Though they have not always been on the best of terms, China and Russia are now cooperating more intensely in order to protect their interests from the United States.
It has been widely noted that the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying global economic shock is likely to lead to significantly deeper ties between China and Russia. This is an acceleration of a trend that has been underway since 2008 and does not look to deviate anytime soon. There are still significant stumbling blocks to a highly integrated NATO-like alliance between China and Russia, including a history of mutual animosity and historical territorial disputes. A closely coordinated partnership, however, is unnecessary to serve both nation’s interests when a looser entente will more than suffice.
To date, U.S. actions have primarily served to strengthen the gradually warming relationship between Beijing and Moscow. If Washington does not begin trying to splinter the two nations as it previously did during the Nixon era, the Chinese-Russian partnership could become a keystone to both states’ geopolitical strategy, much to the United States’ detriment.
Not the Likeliest Alliance
The challenges to Chinese-Russian partnerships are many, including a long history of border disputes and active conflict during both the Cold War and each nation’s imperial period. As part of China’s century of humiliation, Russia pushed aggressively into the Manchuria region. This culminated in 1860, when the Treaty of Beijing established the border, much as it is today, allowing Russia to develop Vladivostok as its main Pacific port. Though strategically significant, the Russian Far East is extremely underdeveloped and sparsely populated, with only 6 million people, while the neighboring Chinese province of Heilongjiang has a population of 38 million. Russian politicians have long used this demographic disparity to stoke Sinophobia, painting a misleading picture of huge numbers of Chinese moving to Siberia to settle and eventually annex the vast territories. Taken with Russia’s overall decline as a global power since the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s growing interest in the traditional Russian near abroad of the Central Asian Republics, on paper there seem to be many obstacles to a partnership.
However, China and Russia’s leaders see that while they do have grievances with one another, the far more pressing threat to both nations’ interests is the United States. Neither China nor Russia poses an existential threat to the other. Russia has no desire to transform China politically or economically, and the same goes for China with respect to Russia. Any competition between the two states is a realist competition over land and resources, and thus more amenable to resolution than deep ideological conflicts. The United States, meanwhile, actively espouses its own political and economic system as superior and has actively sought to compel both China and Russia to adopt such government and economic models. Russia rapidly adopted both a free market and democratic system in the 1990s; however, the mismanaged reforms, inherent corruption, and fumbling by the United States – which approached its former foe with a triumphalist attitude – convinced a sizable number of Russia’s elite and its population that the United States was responsible for Russia’s decline in strength – a narrative that Russian President Vladimir Putin has actively promoted. China, while engaging in far more limited economic reforms, continues to struggle to have the United States treat it as a peer power. Both nations have seemingly concluded that Washington is at worst an adversary and at best a fickle friend.
Russia and China share a massive land border – and one that is no longer disputed, as all outstanding grievances were officially resolved by treaty in 2008. The regions of Manchuria and the Russian Far East are considered the distant frontier of both nations, far from their economic and political centers. In contrast, U.S. troops are within easy striking distance of both the Chinese and Russian capitals. With U.S. tank bridges in the Baltic States and the U.S. 7th Fleet homeported in Yokosuka Japan, both Russia and China view the United States and its allies as attempting to constrain their respective efforts to secure regions of strategic significance for them in Crimea and the South China Sea.
In view of the perceived U.S. threat, China and Russia have capitalized on their mutual interest and increasingly strong personal relationship between their current leaders. Using the forum of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as well as bilateral cooperation, the countries have gradually increased security cooperation both in extensive, well-publicized exercises and smaller, but perhaps more significant, deepening of the military-to-military relations. This has happened in conjunction with increased collaboration and exchanges on scientific and technical issues. In October 2019, Putin described his country’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China as “an allied relationship in the full sense of a multifaceted strategic partnership.” At the same forum, he announced the two countries were working to build a Chinese ballistic missile shield. Russia provided the reservoir of knowledge necessary for China to move its new carrier fleet from theory to reality. This cooperation has allowed a division of labor to develop in Central Asia, with Russia continuing to hold pre-eminence in security issues.
At the same time, China leads the way in economic investment in Russia. Though still small because of factors including corruption and wealthier alternative markets elsewhere, bilateral investment and deeper economic ties have gradually increased. China and Russia expect yearly bilateral trade to reach $200 billion by 2024 , up from a mere $5.7 billion in 1999.
It is clear that cooperation with China will not fully arrest Russia’s decline. However although Russia is the junior partner in the relationship, China has worked hard to treat Russia as an equal and show a high degree of deference to Russia’s sensitivities on issues in Central Asia. It is clear that both the Putin and Xi regimes see the partnership as crucial to the national interest and have worked to deepen ties on both a national and personal level. The relationship could reach a critical turning point through leadership changes in Beijing and Moscow. The alignment will persist, as it has become a fundamental part of both nation’s strategic interests, but Putin and Xi’s successors may seek to modify the technical aspects of the arrangement.
What to Do About It
This alignment is of grave concern for the United States, as it will be hard-pressed to compete against China and Russia working in tandem effectively. In the past, Washington played Beijing and Moscow against one another by capitalizing on the Sino-Soviet split. If the United States is to drive a wedge into the Chinese-Russian entente, it must give Russia an alternative avenue for economic relations and security ties. Nationalism is a strong force in Russia, and though China has worked hard to smooth relations, Russia’s historic Sinophobia and ties to Europe could be exploited to help force Russia to keep China at arm’s length. Russia’s main economic and strategic centers are located in European Russia, west of the Ural Mountains. Washington could attempt to bolster economic integration with the EU and ease Russia’s security concerns through de-escalation, mutual drawdown in military forces, and a freeze on NATO expansion. This likely would strengthen the position of those within Russia who believe the primary threat to their country comes from China, and at the very least cause Russia to keep China at a distance rather than consider it a vital partner.
The best opening for the United States will be in the aftermath of a substantial crisis or a change in leadership in Russia. The oil shocks caused by COVID-19 are a considerable crisis and an opportunity for Washington to weaken the Chinese-Russian partnership. In the aftermath of the crisis, Russia will lean heavily on China to buy its energy exports until the global economic situation stabilizes. China will be constrained by its economic troubles, and as was the case in 2014, likely unable to offset Russia’s losses fully. The United States can open the door to rapprochement with Russia by dropping its opposition to Russia’s European and Black Sea energy projects, paving the way for a gradual de-escalation of tensions and sanctions easing. This is unlikely to happen, though, considering the current deep distaste for Russia in the United States.
The next opportunity Washington will have to split the Chinese-Russian entente will likely be after Putin leaves power, an inevitable event. Historically, leadership changes in the United States and Russia have been an opportunity to reassess relations and try to start with a clean slate. Russia’s next transition of leadership is an opening for this. If the United States fails to capitalize on it, Russia will have nowhere else to turn to but China, and cooperation between the two nations and against U.S. interests will only increase.
Jeff Hawn is an independent geopolitical risk consultant and international history Ph.D. candidate at the London School of Economics. His research is centered on the Russian constitutional crisis of 1993 and the emergence of the post-Cold War world order. He tweets at @jeff_hawn.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the Center for Global Policy.