Part 1: More than a Few Roadblocks
- The Sino-Russian relationship has attained a depth that many observers thought it never would. Nonetheless, the major problems which have complicated bilateral relations for decades have not disappeared and some of them seem to have worsened.
- In terms of economic and trade cooperation, Russia has remained an economic sideshow for Beijing and its role as a source of technology transfers for Chinese industries has gradually receded. For Moscow, the structure of bilateral trade has been a source of constant dissatisfaction.
- The growing bilateral power disparity poses the greatest challenge for Sino-Russian rapprochement. This problem is only going to increase, as China’s economy continues its dynamic growth while Russia’s has largely become stagnant. This raises even greater questions for the long-established ‘division of labour’ between Moscow and Beijing in Central Asia.
In a recent commentary, Professor Michael Cox criticised the state of the discussion about China-Russia relations for having focused too much and too long on the obstacles barring effective bilateral cooperation and having ignored how close-knit relations between Beijing and Moscow have in fact become. In Cox’s words, “it is time for the sceptics to recognise that they may have got it wrong and start thinking of ways in which an emerging coalition of two very illiberal states can be managed effectively, rather than repeating what by now seems the less than credible line that what separates and divides Russia and China will in time turn out to be more significant in shaping the future than what now (very obviously) unites them.”
Cox’s criticism is timely and apt. Until several years ago, I would have counted myself among what he labels the ‘sceptics’, too. But, far from showing signs of substantial strain, the deepening of the Sino-Russian relationship has visibly accelerated in recent years, particularly since 2014. There is no denying that it has now attained a depth that many observers thought it never would. This does not necessarily mean, however, that the ‘sceptics’ have entirely “got it wrong”. The problems which have beset Sino-Russian relations for decades and which the ‘sceptics’ have never tired of pointing out have, for the most part, not disappeared. On the contrary, some of them seem to have worsened and will likely continue to worsen in the near future. Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that the ‘pull factors’ appear to have handily outweighed those problems in recent years.
I will argue in the second part of this article that one of the main reasons for this has to be sought in frequently overlooked domestic factors, particularly concerns by both political leaderships to preserve domestic stability and long-term regime survival. Prior to expanding on this argument, however, I will revisit some of the profound problems that continue to complicate bilateral relations. As Cox outlined, these problems have been scrutinised by many analysts before – hence, there is no need to examine all of them again. Nonetheless, I will address some of the most substantial and enduring challenges, particularly those that have actually worsened in recent years, in order to illustrate that the concerns of the ‘sceptics’ are in fact well-grounded – which makes the degree of Sino-Russian alignment all the more remarkable.
Economic and trade cooperation between China and Russia, while it has increased substantially over the last three decades and has undoubtedly been one of the drivers of Sino-Russian rapprochement, still leaves much to be desired. Neither side has been particularly content with the nature of the trade relationship. For Beijing, Russia has remained an economic sideshow that represents a valuable market for its goods, but one that utterly pales in comparison to its trade with Europe and the US In 2018, Russia accounted for a mere 0.8 percent of China’s total trade. Russia’s role as a source of technology transfers for Chinese industries – still substantial in the 1990s – gradually receded. By the early 2010s, this was hardly a factor anymore outside the sphere of military technology; but even in the latter, China has begun to distinctly outperform Russia.
For Moscow, China has been its largest single trading partner since 2010, which provides an economic lifeline in the face of ever-worsening relations with the West. But the trade relationship has been a source of constant dissatisfaction in Russia, as it has been reduced to a provider of raw materials and resources (particularly energy, which accounts for over 70 percent of Russia’s exports to China), or other basic commodities. Beijing has constantly resisted Moscow’s entreaties to shift some value-added production back onto the Russian side of the border. Senior Russian officials have frequently lamented the deteriorating bilateral trade structure and Russia’s growing economic dependence on China, as well as intellectual property violations by Chinese manufacturers.
In those fields of industrial production where, until recently, Russia continued to have an edge over China – particularly military technology – Beijing and Moscow have increasingly begun to compete for the same global markets (often with similar systems that were originally based on Russian intellectual property). China has surpassed Russia to become the world’s second-largest arms producer. In practice, much of the actual growth of bilateral economic interaction in recent years has been attributable to Moscow grudgingly opening up protected sectors of its economy (such as the upstream energy sector or its critical digital infrastructure) to Chinese investments and finally selling its most advanced technological assets to China (such as Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems) – concessions which it had previously been unwilling to make. This may be indicative of Moscow’s growing trust in Beijing – or of resignation in the absence of economic alternatives (or both). Ultimately, a lot of the recent growth of Sino-Russian economic interaction has been due to Moscow walking back restrictions it had for decades imposed on Chinese economic activities in Russia.
That said, it is geopolitics and the growing bilateral power disparity which continue to pose the greatest challenges for further deepening Sino-Russian rapprochement. Beijing appears to be more than a little uneasy about the fact that Russia has so frequently opted to be a disruptive force in international affairs. China’s leaders have likely welcomed this disruptiveness insofar as it promised to frustrate US policy objectives. But given Beijing’s increasing stake in a stable international system (particularly with regard to trade), Moscow’s unpredictable moves have sometimes become a liability for Beijing. A case in point was Russia’s covert (and successful) support for Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential race, which contributed to an electoral outcome that Beijing greatly resented. In private conversations with Chinese scholars and analysts, one can frequently get a sense that Moscow is perceived as a very friendly, but also erratic actor – a frequent ‘troublemaker’ or ‘loose cannon’ in the international system. This does not seem to deter Beijing from seeking ever-closer rapprochement with Moscow – but it likely does affect its appetite for transforming the relationship into a full-fledged alliance, considering the substantial risk this would imply of dragging China into conflicts it stands little to gain from.
For Russia, the geopolitical challenges arising from its relations with China are particularly daunting. Much has been made of the colossal shift in the bilateral power balance (from 1980, when the Soviet Union’s GDP was five times as high as China’s and it was vastly more powerful in military terms, to 2021, when China’s GDP has grown to nearly ten times the size of Russia’s and its military budget is estimated to be around four times the size of Russia’s). It reflects a greater power reversal in such a short period than has been experienced by any two major powers in modern history. The problems associated with this vast power disparity are only going to increase, as China’s economy continues its dynamic growth, while Russia’s has largely become stagnant. Russia now, in absolutely every respect, finds itself a junior partner in the relationship.
Russian residual suspicions of a relentlessly growing China have not been eased by Beijing’s increasingly assertive and militarised stance in pushing territorial claims against most of its neighbours, including other great powers such as India and Japan, often basing these claims on obscure historical interpretations steeped in nationalist rhetoric. Notwithstanding all official assertions to the contrary, there seems to be a sense on both sides of the Sino-Russian border that the final word regarding its course has not yet been spoken. A bilateral agreement concluded in 2004 was meant to settle the border question once and for all. The most contested section of the border (the main reason why border demarcation took so long to finalise) included the large river island of Heixiazi/Bolshoi Ussuriysky, which is located immediately adjacent to Khabarovsk, the largest city in the Russian Far East. According to the 2004 border agreement, the island was divided in two, with the eastern half, comprising approximately 170 km2 (roughly 80 times the size of Monaco), remaining a part of Russia’s sovereign territory. Nonetheless, virtually all official maps published in China in recent years, including online maps such as the popular Baidu Ditu (China’s equivalent of Google Maps), continue to ignore the terms of the 2004 agreement and depict the entirety of the island as Chinese territory – which is unlikely to inspire confidence on the Russian side of the border.
Even greater questions arise with regard to the changing distribution of power in Central Asia. Analysts of Sino-Russian relations have extensively discussed the associated problems, and there is no need to repeat them in detail. What bears reiterating, however, is the glaring contrast between Moscow’s reactions to Chinese expansion into Central Asia and to a perceived Western encroachment in Eastern Europe, respectively. Prominent Realist commentators have described Russia’s actions in Ukraine in 2014 as the foreseeable reaction of a beleaguered great power to a hostile West’s increasing intrusion into one of its core spheres of influence. But if we give credence to the Realist depiction of Russia as a state that would inevitably resist any encroachment on its perceived spheres of influence, we should have expected a similar reaction to China’s persistent undermining of Russian hegemony in Central Asia – another one of the Kremlin’s traditional core spheres of influence.
This is all the more perplexing since the scenario in Central Asia is strikingly similar to that in Ukraine. Like in Crimea, Russia has military bases and troops stationed in the region (in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), and the Central Asian republics contain sizable ethnic Russian minorities. In the Ukrainian case, disputes over whether the country should join a free trade arrangement with the European Union had been the initial trigger of the domestic political crisis and the conflict with Moscow, which insisted on Kiev’s inclusion in a Russian-dominated regional bloc modelled after the EU, the Eurasian Economic Union. Joint membership in both formats, including overlapping customs barriers, was considered impossible. Vladimir Putin likewise expected the Central Asian states to become part of the Eurasian Economic Union (which two of them did). But the prospect of creating a deeper economic (and ultimately political) union along the lines envisaged by Moscow is increasingly being undermined by the Central Asian states’ rapidly intensifying economic integration with China, particularly its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. Attempts to create links between the two mega-projects have so far been only partially successful. Meanwhile, the long-established ‘division of labour’ between Moscow and Beijing in Central Asia, whereby China became the leading economic actor in the region while Russia remained incontestably dominant in the political and security sphere, has clearly been eroded in recent years. China is becoming both a more political actor in Central Asia and more proactive in the security arena, having established a permanent military presence in Tajikistan (not long after the US vacated its last Central Asian military base in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan) and becoming increasingly involved in the region’s domestic politics.
Additional Russian concerns include China’s increasingly ambitious projects in the Arctic region and the South Caucasus, as well as Chinese strategic muscle-flexing in its Asian neighbourhood. Russia’s increasingly overt support for China in this respect, including joint naval drills in the South China Sea and joint long-range bomber patrols over the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, has strained Moscow’s ties with its long-time strategic partners India and Vietnam. The efficacy of much-vaunted multilateral organisations bringing Beijing and Moscow together, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or BRICS, has declined steadily. All this considered, it becomes clear that the obstacles standing in the way of further Sino-Russian alignment have been daunting enough to warrant scepticism about its future prospects.
Having put on the ‘sceptic’ hat to underline the enduring problems China and Russia have to contend with – in order to reiterate that Sino-Russian alignment is not something that can be taken for granted – I nonetheless completely agree with Michael Cox’s basic conclusions. In light of the aforementioned problems, it is nothing short of remarkable how much closer the Sino-Russian relationship has become, notwithstanding all predictions to the contrary. It bears emphasising that the intensification of bilateral relations throughout the last decade has been a somewhat one-sided affair, in that it has primarily been a story of Russia making seemingly unpalatable compromises and concessions to China. Nonetheless, there is no doubting that this relationship is now the strongest great-power partnership that exists outside the US alliance system.
The reasons for the continued dynamism of Sino-Russian rapprochement, particularly as regards the specific motivations of the Chinese and Russian leaderships, will be examined in the second part of this article.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.