in general and the APR (Asia-Pacific Region) in particular…We also expressed concern over U.S. attempts to strengthen its military and political clout in the APR.” He said, “We believe that the main goal of pooling our effort is to shape a collective regional security system.”
If this is not an offer for an alliance then we need to redefine the term.
Nevertheless warnings about an alliance contain something of a bluff. They openly contradict Russian and Chinese stated policy at the highest levels, despite bilateral media and official statements urging further broadening of bilateral ties. Vice President Li Yuanchao told Sergei Ivanov, Vladimir Putin’s Chief of Staff, that, “China is willing to work with Russia to fully implement the fruits of a meeting between the two nations’ leaders in Shanghai and conduct cooperation on a larger scale and with greater depth.”
Nevertheless China has historically shunned alliances while asserting its desire for cooperation with Washington that a formal Sino-Russian alliance would exclude. China may use Russia to attempt to persuade the U.S. to accept China’s view of a new model of major power relations and a new international order, but realizing that model is unachievable if Beijing formally allies itself with Moscow, especially after Ukraine. Similarly, Chinese spokesmen reiterate China’s disinterest in an alliance with Russia. Even though political rivalry with Washington is arguably growing and may have global repercussions beyond Asia, as Chinese power and U.S. attention to China both grow, China’s leaders know that alliance with Russia isolates China without enhancing its position globally. China, despite its growing global presence and reach, lacks a global influence commensurate with that reach.
Ivanov stressed that while Moscow and Beijing will complement each other both bilaterally and internationally (note not regionally), neither he nor China saw any point to a military alliance. Meanwhile, Russo-Chinese military relations were directed against nobody and were purely bilateral. He even argued that Russo-Chinese relations are based on human relations at the highest and lower levels not on “politicking.” Moreover, the crisis in Ukraine has no effect on these relations. In July 2014, Putin reiterated his belief that joining an alliance subordinates Russia to the other parties and undermines its sovereignty:
Any nation that is part of an alliance gives up part of its sovereignty. This does not always meet the national interests of a given country, but this is their sovereign decision. We expect our national legal interests to be respected, while any controversies that always exist, to be resolved only through diplomatic efforts, by means of negotiations. Nobody should interfere in our internal affairs.
Nevertheless we see growing intimacy and cooperation against Washington in Moscow’s efforts to strengthen its position in the Middle East by bringing China to support it through joint fleet maneuvers in 2013 in the Mediterranean, and more recently in apparent cooperation to support both Iran and its protégés the Houthi insurgents in Yemen. Similar cooperation is apparently occurring in Nicaragua where a Chinese company is about to start building a trans-oceanic canal while Russia will provide security in a clear effort to reduce U.S. influence in Latin America.
Moscow has accepted that it will play a junior role in China’s Silk Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that will fund the Silk Road and other similar large projects, and challenge American primacy in international finance and economics. Russian firms, strapped for cash and investment, especially in energy, have reversed past refusal to admit China into that critical sector and now welcome Chinese efforts to obtain equity holdings from the Arctic to Asia. Neither is this process restricted to energy. Like China, Moscow is also trying to create currency blocs to challenge the dollar. Lastly, the recent sale of the S-400 air defense missile not only greatly enhances Chinese air and air defense capabilities from Northeast to South Asia, it also marks a reversal in China’s favor of the past policy of not selling China weapons better than those Russia sells to India.
These trends mark the globalization of what does appear to be an anti-American alliance, but one where China is increasingly riding and guiding the Russian horse. Even as Russia clearly competes with China in East Asia and thus pursues a hedging strategy to restrain the growth of Chinese power and influence and secure its own great power status in Asia, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and unceasing domestic decline all but ensure its growing subordination to and dependence upon China. For many reasons, this outcome portends an extremely volatile international situation, some of which trends we can already discern. Moreover, it makes clear that not only will China and Russia live in “interesting times.” So will the U.S. and its allies, if not the entire world.
Stephen Blank Ph.D. is Senior Fellow at The American Foreign Policy Council.