China and Russia have increased their security, economic and diplomatic relationship, complicating an already fragile Asia-Pacific region. Many analysts have viewed this enhanced collaboration as the beginning of a partnership set on destabilizing the Western-led order and diminishing the capacity for the United States to influence strategic outcomes in the region. But this line of reasoning affords primacy to the material components of Beijing and Moscow’s newfound affection for each other, neglecting the salience of the historical and normative elements that inform their relationship.
In fact, the perceived belligerency of this China–Russia nexus is driven by a shared historical and ideological connection, which has manifested in both states adopting an authoritarian style government. Some analysts perceive this rigid style of governing as a representation of their mutual mistrust of the West , and a shared desire to rewrite the rules that shape the global order.
The willingness of Russia and China to deploy, or threaten the use of, military force to further their national interest, and challenge existing regional security orders, appears to confirm such pessimistic assessments. Whether it is Russia in Ukraine, or China in the South China Sea, both have demonstrated a militaristic disposition to resolving their historical territorial grievances. According to one such view , “Russia and China are now competing to arm anti-democratic and anti-U.S. regimes in Latin America, and may be cooperating to help Nicaragua build a trans-ocean canal, which may yield port access for Russian and Chinese warships. Both countries actively support U.S. enemies in Syria and Iran.”
An Axis of Convenience
Notwithstanding such commonalities between Moscow and Beijing, however, there are reasons to believe that the current status of the China–Russia relationship will remain an “ axis of convenience .” This representation acknowledges that while both Putin and Xi have developed a stronger connection, which now recognizes each other’s core interests, it nonetheless fails to raise the relationship to one of alliance status.
Diplomatically, Russia and China have often exhibited their shared interests through the use of their veto power in the U.N. Security Council . In the past decade, China has used six vetoes, each in concert with Russia, which has used its veto eleven times in the same period. Most recently, this alignment was exhibited in Moscow and Beijing’s vetoing of four U.N. resolutions on Syria since 2012. This excessive use of the veto has been understood as both a challenge to Western leadership and a tool to slow down the pace of American military interference in the Middle East.
Yet, as Daniel Brumberg and Steven Heydemann have argued , this is a negatively-oriented alignment derived from “opposition to the universal norms of democracy, global governance, and human rights promoted by the West and by multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court”. This stance ultimately results in a diplomacy that defends “a distinctly status-quo or conventional notion of state sovereignty that is at variance with new global conventions” such as Responsibility to Protect (R2P). This is reflected in, for example, Beijing’s insistent calls for the principle of “non-interference” to be upheld throughout the Syrian crisis.
Economically, China and Russia are collaborating on the development and maintenance of new commerce institutions , like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the New Development Bank BRICS. Furthermore, both states have developed a consensus on China’s “Silk Road Economic Belt” and Russia’s “Eurasian Economic Union”—where a willingness to coordinate the two projects in order to build a “common economic space” has begun to emerge.
Accordingly, bilateral economic relations are a primary ingredient of the China–Russia “axis of convenience”. In 2011, China became Russia’s largest trading partner , and in the last twelve months alone, China’s investment in Russia has grown by 80 percent—bringing their annual bilateral trade to $100 billion dollars. Most notable among these transactions is the $400 billion oil and gas pipeline linking Siberia’s Chayandinskoye oil and gas field to China. And in this context, it is feasible that China is “hedging” their transport routes in order to mitigate against any future blockades in the South China Sea.
China and Russia have also increased their security cooperation, something that has been dormant for forty years. This includes a substantial Chinese defense acquisition program of Russian military hardware, with the recent purchase of twenty-four Sukhoi jets being the most notable. This partnership has extended to joint military training and exercises, which recently occurred in the Sea of Japan , and featured twenty-two vessels, twenty aircraft, forty armoured vehicles and five hundred marines.
Little Chance of a Formal Alliance
With these considerations in mind, the Beijing–Moscow relationship faces many challenges that will inhibit progression to a formal alliance. Foremost is the lingering perception within Russia that China remains a threat to their security. Whilst this viewpoint stems from historical mistrust , the territorial integrity of Russia continues to be viewed with a level of anxiety, due to heightened Chinese migration , coupled with an extensive shared border.