Interest-based relationships are paving the road towards a new global reality. While many liberal democracies vie to conserve the ‘enlightened’ frameworks of the past, others have come to embrace realpolitik. The People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, for instance, have welcomed the opportunity. The two powers, recognizing this political shift in the early 1990s, have striven to alleviate nationalist friction, understanding that a united front is more practical to surviving the precarious years to come.
Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted his approval of the updated pragmatic global climate just last month, matter-of-factly declaring that a Russia-China military alliance is “quite possible to imagine.”
Putin’s proclamation deviates from the typical Russian sentiment of self-reliance and mistrust of others. A year after annexing Crimea, a move that invited Western sanctions, Putin proudly reaffirmed Emperor Alexander III’s conviction that “Russia has just two allies, the armed forces, and the navy.” As of 2020, Russia’s sole military commitment is to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), ratified post the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the newly existent ‘Russia’ was weak and vulnerable. Participating forces – consisting only of troops from former Soviet states – have never been deployed.
Likewise, China has a historical propensity towards independence and isolation, mistrusting outsiders’ stated intentions of assistance and cooperation. China today has a total of zero military alliances.
Western democracies had hoped China would abandon this ancient prerogative and adopt a more liberalist policy after Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening-up,” initiated in 1978. Alas, the optimism has gradually been depleted as China continues to demonstrate its judicial adherence to those global institutional norms that benefit its national agenda while ignoring those that do not.
In 1992, at the 14th Party Congress, Paramount Leader Jiang Zemin reiterated China’s staunch aversion for alliances and military blocs. Instead of echoing Zemin’s hardline policy in the face of the Russian President’s vision of the future, the Deputy Director of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department ambivalently responded, “there is no limit to the traditional China-Russia friendship.”
“According to Matthew Turpin, former Director of the US National Security and speaker at SIGNAL, Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership’s dialogue on Russia-China relations held in October, “Beijing and Moscow have come to similar conclusions about the broader liberal-based international order.” A world where Western democracies virtually control the market and societal standards poses an existential threat to their regimes.
China and Russia have taken several measures to counteract this omnipresent liability. On July 1, 2005, Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Putin signed a joint statement, “Regarding the International Order of the 21st Century.” The document is replete with vows of mutual respect for “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity.” The statement also pointedly communicates that “no social and political systems…should be imposed from the outside.”
The following month witnessed the most significant Russian-Chinese joint military exercise in over 50 years, involving roughly 10,000 troops.
Over the past 15 years, there have been countless other joint statements and exercises between the two great powers, reasserting their commitment to cooperation in the face of mutual “challenges and threats.” Even in the throes of the horrific COVID-19 pandemic, Russia and China made an effort to reiterate their common cause. In September, the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers released a written vow of commitment, followed by a joint military exercise. The message read loud and clear: Russia and China are comrades in defense.
Nonetheless, the arrangement has not come without concessions. As a stipulation of positive relations, China and Russia virtually settled all border disputes, acquiescing land that both claimed to be under their sovereignty. In 2008, after hundreds of years of perpetual conflict, Russia gave (or returned, depending on perspective) the Yinlong Island and half of the Heixiazi Island to its southern neighbor.
Although painful, considering the Chinese and Russian devotion towards historical borders, both nations acknowledged that troops and resources could be better utilized elsewhere. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s characterization of the compromise as “win-win” reflects this broader Sino-Russo view of the future. Indeed, as the US continues to turn toward the Indo-Pacific, the ramifications of prolonged border hostility will prove exorbitant.
The marriage or “axis” of convenience, not yet including military assurance, is defined by some modern-day realists as strategic partnerships. Such partnerships enable adjoining parties to reap extensive economic benefits while eschewing domestic criticism. As Alexander Gabuev, Senior Fellow and Chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center explained at SIGNAL’s dialogue, “Putin will never be asked about human rights if he goes to China.” No one in Russia would bother to ask Chinese President Xi, either.
In addition to its shared principle of non-interference and mutual recognition of the dangers of conflict, “economic cooperation and trade [are also] key pillars” of the Russo-Sino comprehensive strategic partnership. Russia is a natural exporter, and, as a nation with a consumer population of 1.4 billion people, the Chinese market is a willing and ready consumer.
In 2019 there were numerous economic breakthroughs between the Russian and Chinese markets. In April, two state-owned Chinese oil companies bought a 20 percent stake in Yamal LNG, a liquefied natural gas development project. As a self-declared “near-arctic state,” China welcomed the opportunity to “understand, protect, and develop” the region. The Russians were grateful for the financial support.
In June that same year, “Yandex.Checkout,” a joint venture involving Russia’s largest bank, inaugurated the first WeChat Pay function, unlocking the Russian cyber market to the 900 million monthly users of WeChat’s financial services. Russian exports to China in 2019 were also up by 3.2 percent from the previous year, amounting to US$61.05 billion. The top items on China’s extensive shopping list from the north included mineral fuels, oil, wood, fish, and other “aquatic invertebrates.” With bilateral trade totaling US$110.79 billion, it seems Russia and China are immensely enjoying their updated relationship in the new international state of affairs.
However, this blissful phase of abundance is fragile, and there is growing speculation that the symbiosis may be upended sooner than later. Considering no foreseeable end to the Crimea sanctions, coupled with Europe’s declining demand for oil, Russia could very well find itself thoroughly dependent on the Middle Kingdom. Indeed, Putin swallowed Russian pride in March 2020, when he was forced to sell a record 1.6 million tonnes of Russian oil at rock bottom prices to China.
China’s investment in Central Asia also provides Russia with the bitter taste associated with declining political leverage. As of 2020, China has invested nearly US$60 billion in the region once under the sovereignty of the Soviets. As a crucial element of the astronomical Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese influence and presence will only increase in the coming years. Given Russia’s current financial situation, balancing the effects of this encroachment is unlikely to occur.
For the time being, Russia has enough leverage to make its partnership with China worthwhile. But unless the current geopolitical trajectory is interrupted, the Russian Federation may well find itself locked into a marriage of inconvenience.