During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China last week, China and Russia signed a huge natural gas deal that is worth about $400 billion. The natural gas deal is a win-win for China and Russia, as China secures a long-term (30 years) provision of natural gas from Russia and Russia can reduce its dependence on the European markets as well as strengthen Russia’s position against Western sanctions. In the meantime, China and Russia conducted a joint naval drill in East China Sea, sending a deterrence message to Japan and the U.S. This also indicates that Russia is now moving closer to China’s side with regard to the territorial disputes between China and Japan. Furthermore, China and Russia last week vetoed a draft UN resolution to send Syria to the International Criminal Court for war crimes. China and Russia had vetoed three previous UNSC resolutions condemning Syria.
In the joint statement issued by China and Russia, the main message is that China-Russia relations have reached a new stage of comprehensive strategic partnership and this will help increase both countries’ international status and influence, thus contributing to a more just international order. Of particular importance is the agreement that China and Russia will deepen cooperation under the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia (CICA), a new security framework in Asia-Pacific that conveniently excludes the U.S. and Japan.
The question that everybody now is asking is this: Why this new development in China-Russia relations? Obviously, the main trigger is the recent Ukraine crisis that has seriously damaged Russia-West relations, thereby pushing Russia closer to China. However, there is also a larger strategic reason. That is, there are mutual strategic needs as both China and Russia want to create a multipolar world that is not dominated by the U.S., particularly as China faces threats from the US-led alliance in Asia. As previously pointed out by Zachary Keck, China’s chance of winning maritime disputes with Japan partly depends on maintaining a good relationship with Russia. From Russia’s perspective, the NATO expansion is a serious threat to Russia’s national security and as such Russia has to fight back. Russia’s current and future capabilities are limited, however, and it desperately needs a reliable strategic partner, which happens to be China.
A more fundamental question, however, is: are China and Russia moving toward to a formal alliance? Some believe (here and here) that a new China-Russia alliance is now emerging and this will eventually lead to a multi-polar world order. Others disagree (here and here) by pointing to problems in China-Russia relations such as historical mistrust, the lack of a common threat, and conflicting interests in Central Asia. Interestingly, within China there have been some domestic debates (here, here, and here) about whether China should form an alliance with Russia.
A prominent proponent for a China-Russia alliance is Professor Yan Xuetong from Qinghua University. Yan has been advocating for a China-Russia alliance for some years. According to Yan, the most important factor determining whether China and Russia should form an alliance is whether the two countries have shared strategic interests and how long such shared strategic interests can last. He first argues that currently neither China nor Russia could become a member of the Western bloc led by the U.S. because other allies of the U.S. would feel threatened by China and Russia. On the one hand, the West would never trust Russia, thus Russia has no better alternative to siding with China. On the other hand, China’s number two position in the world means that China will not be supported by the U.S. with regard to most international affairs issues. Moreover, a declining U.S. will choose an offshore balancing strategy by relying on its allies in Europe and Asia, thereby increasing pressures for China and Russia. Such increasing pressures pose common threats to China and Russia. Thus, a China-Russia alliance would benefit both countries in the next 10 to 20 years. Yan also refutes the argument that a China-Russia alliance against the U.S. would lead to another cold war.
Opponents of a China-Russia alliance, however, point out that there could be potentially high costs of such an alliance due to common problems such as fears of abandonment and entrapment. China could be dragged into an unnecessary war by Russia. Also, Russia is not that interested in this alliance idea as Russia is unwilling to be China’s junior partner in the relationship. Besides, Russia wants to maintain good relations with all Asian states and thus will not side with China when it comes to territorial disputes between China and Japan. For all these reasons, a China-Russia alliance is unrealistic and a strategic partnership is more flexible and better for China.
Thus, it seems that in the near future a formal alliance between China and Russia will not happen due to a variety of reasons. Unless the U.S. militarily threatens both China and Russia at the same time, a formal alliance will not occur. However, the U.S. should be careful not to make another strategic mistake that would only facilitate a formal China-Russia alliance.