From June 9 to 10, China’s President Xi Jinping will meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Qingdao. It will mark the 25th meeting between the two leaders in the last five years. Amid what appears increasingly to be an emerging trade war between China and the United States, will the meeting between China and its former ally mark a new phase in Sino-Russian relations? Is China poised to abandon its nonalignment diplomacy, which has been a staple of its post-Mao foreign policy? Certainly, as tensions ratchet up between the two countries and a common rival, the United States, the scenario becomes more plausible.
U.S. Pressure Creates Common Ground
Increasingly, the United States poses an economic and security threat to both China and Russia. On May 18, the United States and China reached a compromise in which they agreed to put the looming trade war on hold. The breakthrough followed intensive negotiations between the two countries while Liu He, the Chinese vice premier, was in Washington.
On May 29, however, the Trump administration announced that it will impose a 25 percent tariff on $50 billion worth of goods imported from China shortly after June 15, which will definitely anger China. Before that, the Trump administration had declared that it will impose a 25 percent tariff on electronic touch screens, steel sheets, medical devices, aircraft parts and components, batteries, and other Chinese imports. China also vowed to take tit-for-tat retaliatory measures.
The U.S. will also be able to create certain challenges for China in the security and political realm. The Taiwan issue is the top priority among China’s core interests. However, the Trump administration is trying to stretch the limits of the “one China policy,” the basis of U.S-China relations since 1979. In addition to approving new arms sales to Taiwan, Congress has passed “Taiwan Travel Act,” which encourages high-level U.S. officials to visit Taiwan. President Donald Trump soon signed the bill into law, which angered China amid the ongoing dispute over the trade. Meanwhile, U.S. warships continue to sail through the South China Sea amid escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing that have surfaced over the past few years.
Moscow also finds itself at odds with Washington. U.S.-Russia relations fell to the freezing point after the Ukrainian crisis when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Western countries, led by the United States, announced diplomatic and economic sanctions against Russia — For instance, they suspended Russia’s G8 membership. Washington has also targeted many Russian businessmen and entities, strengthening sanctions against Russia’s financial, defense, and energy industries, and restricting Russian-funded banks from financing in Western markets.
The Trump administration has continued this trend. On April 6, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a serious rebuke to Russia: it slapped sanctions on seven Russian oligarchs with ties to Putin, along with 17 senior Russian officials, including Putin’s ex-son-in-law. The United States also announced the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats and intelligence officers, as well as the closure of Russia’s Seattle consulate, on March 26, in response to Moscow’s alleged involvement in a nerve agent attack in the United Kingdom.
Moscow’s tensions with Washington are also intensifying in the Middle East. After accusing the Syrian government of a chemical weapons attack, Washington carried out punitive precision strikes with the U.K. and France on Syrian military installations, which are under Russian protection. Putin condemned the U.S.-led military strikes in Syria as an “act of aggression.”
Deepening China-Russia Ties
Current developments are occurring against a backdrop of already positive China-Russia relations. Beijing has seen its interests align increasingly with Russia. After Xi took power in 2013, the Sino-Russian comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination entered a new phase, with Xi and Putin claiming a close working relationship and personal friendship.
In keeping with the close communication between the two leaders, since 2014, the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and the Russian President’s Office established a mechanism for holding regular working meetings each year, opening a new channel for exchange between China and Russia. In addition to regular visits between the two countries’ top leaders, other high level exchanges have become routine.
Most recently, on April 1, Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe began a visit to Russia. This was followed by a visit by Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who met with Putin on April 5. Wei characterized his visit to Russia as signaling the close military affiliation between Moscow and Beijing, suggesting that this was tied to mutual concerns about the United States. According to South China Morning Post, Wei said: “I am visiting Russia as the new defense minister of China to show the world the high level of development of our bilateral relations, and firm determination of our armed forces to strengthen strategic cooperation” – and to “let the Americans know about the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia.”
In addition to increasingly close political relations, economic relations are flourishing, and economic complementarities and compatibility are creating conditions for an enduring association. For Russia, China is an important market and source of capital, especially in the tense political climate of U.S. sanctions. For China, Russia’s stable energy supply is important in order to secure China’s economic growth. China has maintained its position as Russia’s largest trading partner for eight years. In 2017, China and Russia’s bilateral trade rose to $84.07 billion, an increase of 20.8 percent.
Meanwhile, the two sides are creating a friendly atmosphere in an effort to dispel some international concerns about the shifting balance of power between the two countries. Russia has been involved in China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” and has linked the BRI to its own Eurasian Economic Union strategy.
Closer — But No Alliance
Although these developments, taken together, could portend a shift from strategic partnership to alliance, there are several factors that make this development unlikely. For one, Xi Jinping has officially rejected an alliance approach to security. In a speech given at the Bo’ao Forum in Hainan on April 10, 2018, Xi said, “With the future in mind, we need to treat each other with respect and as equals. We should uphold the five principles of peaceful coexistence … and follow a new approach to state-to-state relations featuring dialogue rather than confrontation, and partnership instead of alliance.”
Officially, China regards partnership, not alliance, as the main axis for its development of foreign relations, mainly because of its long-standing tradition of independent diplomatic standing and the priority Beijing places on domestic sociopolitical reform and development. In the early 1990s, China began to pursue a new diplomatic policy called “multidirectional diplomacy.” This approach aimed to develop strategic partnerships with countries that were not aimed at third parties and emphasized a win-win mindset. Beijing has seen “partnership” as a diplomatic tool that embraces globalization and better represents China’s economic and political interests, and allows for greater flexibility in international relations.
Normally, an alliance is sealed based on security considerations, when the international situation is highly tense, national security is facing a serious threat, and the country’s wellbeing is at risk of being compromised. There is no indication that China sees an imminent security threat toward China from the United States that would warrant a counter-U.S. bloc, not to mention the question of whether an anti-American alliance can be established, even if it is built to rival the United States’ own expansive network of allies.
Moreover, history has taught China lessons about the dangers of alignment. Following the founding of the People’s Republic, China chose to “lean to one side” toward the Soviet Union, which supported China during the turbulent periods of the new regime. However, after the Sino-Soviet ideological split, China found itself in unprecedented international isolation. As a result, when Deng Xiaoping assumed power, he pursued an independent and non-aligned foreign policy. Deng said on June 18 1986: “We adhere to an independent foreign policy of peace and do not join any bloc. We are prepared to maintain contacts and make friends with everyone.”
China eschews alliances based on the the view that, once China allies with some countries, it will inevitably be bound by its allies, leading to a certainly unfavorable external environment.
Besides, current tensions notwithstanding, China retains close economic ties with the United States. China and the U.S. are highly interdependent and complementary economic partners. They share a huge amount of common interests via comprehensive economic cooperation. According to a report issued by Rhodium Group and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, in 2017, U.S. firms invested $14 billion in China, a slight increase from $13.8 in 2016. The cumulative value of U.S. FDI transactions in China passed $256 billion by the end of 2017.
As Max Baucus, a former U.S. ambassador to China, told the New York Times, “China needs the U.S., the U.S. needs China,” Even if there could be a trade war between China and the United States in the near future, in the long run, the two nations still remain inextricably linked. Due to their interdependent and common industrial economic links, any retribution would ultimately be costly for both sides. Plus, the two countries have shared interests in a diverse set of areas, including nuclear security and nonproliferation as well as regional security in Northeast Asia. The great powers are destined to coexist in competition and cooperation, although sometimes economic friction can be fierce.
How Far Will China-Russia Relations Go? It’s up to the United States.
The fact that China will not formally ally itself with Russia does not mean that China won’t develop high-level strategic relations with Russia. Actually, comprehensively deepening higher stage China-Russian strategic cooperation and steadily promoting China-Russia relations is beneficial to maintaining China’s strategic rear area and balancing American pressure with China-Russia strategic relations. Faced with U.S. containment, China and Russia will resolutely support each other on issues affecting their key interests, including sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security.
It is unwise for the Trump administration to stimulate the formation of a Chinese-Russian axis, let along alliance. Looking back at history, the reason why the United States won the Cold War was partly because the U.S. established a friendship with China to jointly confront the Soviet Union starting in 1972, when President Richard Nixon paid his historic trip to China. From the perspective of history and reality, China should be a partner, at least a competitive partner, of the United States rather than an adversary or enemy. Only dialogue and cooperation can help advance and stabilize U.S.-China relations.
The widespread U.S. tradition of “speak softly and carry a big stick” that began American president Theodore Roosevelt may still prove to be effective. Nonetheless, Trump has a big stick in his hands, but no carrots. His administration is moving in the direction of antagonizing the other great powers. Let us hope the United States won’t have to repeated the anguished debate in 1949-50 over “who lost China.”
Dai Weilai, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Anhui University in China and currently a visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, United States.