By: Anthony V. Rinna
Recent events in Eastern Europe have prompted the US to attempt to isolate Russia over its aggressive behavior. American efforts in this region are impeded, however, by the fact that many Asian powers are not in lockstep with Washington on this issue. China in particular makes it difficult for the US to isolate Russia in the international arena, and the continuation of Sino-Russian rapprochement has been a cause of speculation and concern.
An op-ed by Russian analyst Vladimir Buchelnikov declares that a Sino-Russian political and military alliance is in the making that could “sharply change the balance of power in the world.”
On the surface, a China-Russia alliance might seem like an ideal way to counter US hegemony and unilateralism, and Russia’s relationship with China will most likely be a major factor in preventing Russia’s total isolation. Below superficial notions of Sino-Russian partnership, however, there are many issues that prevent the development of a substantial China-Russia axis.
China’s relationship with Russia is defined as a “strategic partnership”. Among the tenets of this strategic partnership is a dedication to multilateralism and the creation of a multi-polar world that is not dominated by the United States. Naturally, an aggressive Russia allying itself with a rising China causes much consternation in the United States. Nevertheless, the Sino-Russian relationship is one that is highly complex, nuanced, and not easily given to strict paradigms.
China’s relationship with Russia is enshrined in the 2001 Friendship and Cooperation Treaty. Within the treaty, China and Russia theoretically enjoy mutual support on a range of issues. China is to receive a continuous supply of energy from Russia as well as Russian support for Chinese desires to reunite Taiwan with the mainland (in fact, Russia’s recent revanchist activity has prompted the US to warn China not to attempt the same in Taiwan). In turn, Russia benefits from a large customer base for its energy and arms technology transfers and Chinese capital investment. Both countries are to be supportive of one another in countering a unipolar, US-dominated world order.
China’s official People’s Daily recently declared that “a strategic alliance between China and Russia can be an anchor of stability in the modern world.” This multilateralism is exemplified by China’s abstention from voting in the UN Security Council on the Ukraine crisis. While this lacks real given that Russia itself has veto power on the Council, the symbolism is powerful and cannot be ignored.
China and Russia are already bound in security cooperation by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO. Many in the West regard the SCO as an anti-Western alliance designed to counterbalance NATO and the United States. In reality, though, given the lack of clarity on China-Russia relations, the real purpose and capabilities of the organization don’t lend themselves to easy definition. The SCO is designed to fight against terrorism, separatism and extremism, but it has no command structure or armed reaction force of its own. In many ways, the SCO is actually a way for China and Russia to monitor each other’s behavior.
In fact, China’s relationship with Russia is anything but smooth. Both countries have competing interests in Central Asia, specifically in the spheres of energy and transportation infrastructure. China’s recent takeover of the Galkynysh natural gas field in Turkmenistan is a major blow to Russia’s ability to control energy flows from Turkmenistan. Furthermore, China and Russia also have vast, contending interests in developing rail infrastructure across Central Asia. China and Russia’s respective nuclear weapons programs, which began with the purpose of deterring the United States, have each other in mind in regard to their respective nuclear policies and strategies.
One important but often-overlooked aspect of China-Russia relations is the Japan factor. Similar to Russia’s relations with China, Russo-Japanese relations, while generally poorer than Russia’s ties with China, are difficult to pigeonhole, as they are characterized by tensions and mistrust on the one hand, and shared interests on the other.
The main irritant in Japan’s relationship with Russia is the Kuril Island’s dispute. Russia is unwilling to cede control of the islands because it gives Russia strategic control over entry into the Sea of Okhotsk. Japan regards full control and sovereignty over the Kurils as a major foreign policy goal, and this has proven to be a stumbling block for Russia’s relations with Japan. Japan’s recent termination of a self-imposed arms sales ban may lead to greater competition between Russia and Japan for the Chinese arms market.
Nevertheless, based on the fears among many top Russian officials over the rise of China, some in Russia see Japan as a potential counterweight to China. Despite differences over the Kuril Islands, Japanese investors have not been deterred from the Russian market, and both countries have engaged in limited security cooperation, such as joint naval exercises. While Russia’s relationship with Japan is not as cooperative as it is with China, the fact that Russia is willing to work with Japan clearly shows that China and Russia are not completely united on foreign policy and security issues.
Though Japan condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine while China has been more supportive, this does not mean that Japan and Russia will always oppose each other on foreign policy issues.
The reality is that while China and Russia need each other and are willing to support each other, they also fear each other. A potential China-Russia alliance is not something to take for granted, but it should also be taken with a grain of salt. On both a regional, East Asia level as well as a global level, Sino-Russian relations are beset by a plethora of competing interests and views. To say that a firm China-Russia axis is in the making may well be, therefore, somewhat of an exaggeration, at least for the foreseeable future.
Anthony V. Rinna is an analyst at the US-based Center for World Conflict and Peace