In recent years, China-Russia relations have been frequently described as having attained an “unprecedentedly high level.” Typically, these pronouncements come from the very top of the political hierarchy in both countries. For instance, during a phone call in late December China’s President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, praised the comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation between the two countries, which they assessed to be at “the highest level in history.” Similarly, the respective foreign ministers, Wang Yi and Sergey Lavrov, recently spoke and underscored the steady development of mutual ties between the two countries, despite the pandemic disruption. This year the two countries celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Treaty of Good-neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, which became one of the central cornerstones of their improved ties in the post-Cold War period.
Regardless of this positive rhetoric, some scholars and commentators point out the shortcomings and problems incumbent in Sino-Russian ties. For instance, University of Glasgow scholar Dr. Marcin Kaczmarski argues that the relationship is not set in stone. While, there are important areas of convergence – a shared vision of the multipolar world and centrality of the U.N., among others – their different positions in the international system impact their expectations and behavior. As a potential superpower whose economic growth depends on globalization, China is much more interested in stability than Russia, which sometimes benefits by openly challenging the West.
There is also the issue of a growing disparity of power and standing between the two. Russia’s increasing fear of inferior status might inhibit future cooperation. Some in Russia do indeed fear that overdependence on the Chinese economy might force Moscow to make concessions that it has so far resisted (such as allowing Chinese investors to acquire a majority shareholding in energy projects). It might even create a future rift if, for instance, Russia felt it was unceremoniously placed in a subordinate position, or if China thought that it was being dragged into an unwanted confrontation with the West.
This led has some to suggest that the United States might actually be able to exploit differences between China and Russia, which some skeptics described as being held together by a “seam.” A recent op-ed in the Washington Post pinpointed problems in Sino-Russian ties, such as lingering resentment on the Chinese side of 19th century territorial concessions, China’s reverse engineering of Russian weaponry, and, most crucially, Beijing’s considerable economic – and, in the author’s claim, growing military – presence in Central Asia. The Central Asian region historically lay within Russia’s sphere of influence. The pandemic brought further challenges, including less than perfect information sharing early on, and Russia’s rushed response to close the border with China, and then racially profile Chinese citizens who found themselves unable to return home.
A renowned neorealist scholar from the University of Chicago, John J. Mearsheimer, recommended that the new Biden administration drop Russophobia and seek to ally itself with Moscow. He believes that the growth of China’s power will precipitate a balancing coalition of its neighbors together with the United States. Mearsheimer predicts that Russia will eventually seek an alliance with the U.S. to contain its powerful neighbor.
Such logic concludes that as power dynamics change, the rise of new great powers propels others to take appropriate actions to ensure their survival. For instance, in Eurasia, the emergence of Chinese power should put Russia on alert, especially given that regional multipolarity seems likely to disappear following Biden’s decision to completely withdraw the U.S. from Afghanistan. Opposition to the U.S. presence was something that pushed China and Russia closer together, and with it gone, one assumes that regional power tilts even more in China’s favor.
There are two main issues that need further elaboration, however. First, the present benefits of strong Sino-Russian ties outweigh the majority of their real, albeit not insurmountable, challenges. Second, and relatedly, the suggestion for a Russian-U.S. détente at this moment is premature. The trust level between the two countries is low, and there is considerable threat perception toward the West in Russia.
It is true that Moscow is carefully watching its neighbor and is aware of the growing asymmetry of power between them. However, on principle, China and Russia have reached an accommodation. Carnegie Moscow Center’s analyst Alexander Gabuev termed the cooperation “a condominium” with a division of labor in Central Asia. The popular understanding is that Moscow provides security, while China tends to development. In a study by Russian scholar Dr. Alexander Korolev, it is shown how in spite of Sino-Russian coordination on the global level (against the perceived unipolarity of the United States), the two states have enough freedom to pursue sometimes competitive regional policies. In my work, I have argued that Russia pursues a form of cooperative hegemony inside of regional institutional frameworks in Central Asia — namely, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) — which do not include China. Despite being “assigned” the role of security provider, Moscow clearly has sought to diversify its portfolio. But this competition has not translated into confrontation. In 2015, the two sides signed a joint statement on cooperation between the Belt and Road Initiative and the EAEU.
Similarly, in the security realm, Russia’s focus on the gradual development of the CSTO went hand in hand with its concerns over possible expansion of the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional organization of which Russia is a member, but which is widely regarded as a Chinese project. Moscow tried to establish coordination in activities between the two organizations to keep an eye on the SCO’s development, and steer it in a way that hampered its development in order to not displace the CSTO in Central Asia.
However, in general, in the security field, Russia and China coordinate rather than compete and have a shared outlook for Central Asia. While news reports highlight an alleged Chinese military presence in places like Tajikistan – a country that is a member of the CSTO, but also the SCO – this should not be understood as a prelude to an impending displacement of Moscow by Beijing as the main security guarantor in Central Asia. After all, it is Russia rather than China that leads a veritable regional military alliance and which deploys a capable multinational military force called the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces. Furthermore, Moscow has concrete and long-running troop-stationing and base agreements with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia, as well as radio installations and units in Belarus and Azerbaijan.
Fundamentally, it is in Russia’s interests to maintain cordial and friendly relations with China. It has built them over the past three decades. In the words of Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, “[any] alternative to friendship with China would be a disaster for Russia.”
In contrast, Moscow’s relations with the United States have progressively worsened since the 1990s, despite several attempts to improve them during Putin’s early years and then during the presidency of his successor, Dmitri Medvedev, in 2009. The already well-documented disputes include, among other things, the continued eastward expansion of NATO, the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, support for pro-democracy movements and regime change in states on Russia’s borders, and broader issues like Middle Eastern security. Among these, it is clear that NATO enlargement remains at the top of Russia’s grievances and at the root of many of its fears. Even members of the former Obama administration, like the Ambassador to Russia Dr. Michael McFaul, conceded that the enlargement of the NATO alliance contributed to the worsening of relations with Moscow.
This was evident in statements made by Russian leaders and in official state documents. In 2008, then-President Medvedev explained how Georgian and Ukrainian engagement with NATO made Russia unhappy given that “no state can be pleased about having representatives of a military bloc to which it does not belong coming close to its borders.” Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov described NATO’s enlargement toward Russia’s borders as “the root cause of the systemic problems that afflict Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe.” He accused the West of having “malevolent plans against Russia.” This threat perception was also embedded in official state documents. The 2014 Russian military doctrine identified the “build-up of the power potential of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)” and “bringing the military infrastructure of NATO member countries near the borders of the Russian Federation” among the greatest military risks for the country. Russia’s 2016 foreign policy concept also pointed out a “serious crisis in the relations between Russia and the Western States,” which according to Moscow was caused by “geopolitical expansion pursued by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)…along with their refusal to begin implementation of political statements regarding the creation of a common European security and cooperation framework,” and the “containment policy adopted by the United States and its allies against Russia.”
It goes without saying that the West has tried to alleviate Russia’s fears about NATO. The United States had consistently stated that NATO expansion was not directed against Russia and was rather a product of the free choice of the countries that applied for membership and sought deeper engagement. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry argued in 2015 that “NATO is a defensive alliance that has existed for 70 years… And countries have chosen of their own free will to want to join NATO to be part of a Europe that is whole and free and at peace. NATO is not a threat to anybody. It’s not an offensive organization.” Moreover, some scholars like Trenin have explained that while the Soviet Union utterly lost its political, economic, and ideological rivalry with the West, the U.S. and its partners went out of their way to establish some important elements of coordination with Russia early on. The West did not treat Russia like Germany was treated after World War I. Russia retained the Soviet Union’s permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council, joined the G-8, and since 2002 it was able to coordinate activities with NATO through the NATO-Russia Council.
Overall, looking at the low level of present relations and strained mutual trust, it is hard to imagine any considerable breakthroughs during the Biden-Putin summit this week, let alone entertain wishful thinking about a Russian-U.S. détente for the express purpose of checking China’s rise.
In the past several years, Moscow and Beijing have taken their relations to a higher level. Russia is selling some of its most advanced weaponry (such as Sukhoi 35 jet fighters) to China. This may be partially driven by pragmatic business considerations (Moscow also offered to sell these jets to a NATO member state, Turkey). However, it is also a symbolic display of closeness of Sino-Russian ties. Moreover, encouraged by the top political echelons in both countries, Sino-Russian cooperation has entered new frontiers, including joint high-tech projects like the building of nuclear reactors by Russian firm Rosatom in Tianwan, and the Xudapu nuclear power plants. The two countries will also jointly manufacture a new passenger plane, CR929, and aim to build a lunar space station. It is hard to imagine a sudden reversal of these developments, which took years to achieve.
On the other hand, what Moscow and Washington could, and should, do at this juncture in their relations, is to agree on improving communication, especially vis-à-vis issues in states that are on Russia’s borders. This is particularly true for those that aspire to become part of the European Union and NATO, which Russia opposes. This could, at the very least, help manage possible crises situations. Moreover, given Biden’s declared interest in rejoining and reviving the the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), this presents a possible arena for constructive interaction between Russian and American diplomats. Controlling Iran’s nuclear program and preventing Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons is a rare area on which both great powers presently agree.