In the late 1950s the deterioration of Sino-Russian relations paved the way for the historic meeting between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong in 1972. The offspring of that meeting was the Shanghai Communiqué, and the onset of the Sino-American détente on one side and that Soviet containment in the Asia-Pacific on the other, a divide that would define the relations between the two communist countries for decades to come.
It was only at the end of the Cold War that, despite remaining challenges like territorial disputes and illegal immigration in the Russian Far East, Sino-Russian relations began to thaw. The two countries left ideological divisions behind for a more pragmatic approach based on the pursuit of shared interests and countering common threats as the guiding leitmotif of their renewed cooperation. This process of rapprochement, despite the more pessimistic expectations, has steadily improved over time.
In 1992, President Boris Yeltsin visited China. In 1993 the two countries signed a military agreement, followed in 1996 by their first strategic cooperation agreement, and by a number of other agreements: the 2001 Treaty of Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation; the founding of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; and the 2012 Strategic Partnership, further upgraded in 2014. Meanwhile, a close personal relationship has developed between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The closer ties marked by this expanding and complex network of agreements and personal relationships have come to fruition, in particular, in the areas of arms sales, military technology transfers, and energy deals. Important progress was made also in the area of military relations where, despite the need to keep a credible level of deterrence, China and Russia have shown an unprecedented level of mutual trust, as confirmed by China’s ambassador to Russia, Li Hu, and by the growing number of joint military exercises between the two countries.
But what really epitomizes the increasing trust the two countries have toward each other was the signing of an agreement for the integration of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), Putin’s pet project, and the China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). If successful, the BRI-EEU in Central Asia will mark one more step toward the consolidation of Sino-Russian relations, with important implications for both Asia and the West.
The BRI and the EEU: Opposites Attract
When Xi announced the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, both Russia and the West were caught off guard. In particular, a sanction-stricken Russia seemed to have good reason to worry that the BRI could further weaken its position in Central Asia, Russia’s backyard. Various assessments have pointed in the same pessimistic direction, especially in the light of the fact that the two initiatives appear to differ remarkably in terms of institutional setup and strategic goals. The two initiatives are indeed very different. The BRI is a global open trade-focused project, embodying the essence of the Chinese “going out” strategy and a herald of globalized trade and multipolarism with Chinese characteristics. The EEU instead is an “inward-looking” trade integration project devised to allow Russia to keep hold of its Central Asian neighbors, and contain the expansion of the EU or the United States in those regions. Despite the pessimistic outlook, the relationship between China and Russia has, nonetheless continued to thrive, and so have their plans to create an area of co-prosperity under Sino-Russian control in Central Asia.
Dynamics of Sino-Russian Cooperation
The nature of the Sino-Russian entente appears to rest on a high level of complementarity, reciprocity, shared interests, and common threats. In this relationship, China and its BRI play the role of the global enabler, with China advancing its model while also providing a much-needed lifeline for Russian economy and the EEU. The role of Russia, instead, is seemingly shaping to be that of a regional stability provider, to the mutual benefit of both countries.
For China, Russian support in Central Asia offers multiple advantages. First, Russian influence and knowledge of regional dynamics can translate into a substantial mitigation of risks and the removal of several obstacles for BRI projects, reducing costs and maximizing benefits. China would also enjoy direct access to Central Asia, providing a unique opportunity to develop new markets, manufacturing centers, and even new cities along the path of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). Second, Russian acceptance of Chinese intervention in Central Asia will allow the Middle Kingdom to play a direct role in the securitization and regime formation of the region, especially with regards to counter-insurgency initiatives aimed at preventing Uyghur from establishing safe havens in the region. Finally, this model of relationship has the potential to lay the foundations for the establishment of a core geopolitical space under exclusive Sino-Russian control in Eurasia, beyond the reach of EU and American influence, in a region strategically positioned between the developing markets of South, East, and Southeast Asia and the wealthy European markets.
What’s in it for Russia? The sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the European Union as a consequence of its annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing actions against Ukraine, combined with a downturn of oil prices, have caused enormous damages to Russian trade and to its relations with Europe and the United States. The resulting downward spiral is pushing Russia down the path of a political-economic isolation. This has forced Russia to shift away from the West and find alternative markets in other regions of the world, to bypass the sanctions and find new outlets for the Russian economy.
For these reasons, Russia has started to look at the Asia-Pacific as a viable way to expand its markets and those of the EEU. In this perspective, integration with the BRI can offer the EEU a privileged trade channel to the markets of Asia-Pacific, providing Russia with a unique opportunity to boost its “going east” strategy. Helped by a relative decline of the United States, whose vacuum is being filled by growing Chinese influence in the region, Russia’s shift toward the Asia-Pacific has resulted in a row of successful deals. That includes the signing of several important trade agreements with the Philippines and Indonesia; an important free trade agreement between the EEU and Vietnam; as well as closer trade relations with South Korea, one of the countries that has refused to enforce sanctions against Russia, a decision that has provided a boost to South Korean-Russian trade relations.
The Russian expansion in the Asia-Pacific has occurred with the friendly support of China. This mutual interpenetration in the two countries’ areas of geopolitical influence, on a seemingly equal basis, seems to point at a relationship marked by symmetricity, complementarity, and reciprocity.
The Rise of the Beijing-Moscow Consensus
The creation of an abiding Sino-Russian entente in Central Asia could eventually place a huge swath of Eurasian landmass under the influence of the two countries. In such a scenario, the role of Russia in China’s grand strategy appears to be not that of a spear-carrier for Beijing — a role that a proud country like Russia, with its past as a Cold War superpower, would never accept — but rather that of a key partner with an equal role in a common grand strategy aiming at reshaping the world order. This relational model, although in a different form, bears a vague resemblance to the one adopted by imperial China with its tributary states, where a mild Chinese influence at the periphery can be compensated for by the strong influence of a reliable ally.
The two countries seem to share the common goal of shaping a two-dimensional Beijing-Moscow Consensus. China is tasked with expanding its model at a global level, while Russia consolidates its power in the Eurasian region, acting as a strong stabilizing regional force and enforcing increasingly converging policies in a geopolitical space that is crucial for both Russian and Chinese interests. The advantage of this model is that its complementarity can appease both Chinese global ambitions and Russian regional and global goals, allowing both countries to co-prosper and enjoy virtually unchallenged dominance over a huge stretch of Eurasian territory, with significant consequences for farther regions, such as South, East and Southeast Asia and Central and Eastern Europe; all regions where, we have seen, Western influence is fading.
Another peculiar feature of the Beijing-Moscow entente is the resilience offered by its “multi-modality.” Unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Sino-Russian system would be able to coexist side by side with the current Western-led international system, with a high degree of interdependence in a multipolar, globalized regime. It would also have the capacity, however, to remain functional as a self-contained ecosystem. This is because the system is designed to control a large, resource-rich swath of Eurasian and Asian land, where China and Russia could enforce their model, replicating the features of the current international order complete with its own institutions, markets, security infrastructure, currency, and payment mechanisms, bypassing the dollar-based system if necessary. This type of redundancy seems to be devised to grant the survivability and sustainability of the core Sino-Russian ecosystem, should the level of antagonism between China, Russia, and the United States escalate to the point where the West seeks to enforce an economic and political isolation of China as it already does with Russia today and as it did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Such a setup has the potential to cripple Western influence in Central Asian countries where the activities of the BRI, the EEU and the EU currently overlap, with game-changing shifts in the regional dynamics and important consequences for the EU and the United States. The fallout of Sino-Russian dominance in Central Asia could be felt also in other regions. In South Asia, countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan could benefit from the geopolitical stability and credibility brought by a Sino-Russian entente and the trade continuity offered by BRI-EEU integration. In some Central and Eastern European countries, China’s growing economic outreach and the establishment of a solid Sino-Russian bloc in Central Asia could threaten EU cohesion and cause a geopolitical conundrum for the United States and NATO. In the Asia-Pacific, the Chinese influence-building strategy, driven by an artful combination of economic influence, public diplomacy, and occasional assertiveness, is contributing to hasten the decline of American influence. China is filling the vacuum left an American leadership that has failed to deliver on several important initiatives, including the lackluster outcome of the “Pivot to Asia,” the termination of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as well as the lack of leadership the United States has displayed vis-à-vis the Chinese encroachment of a number of maritime features in the South China Sea, which China turned into militarized artificial islands virtually unchallenged.
Despite all odds, Sino-Russian relations have evolved into increasingly closer cooperation underpinning the existence of a complex multidimensional geopolitical project driven by mutual interests and common threats. The two countries seem to have learned from the past that divisions don’t play well in face of common threats, in particular when it comes to their major competitor, the United States.
While at present Russia and China enjoy a very different type of relationship vis-à-vis the United States, the recent statements made by President Donald Trump and the posture of the new American National Security Strategy, where both China and Russia were defined as revisionist countries, may be a harbinger that China and its vagaries have been given too much leeway. The Chinese model, with all its incongruences, may be becoming too different from the U.S.-led system for the two to coexist under the same roof. Should this be the case, it is logical to assume that the cooperative-competitive relationship that has characterized Sino-American relations since the Obama administration will come to an end.
The Chinese rapprochement with Russia seems to indicate that the country has become aware that the expansion of the Middle Kingdom and its peculiar model may at some point become a threat serious enough for the West to justify the return to a more conservative strategy of containment. While far-fetched in a time characterized by the primacy of trade and markets, globalization, and high interdependence over ideology and protectionism, this course of action may become a viable option should the West decide that China and Russia have become a serious threat to the survival of the current international order.
Enrico Cau is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies (GIIASS) of Tamkang University, a member of the Taiwan Strategy Research Association (TSRA) and a member of the Philippine International Studies Organization (PHISO).