A China-Russia Alliance?

The debate in Beijing continues to heat up.

This analysis suggests that the Ukraine Crisis may not actually have altered world politics so completely. After all, it is observed, Russia depended on its own military strength in the crisis and, moreover, the crisis did not really remove pressure as applied against China. The author states emphatically that Russia’s first priority will remain on improving the economy [俄罗斯…经济发展任务十分严峻] and this will depend, above all, on improved relations with Europe and the United States. Applying a somewhat similar logic, it is also observed that U.S.-China cooperation on many issues might not persist if China took the step of actively pursuing an alliance with Russia. The author additionally points out that both Russia and China have been able to attain local superiority in areas of concern, suggesting that an alliance could be unnecessary. Finally, a point is made regarding Russian cultural attitudes toward China. According to this article, polls find Chinese favorably inclined toward Russia, but that Russians are not similarly favorably inclined toward China.

Nevertheless, the analysis is not entirely pessimistic regarding the prospects of a China-Russia alliance. Indeed, the author comes around to concluding: “One can predict that Russia will become the most fundamental objective of China’s alliance-making” [可以预见的是俄罗斯将成为中国结盟的最主要目标]. It is explained further that “confronting a situation of pressure from the United States and its allies, China needs a country that it can have close cooperation with that will form a strategic rear flank that can be depended on and this country is Russia.” Successive years of enhanced military exercises are noted and the 2012 near simultaneous strategic moves against Japanese island claims are cited as positive examples of the prospective alliance’s promise. Moreover, it is stated that increased shipments of Russian oil and gas will improve China’s energy security. The author explicitly suggests coordination between China and Russia on difficult diplomatic questions, such as the Iran and North Korean issues. In an intriguing closing observation, the author predicts that “Russia’s rising power will enable it to increase its position within an alliance. Ten years in the future, the potential for a China-Russia alliance will increase” [十年以后 . . . 中俄结盟概率将上升.]

Still, this Chinese study, which exhibits an impressive objectivity, can hardly be called a full-throated endorsement of such an alliance. Maintaining some of the most important aspects of current Russia-China cooperation is in the realm of “political and moral support” [政治和道义支持], and the author seems to recognize that these partners are quite satisfied with the already high and steadily improving climate of cooperation. They do not see a great advantage to formalizing the partnership, at least in the near term. The author maintains that “scrapping the old policy of disavowing alliances should not be equated with choosing to make alliances” [放弃不结盟政策并不意味着选择结盟]. That nebulous statement is likely meant to suggest that a long, gradual process is envisioned and Beijing will wisely avoid any precipitous moves. It is noted that the Chinese government has already embraced a policy of “building up strategic strong point countries” [打造战略支点国家] that, after all, has a similar connotation to this discussion.

A final point to consider is the author’s conclusion that “U.S. strategic squeezing and containment has not yet reached a level that it is imperative for the two countries to react by forming an alliance” [美国的战略挤压和遏制也并没有达到需要两国结盟应对的程度]. To be sure, this statement carries the implied threat that if Washington does seek to ramp up the “rebalance,” that one of Beijing’s possible responses will be to actively seek a more formalized military partnership with Moscow.

Lyle J. Goldstein is associate professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. government.

Image: Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping sign documents following Russian-Chinese talks in June 2016.​ President of Russia government website.

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