China: Neither Ally nor Enemy on Russia

We're not on the same page.

At a March 24 press briefing, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes described the U.S. government’s diplomatic strategy in responding to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea as “standing up and mobilizing the international community to isolate Russia.” Throughout this effort, China has received special U.S. attention due to prevailing concerns in Washington about the potential for a “new anti-American axis” between Moscow and Beijing. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations described China’s decision not to side with Moscow in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia as “very important.”

No surprise, then, that President Obama called Chinese President Xi in the early days of the crisis and discussed the issue with him again two weeks later on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague. Underscoring the apparent success of this engagement, the White House stressed repeatedly that the United States and China were on “the same page” and “agreed on the importance of upholding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

This effort, however, is misguided. For starters, U.S. actions to court China and prevent a Sino-Russian alliance on Ukraine are unnecessary. As bad as such an alliance might be for the United States, it isn’t going to happen—on Ukraine or more broadly.

Despite threats from Moscow that it will redirect its engagement eastward following U.S. and EU sanctions, Russia does not view an alliance with China as either possible or desirable. The trade relationship is lopsided—70 percent of Russian exports to China consisted of oil and oil products in 2012—with many Russians afraid of becoming a raw materials appendage of China and getting only cheap consumer goods in return. Russia has refused to support China on its territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. During a visit to Tokyo in 2012, the Russian National Security Council chair told reporters, “Russia will not takes sides” on China’s high-stakes confrontation with Japan over the Senkaku Islands.In fact, China’s assertive moves in the region have directly threatened Russian interests. In 2012 a Chinese ship severed a Gazprom exploration cable in an offshore gas field that Vietnam and China both claim.

Although Moscow conducts joint military exercises with Beijing, it maintains a robust deterrence posture toward China. Far from leaping into Beijing’s arms, Moscow is deepening security ties with China’s regional rivals, particularly India and Vietnam.Last year, Russia began delivery to Hanoi of Kilo-class submarines, significantly bolstering Vietnam’s ability to defend its claims in disputes with China in the South China Sea.