China’s President Xi Jinping recently visited Russia to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), a Russian economic forum that hosts various important global economic players, to discuss “the key economic issues facing Russia, emerging markets and the world as a whole.” He was also there to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the two countries’ bilateral ties by holding talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Although it was Xi’s first trip to Russia in 2019, the visit to Russia came at a time of tensions between China and the United States on multiple fronts. These include tensions over trade, technology, and freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. And, due to its tensions with Russia on some regional and strategic stability issues, the current U.S. administration has called both China and Russia “revisionist powers” that seek to challenge the preponderance of the United States. This comes at a time when China and Russia are closer to each other “than any time in the history of their relationship.” Although it is not the determinant factor, the current U.S. posture towards both China and Russia could contribute to their rapidly growing partnership.
Since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and the West imposed sanctions, China has not expressed any concerns publicly on the annexation of Crimea. Instead, it has improved its relations with Moscow on multiple fronts. Today, China is Russia’s largest trading partner, with a trade volume that exceeded $100 billion in 2018. Concerns over the two countries’ blossoming relationship has led some experts to raise the prospect that both countries will “join forces.” Both countries described their ties as a “Comprehensive Strategic Collaboration Partnership,” as military-to-military cooperation between the two countries is all time high, with new arms sales and joint military exercises.
Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center described the new Sino-Russian partnership as a “new model for ‘major country relationship.’” This growing relationship raises a concern in Washington that the two countries could end up as a major “strategic challenge” that has “profoundly negative consequences” to the United States. Scholars and commentators have already called the potential for this growing partnership “America’s nightmare.” Zbigniew Brezinski, one of America’s greatest strategic thinkers in the twentieth century and President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, warned that a Sino-Russian coalition is the “most dangerous scenario” for Washington’s strategic calculation.
While the United States characterized both countries as its new “strategic competitors,” the 2019 U.S. intelligence Worldwide Threat Assessment predicts the Sino-Russian relationship “will likely strengthen” in the coming years as the two countries’ “interests and threat perceptions converge.” Today, the two countries work closely on issues that range from the Middle East to North Korea, and the two leaders (Putin and Xi) have personalized the relationship.
Despite the fact that Sino-Russian relations are significantly improving on multiple strategic domains, this does not mean that differences do not exist. Severe differences in their worldviews and interests exist, indicating that their current partnership will not necessarily lead to a new Sino-Russian alliance or a Sino-Russian-centric world order.
First, China’s growing influence has an impact on the core of what Russia considers its own sphere of influence. Russia has made an effort to diplomatically engage the post-Soviet space in both the economic and security realms through the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. However, through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing is building economic clout in the region that could diminish Moscow’s long-term influence. However, to avoid alienating Russia from its Central Asian calculations, China has expressed an interest to coordinate China’s Belt and Road Initiative to the Eurasian Economic Union, and has stated it will not play a security role in the region (at least for now). But these pledges are yet to be defined, and should raise concerns in Moscow.
Another area where there is the potential for Sino-Russian cooperation and competition in the future is the Arctic. Russia is an Arctic nation, but China’s influence there is growing, and it considers itself a “near Arctic state.” China is also collaborating with states involved in the region to “participate in the governance of the Arctic,” securing access to Arctic Sea Lanes of Communication and safeguarding its interests. But China’s ice breakers on the Northern Sea Route could raise concerns in Russia. Moscow has already rejected China’s research vessels from entering its Exclusive Economic Zone near the Arctic at least twice in the past, and there is a suspicion in Moscow about China’s endgame in the Arctic as both countries are sensitive when it comes to sovereignty issues.
A second issue is the Pacific, since both countries border this ocean, which could be a complication for both budding regional powers. In an effort to play an active role in the Asia-Pacific region, Moscow pivoted to Asia by diversifying its regional partnerships as relations with the United States and the European Union soured. Moscow normalized relations with former Cold War comrades, India and Vietnam, and nurtured new partnerships with Japan and South Korea. Although the Russian role in the region is still limited by nature—and faces challenges, especially in the economic realm due to U.S. sanctions—a number of these Asian countries have strained relations with China (India, Japan and Vietnam, for example). Additionally, Russia would not be helpful when it comes to China’s claims in the South China Sea or in the Taiwan Straits, particularly if Beijing were to decide to take the military option. On the other hand, Russia amounts to less than two percent of China’s global trade and is merely its twelfth-largest trading partner, while Russia’s pivot to Asia has not yet materialized to the extent Moscow was expecting.
Third, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in his book The Grand Chessboard, mentions the possibility of a Chinese and Russian-led coalition that is united “by complementary grievances.” He compared this partnership to the Sino-Soviet bloc from the early days of the Cold War, but noted that, this time around, “China would likely be the leader and Russia the follower.” The two countries have a shared vision of a multipolar world order, except their definition of a “multipolar” differs. For Russia, the order it is seeking entails a world with many poles, with power balanced among the major powers. But for China, a major power’s influence in the international system would be correlated to a nation’s economic heft.
Though the Sino-Russian partnership is growing by the day and will continue to develop, and though both countries have something to gain from this “cooperative-competitive” partnership, it ultimately benefits China at the expense of Russia. But creating a strategic alliance between the two countries that could challenge the current world order (or as Bobo Lo describes it, “disorder”) seems unfeasible.
For the present, China is committed to maintaining a close partnership with Russia to avoid defeat in its geopolitical competition with the United States. Russia feels similarly. Beijing knows well the limitations of what Moscow can offer to China in economic terms, and for that reason, a long-term alliance is not feasible.
Yacqub Ismail is an editor at the International Policy Digest, where he writes on international relations and security in the Asia pacific and the Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter: @yacqubismial.