Russia’s policy towards China has been one of adaptation and accommodation. Despite increasing asymmetry in power between the two states, Moscow and Beijing have reinforced cooperation and managed to overcome a number of challenges. These included Russia’s policy towards Ukraine, Moscow and Beijing’s competing regional projects in Eurasia and China’s growing activity in the Arctic. China and Russia coordinated their efforts in a number of domains, primarily in the global realm. Moreover, pressure they have been putting on the West increased each state’s room for manoeuvre in international politics. At the same time, Russia and China have not transformed their relationship into a fully fledged alliance.

Building blocks

There are several building blocks of the contemporary Russian-Chinese relationship: (a) opposition towards the US and its policies; (b) substantial bilateral cooperation in energy, economy, security and defence realms; (c) domestic political concerns of similar kind; (d) dissatisfaction with the normative framework underpinning the US-led liberal international order.

Without a doubt, shared animosity towards US primacy in international politics and dissatisfaction with particular US policies, such as the missile defence deployment, have served as the glue that binds Sino-Russian relations in the 21st century. Both states regard the US as limiting their freedom of action in international politics and use bilateral cooperation, specifically in the UN Security Council, to balance the US. Close ties make it difficult for Washington to isolate either Russia or China politically. It would be a mistake, however, to reduce Sino-Russian relations to anti-Americanism.

For the last decade, both states developed substantial bilateral ties, in particular in energy, economic, security and defence realms. Joint military exercises became a routine, with annual naval drills (Joint Sea) and regular land exercises (Peace Mission). Russian arms sales revived and recently included Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile systems. Moreover, the People’s Liberation Army, PLA, for the first time received equally advanced technology as their Indian counterpart, previously privileged by Moscow. The PLA’s participation in the Vostok-2018 Russian exercises did not only send a strong political signal, but also demonstrated legal and logistical improvements in mil-to-mil cooperation.

Energy ties constitute a particularly important element of Sino-Russian cooperation due to the important place energy occupies in Russia’s domestic political system and its foreign policy. China has emerged as Russia’s number one partner in that realm. In the course of the last decade, Beijing provided key Russian state (Rosneft, Transeft) and private (Novatek) companies with several dozen billions of dollars in loans and prepayments. China thereby contributed substantially to strengthening the pillars of Putin’s political-economic system.

Not an alliance

Russia’s threat assessment of China’s rise has evolved significantly over the past decade. A decade ago voices portraying China as a potential menace due to significant economic power imbalances and China’s growing military strength were still heard, they are now rare. The ruling elite recognizes China’s rise as non-threatening and cooperation with China as beneficial. At the same time, there remain clear limitations that prevent the emergence of a fully fledged alliance.

The most important is the absence of mutual support for aggressive moves, such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea or the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence, or China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and related territorial claims. In other words, both states’ elites do not have to be afraid of a ‘stab in the back’ in the face of Western pressure, but do not receive active support for their actions or claims.

Another crucial obstacle is long-term divergence of views and policies related to economic globalization, global populism, and anti-establishment movements. Russia seems to be thriving on events such as Brexit or Donald Trump’s presidency. China, due to the structure of its export-oriented economy, has much more to lose from protectionism and the reversal of economic globalization.

The growing asymmetry

In the mid-term perspective, up until 2030, the deepening of the existing power asymmetry seems to be the most plausible trend in the Russian-Chinese relationship. This, in turn, will have serious implications for the relationship between Moscow and Beijing.

Russia’s failed attempts at modernising its economy imply that the current ruling regime is unable to generate strong impulses for long-term economic development. While it is impossible to predict how far a trade war with the US will harm China, Beijing has better prospects for continuous development. As a result, the gap between Russia and China measured by GDP, military budgets and high technology should be expected to grow. Russia’s reliance on technologies ‘made in China’ can substantially increase and include new areas, from telecommunications to weapon systems.

Growing asymmetry in the regional dimension, further weakening Russia’s position vis-à-vis China, is even more plausible. Beijing has the upper hand in Central Asia’s economy and energy sector. So far, it has exercised a policy of self-restraint and avoided open security engagement that would bypass Russia. However, as growing Sino-Tajikistani cooperation on the Afghan border illustrates, this may change. Moreover, China may increase its political-economic footprint in other post-Soviet states, in particular Belarus and Ukraine. In East Asia, growing asymmetry threatens to weaken Russia’s credentials as a great power. In case Russia feels forced to support China’s position towards the South China Sea or limits its security and defence ties with Vietnam, Moscow’s standing in the region will suffer a serious blow.

The growing asymmetry may ultimately result in a de facto subordination of Russia’s policy to China’s strategic needs. Even if Beijing continues to cater to Moscow’s sensitivity, the latter’s room for manoeuvre will decrease. China’s incremental setup of their own global ‘sphere of influence’ with institutions separate from those dominated by the West, leaves few options for Russia. It may even feel obliged to join them as a member, as for instance in case of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Belt and Road Initiative. As the competition between two regional projects in Eurasia – the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt – shows, Moscow can save face using grand rhetoric and sketching ambitious initiatives but it cannot withstand actual financial and economic competition with China.

Risks and uncertainties

In the mid-term perspective, the Russian-Chinese relationship faces at least three grave challenges: the Sino-American rivalry, a possible domestic crisis in Russia following the end of Putin’s fourth presidential term, and Russia’s brinkmanship that would threaten China’s interests.

The increasingly open Sino-American rivalry brings more risks than benefits to Russia. Moscow can offer diplomatic and political support to China; it cannot, however, compensate Beijing’s economic losses. Even political support may turn out to be costly for Russia. Siding with China against the US would limit Moscow’s room for manoeuvre rather than bring equality into the relationship. Refusing to support China might, in turn, poison the relationship. The prolonging competition between China and the US may divide the world into two camps. Such international order means a lesser role for Russia and drives away the Kremlin’s dream of multipolarity.

Domestic developments in Russia may have even more far-reaching implications for the relationship with China. The evolution of Russia’s political-economic system in the second half of the 2020s, i.e. after Putin’s fourth presidential term ends in 2024, remains highly uncertain. It matters for Russian-Chinese relations because the ever closer relationship has partly been driven by domestic factors. In some areas, e.g. energy, Russia is ‘locked in’ in cooperation with China and even far-reaching domestic changes would not slow this collaboration down. There are, however, certain aspects of cooperation that remain tied to specific features of Russian politics and these can be subject to change. These include, for instance, joint efforts to change global Internet governance or the sharing of ‘best authoritarian practices’ in cyberspace. This type of cooperation stems from an authoritarian political system than from alleged ‘national interests’.

Since regime security and survival in Russia is the bedrock for strong Moscow-Beijing links, changes in the ruling elite or in the model of governance, may have significant effects for bilateral relations. Dominant domestic players would be replaced and/or weakened, which would seriously reduce the power and influence of an informal pro-Chinese lobby that exists in contemporary Russia. Moreover, new domestic political climate in Russia may lead to shifts in China’s power assessment and increase the wariness of growing asymmetry. In the eyes of contemporary political opposition, Russia’s cooperation with China has already been driven by the ruling elite’s corruption and greed rather than Russia’s national interests.

Finally, there is a risk of Russia crossing one of China’s red lines and being forced to withdraw. In the case of the annexation of Crimea, Moscow could have strained its relationship with China by both undermining another state’s territorial integrity and conducting a referendum that at least formally allowed people to choose which state they want to belong to. Russia’s brinkmanship threatens to undermine stability on which a large part of China’s economic success depends. For instance, turning the Arctic into a sphere of open great-power competition would harm Chinese plans of using the Northern Sea Route. If Russia were to back down under China’s pressure, this would transform the relationship. Moscow might respond by limiting ties with China and paying even more attention to the issue of its strategic autonomy, or it might embrace China even closer, making itself an indispensable partner with more power-politics experience.

Photo: President of Russia CC BY 4.0

Dr Marcin Kaczmarski is a lecturer in Security Studies at the School of Social & Political Sciences of the University of Glasgow. His research focuses on Russia-China relations, comparative regionalism, Russia’s foreign and security policy and the role of rising powers in international politics. He is currently finalising a research project that compares Russia’s Eurasian Union and China’s New Silk Road.

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