The relationship between Beijing and Moscow is perhaps the best its ever been. That said, this situation is due less to common values and shared interests than to the fact that their security concerns are currently directed elsewhere.
Chinese policymakers are worried about violent separatist movements among China’s ethnic minorities as well as a potential military clash with the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, especially regarding Taiwan and contested maritime regions. In contrast, most Russian analysts see Europe, the Middle East and the United States as their main challenges. Neither Chinese nor Russian military experts perceive near-term threats from the other’s country, and have furthermore resolved their longstanding border disputes and constrained their regional rivalries.
Still, they haven’t formed a security alliance, and still pursue diverging if largely non-conflicting policies regarding many international issues.
The next few years will most likely see this pattern of decent, though not close, relations continue. Beijing and Moscow will loosely cooperate on certain issues while basically ignoring each other regarding most others. But alternative China-Russia futures are imaginable. These scenarios naturally fall into two broad categories—ones in which the Sino-Russia relationship significantly deteriorates, and those in which ties radically improve.
Worsening China-Russia ties would actually represent a regression to the mean. Only during the last 20 years have the two countries achieved a harmonious, balanced relationship. China now has the world’s second largest economy, while Russia has the second most powerful military, thanks largely to its massive nuclear arsenal. But the trends point to China surpassing Russia and becoming the world’s second most powerful economic and military power, and perhaps the dominant one in the Asia-Pacific. Under these conditions—and especially if Washington lacks the will or capability to manage Beijing—Moscow could well join other countries bordering China in a containment strategy designed to balance, though not prevent, its rising power.
One could well imagine heightened China-Russia tensions over border regions. The demographic disparity that exists between the Russian Far East and northern China invariably raises the question of whether Chinese nationals will move northward to exploit the natural riches of under-populated eastern Russia. Although shared concerns about preserving stability in Central Asia have thus far strengthened their relationship, it’s possible to envision renewed China-Russia rivalry for local allies and energy resources, especially if NATO withdraws from the region, leaving Beijing and Moscow as the two natural candidates for regional primacy. Should American power in the Pacific falter, China and Russia might also become natural rivals for the allegiance of Asia’s other states.
But the China-Russia relationship could improve significantly if the two countries finally consummate their long-anticipated energy partnership. Despite their proximity, China’s voracious energy requirements and Russia’s great oil production, their energy cooperation has been surprisingly limited. Various technical obstacles, pricing conflicts, inadequate transportation infrastructure and mutual suspicions have historically constrained Russian energy sales to China. But recently they’ve finally opened a direct oil pipeline and large-scale natural gas deliveries should occur once they agree on pricing.
Finally, the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, following the earlier upheavals in Iran and Kyrgyzstan, could well drive Beijing and Moscow closer. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) would provide a suitable multilateral mechanism for the world’s two great autocracies to protect their Eurasian allies. Through the SCO, supplemented by their UN Security Council veto, Beijing and Moscow can fight for their cherished principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and civil liberty restrictions under the banner of countering the three evil forces of terrorism, extremism and separatism.
Richard Weitz is director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis and a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute. He contributes regularly to The Diplomat on Asia-Pacific strategic and security issues.