Written by James C. Hsiung.

Contrary to general impressions, China and Russia did not enter into an alliance right after the end of the Cold War. In fact, the two nations barely ended a 28-year split since the Maoist era and mended their relations in 1989.The relations would have remained placid, albeit normal, if not for the witting, or unwitting, U.S. role in prodding the two nations ever closer to each other’s arms, beginning from 1994. And, what turned into a deepening Chinese-Russian partnership came only after 2001.

The latter development resulted from a number of initiatives by Washington calculated to enhance its own security interests, including (a) the expansion of NATO to Russia’s door steps; (b) tightening of America’s security arrangements in Pacific Asia; and (c) plans to install theatre missile defence (TMD) systems in both Europe (Poland and the Czech Republic) and East Asia (Japan).

The 1993-1994 Turning Point.

Because of alleged U.S. opposition, China lost its bid in September 1993, before the International Olympic Committee, to host the 2000 Olympic Games. The defeat, by a mere two votes, was devastating to Beijing, which had staked a national pride on winning it. Two months later, the Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, visited China and, while there, signed an agreement with his Chinese hosts to spur ministry-to ministry defence cooperation.

In the post-Cold War world, Washington’s initial approach to China was more conciliatory then it was to Russia. Even at the time of the above-mentioned Grachev visit in Beijing, President Clinton was weighing a decision whether or not to renew the “most-favoured-nation” (MFN) treatment for China in bilateral trade. On May 25, 1994, ahead of the usual June deadline, Clinton informed Congress that he would renew China’s MFN status for the next year.  Moreover, he announced that, in a break with the past, the MFN issue with China would henceforth be decoupled from the human rights issue as a pre-condition.

On the other hand, the post-1994 U.S. push for the expansion of NATO changed Russia’s initial Atlanticist outlook; and in two years’ time, Moscow turned inward and eastward. The pattern was thus set that the main initiative for the Russo-Chinese partnership would come more from the Russian side.

The Hastening Pace of the Russo-China Partnership.

A convergence of events after the turn of the 21st century provided the impetus for the hastening pace in the newly sealed Russo-Chinese partnership. For Russia, more especially, the massive accession to NATO membership, in 1999, of former Soviet bloc members, like Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, and the three Baltic states, was bad enough news. But, that was followed by the more insidious U.S. plans to negotiate for the establishment of a TMD system in Poland and Czechoslovakia, although fictitiously directed against Iran.

China, by this time, was not faring much better vis-à-vis the United States. During the 2000 U.S. Presidential campaign, George W. Bush named China a “strategic competitor.” After taking office, he pledged that the United States would do everything within its power for the protection of Taiwan’s security. His “routine” approval of arms sales to the island, although withholding the Aegis system sought by Taiwan on the ground that it could be used offensively, provoked Beijing’s strong protests.  Japan, under an agreement with Washington in 1999, embarked upon a joint research on setting up a TMD system in East Asia, which was strongly opposed by both Russia and China.

Things turned slightly better after the April 1, 2001 U.S. spy plane mishap off the China coast and especially after 9/11, when Bush stopped the “strategic competitor” characterisation and China offered positive support for America’s anti-terrorist fight. But the die was cast for a closer than ever partnership between China and Russia. This deepening relationship can be summed up as anchoring on four pillars: (i) a bilateral Inter-State Treaty on Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation (GNC for short, 2001); (ii) the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO, 2001); (iii) a Multipolarity consensus, and (d) integration within a new grouping known as BRICS, which was hatched in the next decade (2010); A few words are in order for this quadruple foundation.

The Quadruple Foundation of the Russo-China Partnership in Brief.

*The GNC treaty, signed in Moscow between the visiting Chinese President, JIANG Zemin, and President Putin in July 2001, provided an umbrella legal framework for broad cooperation in many spheres, stretching from trade and economics, science and technology, energy (incl. oil/gas and nuclear energy), transportation, finance, space and aviation, to IT as well as in the development of trans-border and inter-regional ties.

*The SCO, which began as the Shanghai Forum in 1996, flowered into the six-state Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2001, dedicated to the members’ common security, cultural, and economic goals. In addition to China and Russia, it embraced four former Soviet republics in Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. After 9/11, when the United States established an air force base in Tajikistan in its fight on terrorism, the SCO became a vehicle for Russia and China to keep a watch over the new U.S. presence in Central Asia. At its 2002 meeting in Shanghai, the six SCO member states agreed to create an anti-terrorist centre of their own, to be seated in Uzbekistan. They also approved a plan to create a free trade association (FTA) out of the existing organisation.

*The multipolarity consensus was expressed in a communiqué issued at the end of a meeting with Putin in Moscow by the newly inaugurated Chinese President HU Jintao in May 2003. The communiqué, the sixth issued by the two nations’ heads of state, reflected a commonly felt need for a coordinated approach to U.S. influence seeping into what they considered to be their “strategic rear” (referring to Central Asia). In the communiqué, Hu and Putin stressed the multipolarity of world politics, in an apparent snub to claims of U.S. monopolar power. (This, despite Russia’s earlier acquiescence in U.S. request to drop the use of multipolarity in any official documents following the 9/11 attacks.

*The BRICS. China and Russia remain the backbone of the conglomeration of the five newly emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, which came into formal existence after the first summit of the five nations in 2009. Although what specific effect the BRICS grouping may have on the Chinese-Russian bilateral partnership is unclear, it certainly would provide an additional bridge for deepening the partnership.

In International Relations (IR) theory, when a state’s singular move to tighten its own security, at time-1, results in a situation where it finds itself less secure at time-n, when confronted by other states counteracting in response to beef up their defence in alliance, it is an anomaly known as a security dilemma. As we have seen, the Russo-Chinese partnership was, increasingly, prodded by idiosyncratic U.S. moves to insure its own security in both Europe and East Asia.  To the extent that these U.S. moves resulted in Russian and Chinese responses that brought them together in an ever-deepening partnership, the result is truly a giant security dilemma for Washington.

Dr. James C. Hsiung (Ph.D., Columbia Univ.) is Professor of Politics & International Law at New York University. He is author and editor of 24 books, including his last two: An Anatomy of Sino-Japanese disputes & U.S. Involvement: History and International Law (May 2015), and The Xi Jinping Era: His Comprehensive Strategy Toward the China Dream, (August 2015). He can be reached by E-mail at <jch2@nyu.edu>. Image credit: CC by Eurasian Women’s Forum/Flickr.