The New Sino-Russian Alliance: A New Permanent Alliance Or Destined To Crumble?


Introduction

For decades, the prospect of a Sino-Russian alliance has frightened the West. During the early Cold War, Western analysts had feared a massive Communist Bloc, spanning from Europe to the Pacific. The dissolution of that alliance during the Sino-Soviet Split alleviated this fear. Recently, however, China and Russia are publicly agreeing on a rapprochement that would revive the alliance between the two countries. This fledgling relationship was symbolized by Putin’s visit to China in June to sign new trade and security cooperation treaties. This newly revived alliance is both full of promise, as well as full of potential instabilities. On paper, China and Russia have many interests in common. Both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin believe their countries to be great powers that are not receiving enough international recognition for their status. Both countries are challenging the post-Cold War world order and desire improved security in their immediate neighbourhood to combat Islamic fundamentalism. The economies of Russia and China are also apparently highly compatible with each other. On the other hand, this alliance also has many problems that stem from both historical causes, as well as more recent events. With both Xi Jinping and Putin boasting their country’s “great power” status, both leaders need to play a balancing act, whereby they need to give “sufficient recognition” to their partner without damaging their own image as strong nationalist leaders at home. This balancing act is becoming increasingly difficult as China becomes the “money man” of the relationship while Russia assumes the role of a primary resource provider. A second source of friction may be China’s “One Belt, One Road” project, which prescribes the expansion of Chinese influence in Central Asia, an area traditionally dominated by Russia and its satellites. These problems will likely strain the Sino-Russian relationship in the near future. However, because of the current geographic certainties, mainly both Chinese and Russian resentfulness regarding the United States, the partnership is likely to endure, at least until the end of the “American hegemony.”

Putin’s Visit

The Chinese President Xi met Putin last, after his whirlwind tour of Eastern Europe, which included Poland, Serbia, and the Czech Republic. Xi Jinping met Putin in the Great Hall of the People, bestowing on Putin great honours. The trade deals signed by Putin and Xi are supposed to be designed to address each country’s competitive strength, where China would provide the money and Russia would provide the raw resources.[1] One of the largest deals was for China’s National Chemicals Corporation to purchase 40% shares in the Russian energy giant, Rosneft, in exchange for 2.4 million tons of oil. There are also plans to co-develop large passenger aircrafts and heavy-lifting helicopters together. In total, the business initiatives approved during the meeting amount to $50 billion.[2] The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, announced plans to increase Russia’s bilateral trade with China to $200 billion by 2020.[3]

Putin’s visit to China in June 2016 is symbolic of the Sino-Russian relationship. On the one hand, Putin and Russia were given a place of honour by the Chinese leadership. Chinese officials lavishly praised the 15th anniversary of the Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship.[4] Meanwhile, Putin praised the Chinese, claiming that Chinese and Russian views on the world are “similar or coincide.”[5] It is said that other than Park Geun-hye, Putin is the only other world leader that Xi is genuinely glad to see.[6] On the other hand, statistics seem to indicate that the Sino-Russian relationship is deteriorating rather than improving. Russian trade with China plummeted by 26% in 2015,[7] and it is unlikely that Sergei Lavrov’s goal of $200 billion of trade by 2020 will be met. Putin certainly hopes that his visit will arrest some of these negative developments, but whether he can succeed is uncertain.

Reasons for Closer Cooperation

On paper, China and Russia have plenty of issues in which they share common interests. The first thing that comes to many people’s minds is the economy. China is a manufacturing giant that lacks resources, especially in energy. The Russian economy, on the other hand, depends on exporting energy resources for cash[8]. Raw and refined petroleum, together, makes up more than half of Russia’s exports, and the rest are mostly composed of metals, such as iron ore and raw aluminum. In theory, Russia’s economy perfectly complements China’s economy. It provides a close and reliable source of energy resources, as well as a large market for China to diversify away from the United States. The large Chinese market also, theoretically, can help Russia to find new, more reliable partners after Russia’s scuffle with the E.U. Given the structures of these two economies, they should have great incentives to work together.

Secondly, both Russia and China share interests in stabilizing the Central Asian states to check the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. Both Russia and China contain volatile regions, which are harbouring secessionist movements that may or may not be empowered by the rise of radical Islam. One of China’s tactics when dealing with unrest in its Xinjiang Autonomous Region has been to build relationships with its Central Asian Turkic neighbours in order to cut off their support for Uyghur independence movements.[9] For Russia, aside from  Chechnya, there are other regions in the Russian Caucasus and Siberia that contain significant numbers of Muslims. Russian Muslims have been identified in the recent Istanbul Airport Bombing and participating in wars across the Middle East.[10] It is in the interests of both Russia and China to cooperate on security issues regarding Central Asia. Central Asia is likely to draw Russia and China closer together as they share a common enemy in the region.

Third, and most importantly, both Russia and China are moving to challenge the post-Cold War hegemony of the United States. This is perhaps the biggest reason for a closer Sino-Russian partnership. As far back as 2001, when the Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship was signed, there was an implicit understanding that the two countries would cooperate to balance American power. Given that recent tensions between Russia, China, and the United States have risen dramatically over the Ukrainian conflict and the South China Sea dispute, it is no surprise that the two countries found each other to be natural allies in fighting the current dominant international hegemony. The Russian government’s mouthpiece, Russia Today, directly proclaimed that the tighter cooperation between China and Russia is due to American policies.[11] In a diplomatic maneuver, which is reminiscent of the Cold War, Russia and China, again, are moving towards cooperation to counter the United States.

Reasons Against Closer Integration

While there are many reasons for a closer partnership between Russia and China, there are also reasons against Russia and China working closer together. The first major obstacle is whether both Russia and China are giving enough “recognition” to each other. One of the major reasons why the Russian-American relationship deteriorated following the dissolution of the Soviet Union is due to Russians believing that the United States had not accorded Russia the recognition it deserves.[12] Both Xi and Putin base their legitimacy on making their states “great again” and recognize each other as great and powerful equals. However, many in Russia are beginning to feel that China, like the United States, is not recognizing Russia as an equal partner, but as a junior support.[13] Russia is increasingly playing the role of a 19th century mercantile colony, supplying China with energy resources and ores, and providing a market for Chinese manufactured goods. Chinese capital has also been slow in coming.[14] Many Russians are unhappy that they are apparently being reduced to a secondary player in relation to China.

A second potential source of friction is the expansion of Chinese influence in Central Asia. As mentioned, both Russia and China share interests in enhancing stability and combating terrorism in the region. Putin in his meeting with Xi Jinping had discussed plans to cooperate in the development of the region.[15] However, like in many areas, this is easier said than done. China’s “One Belt, One Road” project would see China pouring in massive amounts of money to build infrastructure in the region. Needless to say, increased Chinese investment would see China’s clout with the Central Asian states increase. Russia, by contrast, has little to offer in terms of economic incentives or aid. Rising Chinese influences in an area, which have been traditionally dominated by Russia, would certainly raise Russian suspicion. Just like NATO’s expansion in the West, an increasingly powerful China, wielding both economic and security inducements, may trigger a Russian sense of insecurity and vulnerability, thereby raising tensions between the partners.

Conclusion

It is very difficult to predict the future direction of the Sino-Russian partnership. On the one hand, China and Russia have much to gain economically and politically by working closely with each other. On the other hand, there are signs that Russians are beginning to resent the Chinese as much as they resent the Americans, especially as the Chinese presence is beginning to be felt in what Russians consider to be their sphere of influence. The Sino-Russian partnership is likely to endure as long as the United States remains the world’s undisputed superpower, and both Russia and China are headed by leaders that seek to challenge the world order created by the West. This means that once both Putin and Xi have passed on from the political scene, and should the capabilities of the United States no longer vastly outstrip the world’s other powers, the Sino-Russian relationship might quickly crumble as their biggest commonality vanishes.

 

Bibliography

 

Bodner, Matthew. “Eastern Promises: Putin’s Slow Pivot to China.” The Moscow Times, 2016-07-01 2016.

Debata, Mahesh Ranjan. China’s Minorities: Ethnic-Religious Separatism in Xinjiang. Pentagon Press, 2007.

Mankoff, Jeffrey. Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009.

“Ou Zhou Ja Su Yi Ti Hua!?, Zhong E Lian Shou Deng Ou Meng! Ren Min Bi Bian Zhi an Jian Nan Fang?!”. 49:06. Republic of China: Eastern Television, 2016.

Pamuk, Humeyra, and Daren Butler. “Istanbul Airport Bombers Were Russian, Uzbek, Kyrgyz: Turkish Official.” Reuters, 2016-06-30 2016.

“Pu Jing Di Bei Jing Fang Wen, Ge Tian Zai Hui Xi Jin Ping.” BBC, 2016-06-25 2016.

“Russia, China Approve Business Initiatives Worth $50bn During Putin Visit.” Russia Today, 2016-06-25 2016.

Tanas, Olga, and Elena Mazneva. “Putin’s Trade Pivot to China Isn’t All Smooth as Silk for Russia.” Bloomberg, 2016-06-23 2016.

“Unwise Obama Policy Pushes China and Russia Closer Together.” Russia Today, 2016-06-24 2016.

 

[1] “Ou Zhou Ja Su Yi Ti Hua!?, Zhong E Lian Shou Deng Ou Meng! Ren Min Bi Bian Zhi an Jian Nan Fang?!,”  (Republic of China: Eastern Television, 2016).

[2] “Russia, China Approve Business Initiatives Worth $50bn During Putin Visit,” Russia Today, 2016-06-25 2016.

[3] Matthew Bodner, “Eastern Promises: Putin’s Slow Pivot to China,” The Moscow Times, 2016-07-01 2016.

[4] “Pu Jing Di Bei Jing Fang Wen, Ge Tian Zai Hui Xi Jin Ping,” BBC, 2016-06-25 2016.

[5] “Russia, China Approve Business Initiatives Worth $50bn During Putin Visit.”

[6] “Ou Zhou Ja Su Yi Ti Hua!?, Zhong E Lian Shou Deng Ou Meng! Ren Min Bi Bian Zhi an Jian Nan Fang?!.”

[7] Olga Tanas and Elena Mazneva, “Putin’s Trade Pivot to China Isn’t All Smooth as Silk for Russia,” Bloomberg, 2016-06-23 2016.

[8] “Ou Zhou Ja Su Yi Ti Hua!?, Zhong E Lian Shou Deng Ou Meng! Ren Min Bi Bian Zhi an Jian Nan Fang?!.”

[9] Mahesh Ranjan Debata, China’s Minorities: Ethnic-Religious Separatism in Xinjiang (Pentagon Press, 2007), 188-210.

[10] Humeyra Pamuk and Daren Butler, “Istanbul Airport Bombers Were Russian, Uzbek, Kyrgyz: Turkish Official,” Reuters, 2016-06-30 2016.

[11] “Unwise Obama Policy Pushes China and Russia Closer Together,” Russia Today, 2016-06-24 2016.

[12] Jeffrey Mankoff, Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics (Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009).

[13] Bodner, “Eastern Promises: Putin’s Slow Pivot to China.”

[14] Tanas and Mazneva, “Putin’s Trade Pivot to China Isn’t All Smooth as Silk for Russia.”

[15] Bodner, “Eastern Promises: Putin’s Slow Pivot to China.”

Hanyu Huang