The 2010s were especially tumultuous times for the world, with it facing new challenges to international order and stability. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, its successor, continuously challenged existing international norms and involved itself in a growing rivalry with the West that culminated in the 2014 Crimean annexation and Russia’s international isolation. At the same time, Russia’s increasingly assertive largest neighbour fuelled global concerns of a growing threat to the world order. Under these circumstances, pressure from the West kick-started the development of Sino-Russian bilateral relations at an astounding pace. Historically, due to the Sino-centric nature of Imperial China’s interactions with the outside world, establishing trade and diplomatic ties with China was a daunting task for Russia. In 1567, the first recorded Russian delegation, led by two Cossacks, Petrov and Yallyshev, reached the Chinese imperial capital but, having no presents, could not see the “Son of Heaven”. In turn, they were given a letter addressed to the ruler of Russia that Russian intellectuals could not decipher due to a very limited knowledge of the Chinese language.[i] Only after more than a century, with the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, the foundations for bilateral trade and diplomatic ties were laid that were later solidified with the 1727 Treaty of Kyakhta. However, in the centuries that followed, a weakened China came under the threat of a modernising Russia that resulted in the Chinese so-called “unequal treaties” that ceded China’s North-eastern border regions to Russia (the 1858 Treaty of Aigun and the 1860 Treaty of Peking).
In late modern history, the “rollercoaster-like” Sino-Russian relations balanced between two extremes: both countries began as the staunchest ideology-bound allies that turned into fierce rivals with occasional military confrontations. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, both countries began on a path towards the normalisation of their fragile ties – a relic of the Sino-Soviet Split. Russia and China signed the Strategic Partnership agreement in 1996 that marked one of the first steps towards closer cooperation. Numerous agreements followed that aimed at solving long-standing issues and took the relationship to new heights.
The two countries share a 4300km-long border that makes interactions between them unavoidable and essential for maintaining regional peace and stability. Sino-Russian bilateral ties are often described with a Chinese saying “和则两利，斗则俱伤” (peaceful coexistence benefits both whereas mutual confrontation would hurt equally). While both countries are focusing on their economic relations with the West, a growing confrontation with the West, as well as Russia’s isolation due to the 2014 Crimean annexation, brought China and Russia even closer together. The strengthening of Sino-Russian economic, security and political ties has led the West to predicting that both countries are on a path of becoming a powerful formal alliance that would have significantly negative consequences for the West and its collective security structure. However, a deeper analysis paints a different picture: internal contradictions and a growing clash of interests reveal the limitations of such growing ties. Despite a show of close friendship between the political leaderships, weak people-to-people ties, growing internal unease within the SCO and worsening economic inequality are significant “limiting factors” that block the path towards a full alliance. On the surface, there is no doubt that the Sino-Russian ties have reached a golden age, but is it really on the path towards a full alliance, or is it merely a “Partnership of Convenience”?
“Keeping Up with the Handshakes”: the Sad Reality of Actual Economic and Energy Cooperation
Russia’s “Pivot to the East” strategy launched in the first decade of the 21st century, but noticeably intensified and broadened after the 2014 Crimean annexation to deepen not only economic but also political links. There are several factors that accelerated Russia’s turn to the East and particularly to China for help:
1. Russia was vulnerable to the West-imposed sanctions due to its heavy reliance on the Western markets. A diversification of its trade relations with its economically-advanced East Asian neighbours was seen as a rational choice that would benefit Russia’s weakening economy.
2. China is an ideologically close partner that shares several common values, authoritarian style of governance, view of the international order, resistance to domestic democratisation, etc.
3. Growing Chinese economic might and its investment strategy, as compared with the Western “strings attached” one, is more attractive because it does not put pressure on its recipients to adopt its own world view and values.
4. East Asia was seen as a key region that could help to prevent/override Russia’s slow decline (both geopolitical and economic)
5. Russia’s Far East region has a lot of potential but it is noticeably lagging from the rest of the country both in terms of economic and societal development. Therefore, this region’s development is one of the main priorities.
Since the Russian shift in its focus to the East, high-level meetings between the Russian and Chinese governments are frequently held, usually including discussions of their trade relations and culminating in the signing of numerous agreements. However, as the years passed, this strategy did not result in significant developmental progress. Despite this close relationship between the Zhongnanhai and the Kremlin, interactions on the political level and the push for numerous joint projects do not reflect the actual situation and hide an existing lack of trust between Chinese and Russian investors. In fact, given political over-enthusiasm, the actual development of Russia’s Far East region did not accelerate and produce palpable results; quite to the contrary, the overall Sino-Russian trade imbalance widened, resulting in a growing unease and sense of insecurity in Russia. Historically, Russia, the Soviet Union’s successor, held the status of a world super power with the US as its only viable rival, therefore, it is understandable why it is difficult for Russia to accept its role as a “junior partner” that holds very limited economic leverage vis-à-vis China.
The Value of Russian trade with China (2007-2019)
As reflected in the statistics above, the disparity in Russo-Chinese trade is evident. Overall, Sino-Russian trade is well-balanced: since 2018, the Russian trade balance with China was positive (+$2.66B in 2019). Russian exports to China are predominantly raw materials, while China’s exports are mainly manufactured products. While bilateral trade is not an issue as compared with the Sino-US trade disputes, the stark difference of the countries’ economic might fuels Russia’s sense of insecurity and inequality when dealing with China. The PRC has increasingly evident economic leverage over Russia: it holds a considerable share of total Russian trade, whereas Russia is not even among the TOP 5 trade partners of China. This inequality is not beneficial for the development of bilateral ties: higher reliance on trade results in a stronger sense of insecurity and limits the freedom of making independent economic choices, especially during bilateral business negotiations. In case of Russia, this inequality and Russia’s position as a “junior partner” and China’s natural resources’ “mine” has negative consequences, such as a growing sense of insecurity, change of societal attitudes, diminishing influence in the world and difficulties in preserving its equal status. Furthermore, this fundamental issue is reflected in cooperation spheres such as the Sino-Russian energy cooperation.
In terms of the Sino-Russian energy cooperation, undeniable progress has been made since the 2000s. In 2014, Russia and China signed the large-scale 30-year “Power of Siberia” trade deal worth $400 billion that was hailed by Vladimir Putin as a “landmark” energy deal between China and Russia.[i] The deal was made amidst the 2014 Crimean crisis and Russia’s growing international isolation that had considerable influence on the deal. According to Overland and Kubayeva, the fact that negotiations concluded relatively quickly and without any major setbacks was a result of Russia making several concessions to China that include lower pricing. Russia undoubtedly benefitted from this deal, however, China held more leverage due to the ongoing Russian isolation and Western sanctions. China’s economic pragmatism is dominant in the Sino-Russian energy cooperation and the Chinese side would not agree to sign a deal that would not economically benefit China and maximise its profits. In other words, China is unwilling to sign a deal that would be a merely symbolic demonstration of their strengthening bilateral ties. Russia, in turn, is in need of massive energy deals and investments from China, however, at the same time, it is also aware of the negative side of this ongoing pursuit: over-reliance on a single buyer of its gas and oil resources (Russia’s increasingly active dialogue with Japan is also aimed at reducing over-reliance on China). Russia’s unwillingness to provide China with preferential treatment is exemplified by the 2014 Vankorneft agreement between Russia’s Rosneft and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). After two years of failures to reach a final agreement, the deal to sell 10% of Vankorneft’s shares was terminated. The main reason behind this was a difference in both sides’ expectations.[ii] Chinese demands included lower pricing, more CNPC members on the company’s executive board, as well as the right to participate in drilling processes. Russia, on the other hand, had hoped to have the CNPC as a junior partner and, at the same time, retain full management of the company. In 2016, 23.9% of the shares were sold to a consortium of Indian companies.[iii] The sale of shares to a regional rival of China was covered negatively by Chinese domestic media and certainly did not add more trust and confidence to the future development of the Sino-Russian ties.
There is no doubt that Sino-Russian energy cooperation and trade ties improved since the beginning of their rapprochement. But, behind the pompous ceremonies and numerous impressively-sounding statements, the reality is different when it comes to the actual realisation of plans. Each meeting between Xi and Putin is normally followed by the signing of numerous Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) worth millions of dollars. Furthermore, as stated by Vasilii Nosov, the signing of numerous MoU’s is a symbol of political rapprochement and a political achievement at the highest levels. But the reality is different: these MoUs often fail to bear any fruits and that is due to the divergence in interests of the politicians and investors who are not obliged to cooperate only based on the MoU.[iv] A representative example of difficulties that both countries face regarding the realisation of their joint projects is reflected in the construction of the Blagoveshchensk-Heihe Bridge that links both countries. The 1,080m long bridge is the first bridge that allows the crossing of vehicles that would further promote cross-border trade. It was first proposed in 1988 (the agreement was signed in 1993), however, the actual construction only began in 2016 and was completed at the end of 2020[v] (but the bridge remains closed). Overall, it took more than 27 years to construct a bridge between two countries, this symbolises the extent of problems that joint Sino-Russian projects face and a clear lack of investor enthusiasm from both sides.
The attempts to address the underdevelopment of Russia’s Far East region and attract foreign investment resulted in the establishment of the Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and Advanced Special Economic Zones (ASEZ). However, these special zones did not significantly raise Chinese investors’ interest in investing in the Far East as compared with the more developed Russian regions. Low interest in the Far East region is a historical tendency shared by the Chinese investors. For example, in 2007, Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) into the Far East accounted for only 2% of their total FDI in Russia[vi]. Furthermore, due to “red tape” issues, underdeveloped infrastructure and a lack of an effective strategy for these SEZs, numerous joint projects are often stuck at the early stages and fail to be completed. With regards to the investment environment in Russia, Chinese analytical reports commonly identify several key issues that affect the trust and willingness to cooperate in long-term planning in the Russian Far East. Zheng Xueping, a Russia-focused researcher from Dalian University of Business Administration argues that there are numerous factors that hinder the development of closer ties between the two countries’ investors:[vii]
Despite both governments’ enthusiasm, there is a clear lack of understanding and trust among Russian and Chinese investors that is reflected in the lack of tangible progress in the development of Russia’s Far East.
The underdevelopment of the Russian Far East region is a long-standing issue that is now seen as a growing threat to national security and stability. This region is significantly underdeveloped and underpopulated compared to Western Russia. Russia’s “Pivot to the East” strategy is mainly aimed at reviving this region, and the focus on China, its largest and the most powerful neighbour, is a rational choice. However, Russia’s inability to adequately manage and supply the region resulted in a growing reliance on China.
Trade statistics of the Russia’s Far East region (2018). Source: Deloitte CIS Research Centre[viii]
China borders 4 out of 11 federal subjects of the Far Eastern Federal District. In some of the constituencies, reliance on China is overwhelming (in Khabarovsk Krai, imports from China accounted for 59.4%, Amur Oblast – 83.5%[ix]). This situation brings numerous issues that include growing Chinese economic leverage in the region, a changing attitude of the local population, perceptions of China as a growing threat that could annex some portions of the economically and politically weak region. Despite the fact that China’s economic footprint is still relatively minimal in the region, the concerns of “The Yellow Peril” are occasionally shared not only among the population of the region but across the country as well.
The Disconnect between the Kremlin and its Population: The Threat of a “Growing Dragon” at the Border
One of the core reasons behind Russia’s turn to the East was the issue of the socially and economically underdeveloped Far East region that lagged behind its Asian neighbours. To address this national security concern, the Ministry of Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic was established in 2012. Among the other East Asian neighbours, cooperation with China was seen as the most effective option that would aid the development of the region. However, intensified bilateral interactions did not bring palpable change to the local population’s perceptions of its powerful neighbour. The 4,200km-long border has long been a source of insecurity for the local Russian population: Russia’s underdeveloped and underpopulated regions draw a sharp contrast with the much more densely populated and economically well-performing Chinese border regions. Several decades ago, the Kremlin was much more uneasy about China’s growing power vis-à-vis Russia. More recently, Russian political circles are more positive towards China, however, the perception of “the Yellow Peril” remains prominent among the population and occasionally appears on the media.[x] This growing concern is based on:
1. Over-reliance of trade with China in neighbouring Russian regions due to the Russian government’s inability to adequately supply and manage the region. Some of the regions became over-reliant on Chinese products and trade activity: Chinese manufactured goods often dominate the market in those regions.
2. Growing Chinese diaspora in the region. This involves growing fears fuelled by (still insignificant) Chinese worker migration into the Russian Far East region. As stated by Alexeeva, “the Russian Far East and the provinces of north-eastern China have become increasingly complementary. The Russians exchange their raw materials and natural resources for food products, consumer goods and abundant Chinese labour that is always available and not subject to competition.”[xi] Even though Chinese migration to the Russian regions is not significant, any proposed government plans that include the relocation of the Chinese workforce into the region still fuel the Russian population’s fears of Chinese expansionism. This resulted in growing anti-Chinese sentiments and increasingly frequent protests against the Russian government’s plans regarding Chinese economic presence in the country. However, the perception of China as a potential threat is not limited to the bordering regions. In 2019, a protest erupted in Omsk in which the local population demanded a withdrawal of government’s plans to rent arable land to a Chinese agricultural conglomerate and to build housing for a few thousand Chinese workers.
Anti-Chinese protests in Omsk. Source: Deutsche Welle[xii]
The local authorities’ plans to address economic underperformance and regional depopulation issues through the relocation of Chinese workers were mostly withdrawn due to public backlash. A recent example of the public’s negative attitude towards Chinese investments is reflected in the anti-government protests regarding a potential land rental to a Chinese company that would build an agro-industrial park in Chuvashia. The local population opposed the plan and emphasised that “our own farmers and large households do not have enough land for themselves.”[xiii] Similar protests occurred in the past: Nizhniy Novgorod protests in 2006, Zabaykalskiy Krai protests in 2015 etc.). These are examples of common concerns among the public:
How would the authorities be able to effectively observe that tenants would abide by Russian regulations, especially phytosanitary regulations?
- Why in the proposed deals, the Russian side often holds less than 50% of shares that makes them lose the management power?
- After expiration of the rental contract, what would the local authorities do if the Chinese farmers would decide to stay and ask the Chinese government for permission to remain in Russia?
In the context of the Sino-Russian closer-than-ever political ties, the situation of public perceptions of each other is multifaceted. As the survey, that was conducted in Russia, below suggests, since 2006, a significant improvement of Russians’ attitude towards China has been seen. Russian public perception of China has become increasingly positive. The West-imposed sanctions and isolation since 2014 have resulted in a dramatic rise of China’s standing in the survey.
Source: Levada Centre[xiv]
Since 2006, the Chinese Global Times news portal conducts its annual public survey on public perceptions of the foreign countries and their importance to China. While the US topped the charts since the 2006, there has been an increase in Russia’s standing and it is evident that the population is aware of the strengthening of Sino-Russian bilateral ties and Russia’s importance to China.
Source: Global Times Research Centre (环球时报舆情调查中心)[xv]
It is important to note that with regards to the question “Which country do you like the most?”, Chinese respondents overwhelmingly chose China (the top choice since 2006, 58.5% in 2019). Interestingly, while the US and Australia often appear in the results, Russia is almost always off the charts except the 2019 survey in which it received 4.7%. Both surveys indicate a positive change of societal attitudes, however it is likely influenced by the political environment and government-to-government relations. Culturally, both countries have significant differences and, apart from the economic and political achievements, negative attitudes, as reflected by both countries’ media, remain. Occasionally emerging negative media articles in both countries, a fear of everything “Chinese” in Russia during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Chinese public backlash over Vladivostok are only a few examples that signify the fragility of the ties between the societies.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO): An Organisation with a Diminished Potential
Despite numerous differences, Sino-Russian bilateral relations are based on common security threats, including a growing rivalry with the West, regional extremism, terrorism and politically unstable neighbours. In order to address the disputes among neighbours, the “Shanghai Five” (China, Kazakhstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) multilateral forum was created in 1996 to reduce long-standing tensions and territorial disputes between the members and to promote stability in the region. In 2001, in order to address the growing unconventional threats in the region, this multilateral setting was further expanded with the inclusion of Uzbekistan to become the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The scope of cooperation expanded: for example, in the sphere of military cooperation, the SCO set a focus on countering non-traditional threats (so-called eradication of the “three evils”: terrorism, separatism and extremism). The SCO was seen as potentially capable to further expand and become a viable rival to the West and its security architecture. The organisation was relatively successful in promoting friendly neighbourly relations in Central Asia that used to be a hotspot for tensions and instability. Security cooperation is the most advanced part of SCO cooperation. With the help of SCO-initiated joint military exercises, Sino-Russian military ties strengthened and resulted in China joining Russian-organised military drills. The choice of location for the joint exercises (especially the Sino-Russian joint naval exercises) has undeniably raised tensions and stoked unease among regional powers. The 2019 joint naval exercise involving China, Russia and Iran is a recent trend that indicates that the rivalry with the West is pushing such countries as Iran and Pakistan closer to an alternative, non-Western bloc of countries.
Apart from highlighting the SCO’s vast potential, Chinese academia also highlights several differences in Chinese and Russian expectations and strategic gains with regards to the SCO development[xvii]. In Xiao Bin’s view, in the early stages of the development of the SCO, security concerns were the main driving force of Russia’s involvement in the organisation. However, in recent years Russia is increasingly treating the SCO as its foreign policy tool, therefore its cooperation with the SCO members is based on Russia’s personal interests. China, on the other hand, treats the SCO as an effective tool to promote its global economic strategies and to maintain stability in Central Asia that is essential to its energy security. But it is becoming an increasing burden for China to maintain the SCO’s relevance: without China’s active push to promote the SCO, Russia’s focus would instead turn to the development of its Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). This particular scenario would result in a deadlock within the SCO and might fuel the growth of Sino-Russian rivalry. With the use of the CSTO and the EEU, Russia tries to constrain Chinese growing economic, political and cultural influence in the region. Numerous Chinese initiatives within the SCO, such as the establishment of a development bank and other economic tools to develop a united economic sphere, have been met with objections by Russia (the withdrawal of such plans was called a “victory” in Russian media[xviii]). The already narrowing common ground for cooperation is further worsened by the inclusion of India and Pakistan as new members of the SCO in 2017. This particular enlargement can be seen as a catalyst for fragmentation within the organisation internally: India is one of China’s main regional rivals that maintains close ties with Russia, whereas Pakistan is a close Chinese partner and archenemy of India. The SCO positively affected the strengthening of Sino-Russian ties, however, the recent enlargement greatly diminished such points of cooperation. The organisational effectiveness is greatly reduced with the inclusion of India and Pakistan; therefore, it is unlikely that the SCO would see any major reform or integration due to potential difficulties in building consensus. Sino-Russian military cooperation under SCO programmes might not evolve and remain very limited to low-scale SCO Peace Missions. Ultimately, a potential point of contention for Sino-Russian ties would be a by-product of the most recent enlargement; in other words, the SCO will automatically become dragged into the issues of the South Asia hotspot, involving two nuclear-armed states. This is a major problem for China that tried to remain uninvolved in other countries’ regional conflicts.
Vladivostok: A Contentious Relic of China’s “Century of Humiliation”
The Russian city of Vladivostok (Chinese historical name: Haishenwai 海参崴) is the most recent example of Chinese society’s sensitivity with regards to China’s “Century of Humiliation” and, more importantly, a huge disconnect between the Chinese leadership’s conveyed attitudes and the Chinese public’s feelings toward Russia. The city of Vladivostok and other adjacent territories used to be controlled by the Qing Dynasty of China until the region was ceded to the Empire of Russia under the 1860 Treaty of Beijing. This being a part of numerous so-called unequal treaties that greatly weakened the Imperial China, belongs to a time period known as the “Century of Humiliation” that remains an extremely sensitive issue for the Chinese nation. Since the founding of the PRC, the Chinese leadership continuously emphasised that the “nation’s soil” was lost due to the coercive actions that led to signing of the unequal treaties and it is the government’s duty to “liberate” those regions. However, despite several Sino-Soviet border skirmishes, no major military conflict occurred between Russia and China. In the 2000s, Sino-Russian border demarcation was completed and, therefore, no claims were laid to any of the current Russian regions. At the highest levels, this issue is seen as already resolved and that Vladivostok is an integral part of Russia. But, as recent events unfolded, it is not the case for the Chinese society that is becoming increasingly nationalistic. On July 2, the Russian Embassy in China posted a commemorative message regarding the 160th Anniversary of Vladivostok on their official Weibo channel.
The post: “Today is the 160th anniversary of the founding of Vladivostok. The history of this city started in 1860 when the Russians constructed a military port called “Vladivostok” (meaning “To rule the East”). In the end of the 19th century, Vladivostok developed into an industrial city with a large port that stations an important Asia-Pacific Russian Navy base.”[xix]
This post has ignited a huge backlash within the society involving a number of diplomats and prominent journalists who shared their opinions online. This extremely sensitive issue resulted in a wave of criticisms on the internet with a clear anti-Russian sentiment. A well-known Chinese journalist Hu Xi (胡锡) published a commentary (that was published in the Chinese version of Sina News under the “Military Affairs” category) regarding the Russian embassy’s post.[xx] Hu openly criticised the Russian embassy’s decision to publish the Vladivostok-related post that is a highly sensitive matter to Chinese society, especially the north-eastern population. According to the author, the translation of Vladivostok as “To rule the East” along with emphasis that the city was established by Russians, “led to huge resentment among the Chinese nation and offended their feelings”. In his commentary, Hu covered the historical background of Tsarist Russia’s invasion and occupation of Vladivostok region, emphasising that Tsarist Russia was “the country that occupied the biggest part of Chinese soil in modern history.” However, Hu Xi acknowledges that Vladivostok is an undeniable part of Russia and that Chinese nationalists must get used to this fact. According to Hu, this situation is harmful to Sino-Russian ties and only plays into US interests to damage those ties:
“The Sino-Russian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination in the New Era enables both countries to count on each other’s help in complicated international affairs. (…) The US yearns to distance the two countries, their dream is to see Russia and China suddenly falling out with each other, this situation would be a god-sent gift of the century for the US. [translation]”21
Chinese sensitivity towards Vladivostok is not limited to this recent outrage. It also has a political factor that is best reflected in Chinese-produced maps.
In the official Chinese maps[xxi], The Chinese homophonic translation of “Vladivostok” is usually followed by the historical Chinese name of the city (Haishenwai). This is an ambiguous situation that is not a usual occurrence: there are only a few other similar dual-language uses (another example is another Russian city Blagoveshchensk (Hailanpao) that historically used to be ruled by the Qing China). Hu Xi noted that Russia tried to have the Chinese name removed from the official maps several times; however, the Chinese government refused.
India, being in the middle of a heated territorial dispute with China, was the most vocal critic of this news, stating that China is once again expanding its already long list of territorial disputes with its neighbours. Indian news outlets were quick to label this as a new territorial claim and the potential dangers of a rapidly growing Chinese ultra-nationalism. It is, however, misleading as the Chinese government did not officially comment on this issue. Furthermore, while several prominent journalists and even diplomats criticised the Russian embassy’s post and its wording that “hurts Chinese feelings”, they, however, reiterate the stance that Vladivostok is an undeniable part of Russia. However, given the fact that the basis of all ongoing Chinese territorial claims is “historical injustice”, the case of Vladivostok remains a potential point of contention between Russia and China. Interestingly, the coverage of this event was relatively passive in Russia. The Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation did not provide a comment on Vladivostok and this indicates careful calculations made by both the Kremlin and the Zhongnanhai. Bringing this issue to the top levels would undoubtedly affect the bilateral ties.
In the background of significantly strengthened bilateral ties and emphasis of both leaders’ friendship and frequent meetings, the Chinese society’s recent backlash and anti-Russian sentiments with regards to Vladivostok indicate a growing disparity between the government and the public. In other words, political ties are strengthening much faster than the people-to-people ties, which are more complicated and darkened by historical issues and Russia’s role in the “Century of Humiliation”. Even though there are absolutely no hints that China wants to claim its historical region, the recent issue with the embassy as well as “special treatment” of Vladivostok and a few other former Chinese cities in official maps create an ambiguous situation and add more doubts to an already growing fear shared by Russians in the Far East region regarding China’s growing influence and assertiveness.
Conclusions: The Sino-Russian “Partnership of Convenience” is Unlikely to Develop into a Full Alliance
The concerns shared by the West with regards to a potential full military alliance between Russia and China are not groundless. Given both countries’ complicated history that was dominated by both friendship and rivalry, spectacular progress has been made in rapprochement between Russia and China since the fall of the Soviet Union. In the first decade of the 21st century, Russia was focused on its relations with the West whereas China was not prioritised. However, souring relations and economic struggles forced Russia to seek new partners and East Asia was a logical choice due to the advanced economies of several of its neighbours. China’s astounding economic growth and stable development have attracted Russia’s attention. The 2014 Crimean annexation further accelerated Russia’s “Pivot to the East” strategy with the aim to develop its Far East region, a vast region that is well behind the Western part of Russia in terms of development. Despite economic considerations, the geopolitical factor also plays a considerable role in both countries’ rapprochement. Deepening Sino-Western and Russo-Western rivalries brought both countries together. Both countries share numerous advantages of their close cooperation:
Both countries have influence on each other’s security and development environment.
Both Russia and China share numerous similar strategic views among the world powers that would allow them to balance the international system and to construct a new shape for the existing international order.
1. Being permanent members of the UNSC, China and Russia can coordinate their actions and enhance the promotion of their common goals.
2. In terms of development, China and Russia possess a strong ability to complement each other.
3. Russia and China are designated as major strategic rivals by the US, therefore joint cooperation to resolve such strategic encirclement is an essential strategic decision.
On the surface, significant progress and multidimensional cooperation would suggest that the countries are moving towards establishing a full military alliance. However, on a deeper level, new and historical frictions seem to slowly resurface. While Russia and China do have numerous common interests that would complement each other, they also have more than a few points of friction that stand firmly in the way of their pitted path towards a more formal partnership setting.
Sino-Russian bilateral ties will continue to raise concerns for the West due to their closer-than-ever cooperation. However, behind pompous ceremonies and government-to-government demonstrations of a strong friendship, actual economic, political and geostrategic progress casts doubts on both countries’ ability to forge a formal alliance. Sino-Russian bilateral ties possess inherent limitations that are not found in the US formal alliances with its allies. While the deepening of Sino-Russian relations is a worrying trend, it is highly unlikely that both countries are moving towards a full alliance. Given their different objectives and perceived roles in the international order, it seems that both countries are merely bound by a “partnership of convenience” that provides them with certain economic and political benefits for the time being.