Written by Jingdong Yuan.
Since the early 1990s when Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin first laid the foundation of a partnership between the former allies (1950s) and foes (1960s-1970s), Beijing and Moscow have gradually elevated the bilateral relationship to its current comprehensive strategic partnership. In 2001, the two countries also signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation.
China and Russia have significantly expanded their bilateral ties in many areas over the past twenty years, from Russian sales of advanced weapons systems and military technology transfers to major energy cooperation projects. In 2001, together with four other Central Asian states, Beijing and Moscow established the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional arrangement whose initial priorities were to combat terrorism, ethnic separatism, and religious extremism, but have subsequently evolved and expanded to include energy development, economic cooperation, and regional stability. Over the past decade, the Eurasian grouping has staged the bi-annual Peace Mission joint military exercises. Many Western analysts have suggested that SCO may have become a military alignment, if not an alliance.
The past few years have also witnessed further strengthening of bilateral ties. President Xi Jinping chose Russia as his first foreign country to visit after becoming the head of state. Presidents Putin and Xi have met no less than ten times already and the comprehensive strategic partnership has entered a new phase, with deepening political trust, mutual diplomatic support of each other’s core interests, and broader strategic consultation on major international and regional issues. Some have suggested that given the security threats that they both face, especially the growing rivalry and, in Russia’s case, open confrontation, with the United States, there are good rationales for Beijing and Moscow to seriously consider forming an alliance.
Indeed, Russia’s deteriorating relationship with the United States over a number of contentious issues ranging from NATO expansion, U.S. deployment of missile defence systems in Europe, to Russian actions against Georgia and Ukraine has resulted in America-led sanctions, causing significant economic difficulties for he former superpower, especially at a time of oil price dipping to its lowest level in years. Moscow now has its own strategic pivot to Asia, and relations with China become ever more critical.
China likewise is also facing major security challenges in East Asia. It is embroiled in territorial disputes with a number of Southeast Asian states and with Japan. China’s growing economic power and military might have instilled anxieties and concerns among its neighbours. The U.S. pivot to Asia, spearheaded by strengthened American military presence and basing access in the region, revitalised alliances and security partnerships, and Washington’s more active diplomacy, is viewed by Beijing as concerted efforts to contain China.
A Sino-Russian alliance could join forces of two pivotal Eurasian powers to counter the American offensive and undermine the U.S.-led order. In geopolitical terms, Eurasia strides across the vast landmass and provides strategic depth against maritime powers such as the United States. Russia has ample resources, advance military technologies, and the market potential that could be met by China’s financial and economic might, huge appetite for energy, and a military still in need of massive upgrading. In short, an elevation of the current comprehensive strategic partnership to an alliance is not completely out of the question.
Attractive as the idea may seem, there are many reasons against China and Russia forming an alliance anytime soon. Rivalry and confrontation with the United States is a necessary but not sufficient condition for Beijing and Moscow to take that step. To begin with, although both Russian and Chinese security interests to some significant extent face U.S. threats, the latter have not become so serious as to threaten both countries’ core interests and each, on its own, still possesses sufficient will and capability to counter such threats. In Russia’s case, while its overall power has declined since the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, its military power, in particular the nuclear arsenal, will remain the guarantor to secure and protect its core interests.
China, on the other hand, does face greater challenges in East Asia as the U.S. strengthens alliances, builds up security partnerships and reinforces its military presence. However, the U.S. pivot has as much to do with reassuring allies and friends as it is to retain its primacy; it is less about directly challenging China’s core interests, Beijing’s protestation notwithstanding. The current frictions between the two countries, from what China perceives as U.S. biased in the maritime territorial disputes, to U.S. charged Chinese obstruction to freedom of navigation, are either third-party related or manageable as both sides are anxious that disputes not escalate to military confrontation and war.
At the same time, both China and Russia continue to cooperate with the United States in areas where they share common interests with the latter. Russia and the U.S. share common interests in anti-terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, a solution to the civil war in Syria, and implementation of their nuclear disarmament agreement. Beijing and Washington, meanwhile, cooperate on a range of issues from climate change and North Korea, and share common interests in restoring global economic and financial stability.
Under such circumstances, alliance formation appears unnecessary as it is counterproductive, for both China and Russia. While sharing and promoting common objectives such as a new multipolar international order, non-interference in domestic affairs, and the important role of the United Nations Security Council, their priorities are different, as are the challenges they face. Alliance would require both to commit to, and therefore entrap in, the other’s security agendas, running the risks of getting dragged into major military conflicts with a third party not of its own choice. While the two countries have expanded and deepened their strategic partnership in recent years, the scope and foundation of that partnership remain limited and the core pillars of true partnership, not to mention an alliance, are lacking. Apart from energy and defence industry transactions, bilateral trade remains minuscule at around $90 billion annually, as is investment level. And some of the Russian elites still harbour suspicions over China’s long-term intensions and worry about China’s continuing economic and military rise.
Professor Jingdong Yuan is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney Centre for International Security Studies. He specialises in Asia-Pacific security, Chinese defence and foreign policy, and global and regional arms control and non-proliferation issues. Image credit: CC by Dmitry Terekhov/Flickr.