Russia and China: Beware the Budding Eurasian Colossus?

Could these two great powers get even closer? 

As Russia’s unexpected military intervention in Syria has dominated headlines across the globe in recent weeks, more than a few media outlets have speculated on whether Chinese forces could enter the fray.  While that particular “twist” on the story remains extremely unlikely, the question is not entirely outlandish.  After all, it was only a few months ago that a Chinese naval squadron was in the Black Sea exercising with the Russian fleet. Moreover, the Chinese Navy’s profile has been steadily rising in the Middle East as it sent its first flotilla into the Persian Gulf in the fall of 2014, has also conducted competent evacuation operations in Yemen in 2014 and Libya in 2011, while the PLA Navy maintains its continuous anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden as well. Major foreign and defense policy dilemmas await Beijing as it continues to plot out the future of its “one road, one belt” – China’s own strategic “pivot” to the west.

Nevertheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued success at keeping the West off balance with his Syrian gambit also raises the urgency of understanding the trajectory of the China-Russia relationship. For years, Western analysts have suggested that the Moscow-Beijing tie could not amount to much because it is widely regarded as purely a relationship of convenience suffused with mutual suspicion. Over the last decade, moreover, this skepticism has seemed to prove itself repeatedly, for example in the various bilateral energy projects that have moved slowly at best or in the somewhat indolent policy initiatives of the jointly managed Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). But Western strategists are, nevertheless, right to watch this relationship closely since a major strengthening of Russia-China relations could develop into the Eurasian “colossus” (albeit with two capitals rather than one) that geopolitics gurus have long warned about.

Signs of a steadily enhancing Russia-China partnership  are quite readily visible.  Reciprocal visits by the two Presidents to observe one another’s victory celebrations (and the conspicuous lack of Western leaders at either event) seemed to demonstrate a shared contemporary isolation as well as the common history of suffering catastrophic losses in the enormous conflagration of the Second World War. A recent article in the prestigious Chinese military journal, 中国军事科学 [China Military Science] highlights that shared history in exploring “China-Soviet Union Cooperation during the World Anti-Fascist War.” In a chapter of WWII that is rarely discussed in the West, this article explains that Moscow did impressively provide China with almost 1,000 aircraft (and accompanying volunteer pilots) in the four years after the Nanjing Massacre in December 1937. There are numerous reasons why such extraordinary aid is not widely discussed. For Moscow, this lavish aid may appear as a significant strategic miscalculation in the years before the Nazi onslaught when the Red Army could no doubt have used those same aircraft as a vital reserve force.  But in China, Soviet aid during WWII was not discussed thoroughly for many decades, because much of the aid flowed to the Nationalist Chinese rather than the Communists, and more particularly because of the legacy of the Soviet threat dating from the 1960s made such historical revelations a violation of prevailing Maoist, anti-Soviet orthodoxy.