The Strengthening of Sino-Russian Relations
© 2014 FrontLine Defence (Vol 11, No 6)

Emerging strategic alliance or axis of opportunism?
The recent announcement that China and Russia will be conducting naval exercises in the Pacific and Mediterranean in 2015 is the latest development in their deepening relationship; one characterized by significant expansion of cooperation across a number of fields over the past year. In Central Asia, there continues to be the promotion of the entrenchment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – jointly led by Moscow and Beijing – as the premiere defence pact in the region, with military exercises increasing in both depth and scope among member states. It is important to note that in May, shortly after the imposition of Western sanctions against Moscow for their annexation of Crimea, Russia and China agreed to a $400 billion natural gas deal designed to satisfy Beijing’s growing energy demands for the next two decades. The frequency of high level diplomatic visits is well above the average for this year, including Presidents Xi and Putin meeting almost a dozen times in both bilateral and multi-lateral settings. Within such forums, a common lexicon has coalesced into a narrative of common discomfort regarding the unevenness of global power within the international system, and their determination to rebalance the global order.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping shake hands after signing an agreement during a bilateral meeting in Shanghai on May 20. (Photo: Reuters)

As a result of these developments, Sino-Russian relations are increasingly coming under the microscope of Western analyses arguing a strategic alliance is emerging between the two. An alliance largely aimed (and motivated) at countering Western power and influence internationally in support of the development of a more multi-polar international landscape.

On the surface, there are a multitude of complimentary dynamics supporting the development of a strategic relationship between Moscow and Beijing.

Growing Congruencies
China and Russia, both authoritarian states, are weary of Western promotion of governance and human right standards, specifically when they are held as conditions to further acceptance into the international system. The stringent governance and environmental standards associated with the Trans Pacific Partnership is one such example seen as purposely designed to exclude China from joining.

Neither state associates itself as part of the Western bloc led by the US, instead they see themselves (and perceive the West as viewing them) as outsiders intent on rebalancing the international architecture of decision-making. The regimes in Beijing and Moscow view their states as having different cultural, social, political and economic foundations compared to the West and, thus, neither shares a common sense of identity nor a congruency in terms of foreign policy outlooks.

Both are uncomfortable with American power and influence in their immediate environments, specifically the development of military relations with neighbouring states. For Moscow, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion eastwards towards former Warsaw Pact states and Soviet Republics have generated concerns in the Kremlin about strategic realignments underway. Impeding such expansion is a main motivation in the decisions to support Russian-friendly breakaway regions in Moldova and Georgia. The annexing of Crimea and continued activity in Eastern Ukraine are the latest moves in such a strategy. For Beijing, Obama’s 2011 announced Pivot (now renamed Rebalance) towards East Asia is largely seen as a veiled attempt to enhance bilateral alliances (such as with Japan and Australia) and establish new strategic partnerships (such as with Vietnam) in the region, to limit Chinese power and influence.

Moscow and Beijing, share similar foreign positions with respect to Western military and diplomatic involvement into other states, and have worked in tandem to veto such motions at the United Nations (UN) Security Council.

Each appears geographically fixated on different regions – for Moscow, it is Europe, and Beijing is primarily concerned with the Asia-Pacific region. Thus, they are not in direct geopolitical competition with one another and, within Central Asia where their interests and influence overlap, there appears to be a growing working relationship between them via the SCO to exclude Western power and support one another.

Importantly, Russia and China, have comple­mentary economies, as Moscow focuses on new markets for energy exports and Beijing scours the world in search of secure sources of natural resources to fuel its manufactured based export economy.

Committed to Opposition?
Though for decades Chinese foreign policy has been guided by a logic of non-confrontation to inhibit the development of a countervailing coalition and to allow the regime to focus on internal development. Over the past half-decade, Beijing is slowly beginning to exhibit a more assertive and obstructionist stance, specifically regarding maritime claims in the South China Sea. Under the leadership of Putin, Russia, after two decades of recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union, has re-emerged as a regional power whose military and economic influence (due to natural gas exports) cannot be discounted with respect to European security.

Both are increasingly angling their actions – not in openly confrontational and militaristic ways, but through the promotion of parallel processes and institutions designed to limit, and in some cases completely exclude, Western power. This does not imply, however, that neither state are developing military capabilities to inhibit and marginalize Western military power and intimidate their neighbours.

Chinese naval and air developments, for example, are motivated in the short term largely by a desire to limit the preponderance of American military power in the Asia-Pacific, and eroding the U.S. ability to provide security guarantees to partner states in the hopes that China’s overwhelming political and economic power can strong-arm its smaller neighbours into geopolitical arrangements more to their interests. Russia, on the other hand, has strategically bet it can use military force against its smaller neighbours in support of pro-Russian breakaway regions to deter future interest in joining NATO and create a security situation within which Russia’s cooperation is necessary for there to be a cessation to these conflicts.

Until now, the development of an overarching military posture which openly challenges Western military power had not been actively promoted by either Beijing or Moscow. However, while cooperation between the two is augmenting across a number of regions militarily, these developments are still in their infancy and it is premature to classify them as a hegemonic or military challenge to Western (particularly American) military power internationally.

Can these actions be considered a strategic alliance – a relationship defined by deep interconnections across numerous fields all stemming from and supporting a guiding logic of obstructionism towards Western policy and actions?

The degree to which Moscow and Beijing oppose Western initiatives is augmenting, but there is no promotion of an alternate geopolitical arrangement, or even a overarching philosophy informing their opposition. An actual widespread challenge to the international order does not seem to be developing; instead, as both states become more powerful, their desire for greater responsibility in decision-making powers is growing.

Moscow and Beijing, due to fears of unnecessarily being targeted by the West, may be hiding such ambitions, but it appears more likely that both states are focused on the achievement of narrow minded interests instead of leading the way in terms of comprehensive system transformation. Securing greater freedom from Western influence is the common link between China and Russia vice a comprehensive agreement with respect to their international interests, the desired characteristics of a new international system, and their positions within it.

Moving in Different Directions
Investigation into the inner dynamics (beyond the obvious common geopolitical concerns) of Sino-Russian relations reveals a more complicated picture.

Current cooperative measures towards limiting Western power and influence may be compromised over the long term due to unresolved and unacknowledged differences and disputes between the two, which threaten to undermine the congruent geopolitical foundations the relationship is currently pillared upon. While both regimes are becoming increasingly vocal about dismissing Western legitimacy and policy, they notably avoid commenting on one another’s regional and international ambitions, which may in the future begin to clash and become areas of conflict, eroding the apparent cooperative and mutually supportive orientation their relationship has developed over the last decade.

Russia, while still a regional power with a large strategic capability due to its nuclear arsenal, is no longer a great power – it simply does not possess the resources to grow into a power that will have significant influence throughout the entirety of the international system. While current natural gas exports have made Russia a major energy power house, the economy has not diversified into a robust and flexible entity that is able to withstand and absorb financial volatilities – as evident by the rapid decrease in the ruble due to the refusal of OPEC to cut back oil production. Furthermore, current levels of extraction vice new natural gas and oil discoveries, mean Moscow will have, at best, another two to three decades exporting current levels of natural resources before they see a decline in production and export. It appears the current regime does not have a long term plan for how to make Russia a robust economic power, which severely challenges the country’s ability to remain a relevant economic actor internationally.

China, on the other hand, is emerging as a power whose reach and influence is expanding globally. Though many analysts overestimate the rise of China (often dismissing the serious internal matters which threaten to undermine its trajectory), Beijing is the only true hegemonic competitor to the US. This does not imply, however, that China has or will inevitably strive towards international hegemony – emulating Washington’s success over the past half-century of creating a system conducive to its interests and place of primacy – but as China increasingly becomes an important and integral member of the international system, they will want more responsibility to determine its fate.

Furthermore, China, has an economic relationship of interdependence with the U.S. and thus Beijing cannot afford to jeopardize such relations and is increasingly bound to the international system for continued internal development and prosperity. Is it clear, however, that Beijing wants to alter the characteristics of such a relationship to its advantage; system change vice system transformation is the main motivation.

The divergences between Russian and Chinese interests will become increasingly obvious as the international system becomes more diffused and multi-polar in nature. While Moscow may be content with the creation of a Eurasian bloc under its regional hegemony (with such aspirations evident in their recent Eurasian Union agreement with Belarus and Kazakhstan), China is increasingly developing a system-wide orientation along with its current geopolitical interest in the Asia-Pacific region. Beijing is becoming a world power with a major stake in its future stability and, thus, cannot afford the same level of obstructionism in its relations with the West (and towards other emerging powers) as compared with Moscow. China, furthermore, understands that they, along with the US, must lead the way in tackling major world issues, with carbon emissions agreements the latest example of such cooperation.

Competition, specifically geopolitical, will continue to exist, but Beijing and the U.S. are major stakeholders in the stability of the international system and thus China’s opposition to the West’s preponderance of influence is tempered compared to Russia which does not have the same level of concern in these respects.

An Unequal Relationship
Within their relationship, it is uncertain whether either state would accept the other as a senior partner. China is by far the more powerful and influential partner across the entirety of their relationship (save for nuclear weapons), and thus has and would continue to develop a more uneven standing in their bilateral arrangements – something Russia and the Putin regime in general would be highly reluctant to accept. Economically, Russia will increasingly rely on China as a natural resources buyer, especially if Western sanctioning against Moscow continues.

China, however, has multiple relationships – including with other natural resources states – which are of greater economic and trading importance. This is not to minimize the growing relationship between the two over energy matters; but the major deal signed this past May most likely came to fruition after Moscow succumbed to a lower price in order to received Beijing’s acceptance at a time where Russian exports and finances were hurting due to Western sanctions. In short, Russia needs China more than vice versa.

Outstanding Russian concerns over migration patterns of Chinese merchants and farmers into Russia’s Far Eastern region is another medium to long term matter which is still unresolved.

While both promote a governance system for the Asia-Pacific comprised of member countries (implying the exclusion of American power from the region), China is increasingly vocal in its right for an oversized influence within a multilateral framework due to its size and power – a position which Moscow would not likely accept, specifically with respect to decisions pertaining to regional security.

Beijing has allowed Russia to be the face of opposition to the West, specifically within international institutions such as the UN, with respect to a number of issues including the ongoing civil war in Syria and the sanctioning of Iran. Beijing is concerned that China’s rise is increasingly being framed by Western analysts and commentators as the long term strategic challenge to the Western-led international order. The shift in focus against Russia, due to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, is a development Beijing secretly supports; these developments are forcing Western states, specifically the US, to reposition diplomatic and military assets back towards Europe vice the Asia-Pacific region. Continued unrest in several of the states surrounding Russia, and impacting European security and relationships with Moscow, consumes the West’s short term strategic and political energies. China wants this focus to continue and distract Western thought and action from China’s rise (which is a longer term, comprehensive and system-impacting development). Russia, however, will want China to play a more vocal and oppositional role to distribute the burden of bearing any Western repercussions.

Is Multi-Polarity the Real Objective?
The multi-polar landscape both Beijing and Moscow are promoting will increasingly create difficulties for both as the international arena becomes one of shifting allegiances and in general difficult if not impossible to control for any state or block.

Many of China and Russia’s relations with other states are area-specific, with many partner states not feeling any great identity or bond with one another but more so driven by opportunistic abilities to pick and choose relations and associations on an issue by issue basis.

The close connections and congruencies typically evident in Western relations, where member states have similar political and economic regimes, cultures and, by and large, world outlooks, may become a thing of the past as a diverse group of new states and actors come to the forefront of international decision-making. A more multi-polar and diffuse landscape will accelerate such a process as states have more potential partners to work with and feel no particular pressure to remain in one great power’s orbit or influence.

For Russia, and especially China, the ramifications of their current promotion of a multi-polar landscape will increasingly become evident as they are frustrated in their inability to mould and shape the system as the U.S. has been able to do for the last half-century. It is not different governance agendas, political philosophies or economic structures (which are the real divisions between the West and China and Russia), but Moscow’s desire to control the immediate surroundings and the wider international decision-making structures, as the West has been so successful in doing for decades. China in particular is increasingly espousing a sense of exceptionalism similar to justifications employed by the U.S. to legitimize their inobservance (and sometimes outright violation) of the rules and processes they have developed and expect others to follow. Due, however, to the changing nature and geographies of power defining the international financial system, currently such control and ability to deviate from processes to achieve one’s interests will not be possible in a multi-polar era.

Re-Emergence of Geopolitics in International Diplomacy
Common concerns regarding Western power and influence internationally is facilitating a growing axis of opportunism between China and Russia as their joint efforts increase to create international space and decision-making powers to further their geopolitical aims – those of becoming regional hegemons in their immediate environments. Conflicting relationships towards the larger international system, serious ­contradictions and unresolved conflicts internally between the two, and lingering strategic suspicions of one another – specifically if Russia would be willing to accept a junior role in any formalized arrangement – are major impediments towards the establishment of long term and serious strategic alliance between the two against the West.

The West continues to interact and engage both to secure their involvement in the current international architecture and inject wedges between Moscow and Beijing to inhibit the furthering of their relationship into one which is explicitly and exclusively designed to undermine Western power and influence.

While geopolitical calculations have always been part of international decision-making, the overtness of such rationales will increasingly come to the forefront of international diplomacy as the West, and other emerging powers, comes to grips with a new global landscape.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic based in Halifax, Canada. His work focuses on Canadian foreign policy in Asia, Chinese naval developments and the ongoing political transition in Myanmar. He has been published in numerous Canadian and international journals and is a regular contributor to the East Asia Forum. He can be reached at:
© 2014 FrontLine Defence