Eastern viewpoints

The strategists in Beijing are debating the future of China’s long-term policy regarding alliances. 

Chinese discourse

This active debate was on display in a 2017 article series that appeared in Chinese Foreign Policy under the title: “Make an Alliance with China? Russian National Interests and the Likelihood of a China-Russia Alliance.” At the outset, the author suggests that the potential of a China-Russia alliance could be a transformative strategy.

Other significant Beijing strategists have favored this approach since “US containment invites China-Russia counter-containment”, the alliance could be “an effective tool” for coping with “American pressure.” The issue of Russia’s immense natural resource base is also considered quite relevant to Beijing’s future deliberations on the issue.

However, much of the above-mentioned article series is devoted to “pouring cold water” on the proposal to align China formally with Russia.

The alliance would not be viewed as a defensive reaction but rather as an offensive and aggressive step. On the other hand, the authors note that Russia hardly requires the assistance of Chinese military forces. Moreover, China’s conversion of economic power into military power is a relatively slow process resulting in a lag, even as its economic ascendance is more obvious. The author seems to imply that China’s continuing military weakness is an obstacle to a China-Russia alliance, perhaps because China is not seen as a sufficiently capable partner.

Nevertheless, the Chinese analysis is not entirely pessimistic regarding the prospects of a China-Russia formal alliance.

Indeed, the author comes around to concluding: “One can predict that Russia will become the most fundamental objective of China’s alliance-making”. The author explicitly suggests coordination between China and Russia on difficult diplomatic questions, such as the Iran and North Korean issues and the author predicts that “Russia’s rising power will enable it to increase its position within an alliance. The potential for a China-Russia alliance will increase in the future”.

A final point to consider is the author’s conclusion that “US strategic squeezing and containment has not yet reached a level that it is imperative for the two countries to react by forming an alliance”.

To be sure, this statement carries the implied threat that if Washington does seek to ramp up the “re-balance,” that one of Beijing’s possible responses will be to actively seek a more formalized military partnership with Moscow.

Chinese-Russian joint efforts to multipolar world and other key political issues

Neither China nor Russia wants an international order dominated by the USA alone. On a number of significant global issues, Chinese and Russian diplomats cooperate in opposition to the US positions. However, both insist that their partnership is not anti-US but rather a move towards a multipolar world. Both promote multilateralism while acknowledging its limitations. They have continued coordinated procedures in the United Nations as well as in many other international organizations.

In the political sphere, both China and Russia consider that international relations should be organized according to the key principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference into the inner affairs of the other states. These deeply entrenched values in Sino – Russian way of thinking are stemming from the historical Westphalian state order, nowadays re-confirmed in “Eastphalian world order”.

Both states officially support unanimously the multipolar world order. In the “new” cooperative time, since the end of the Cold War, China and Russia have jointly and separately expressed their antipathy against the American hegemony and unipolar world order, even by adopting “a joint declaration on a multipolar world and the establishment of a new international order” (joint letter to UN 1997).

Moreover, Chinese and Russian views on present global governance are very similar. Both see it as a Western concept, created for Western needs and with benefits for the West. Likewise, their approach to diplomacy, international institutions and organizations can be seen as more instrumental and guided to their own interests. Strengthening partnership between China and Russia undoubtedly increase the specific, global weight of Eurasia where China’s present “crown jewelry”, that is BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) is reaching its greatest success.

The development of the Russia-China relationship is of immense strategic importance to the Western powers and should therefore be watched closely by them. So far it seems that Putin enjoys strong domestic support in his second term of presidency and Xi Jinping has successfully consolidated power in the third year of his first presidency.

Both Xi and Putin are strong leaders that are likely to remain in office for a considerable time ahead. Thus, the conditions for a further strengthening of the Russia-China relationship are certainly present.

Whether China and Russia may consolidate their relationship in a tight military alliance depends largely on US policies in both Europe and the Asia-Pacific.

If the United States pushes too hard in the Middle East, Ukraine and NATO expansion toward Russia and if it rebalances too far against China in the Pacific, this may push China and Russia towards a formal (military) alliance even if that may not have been what they wanted in the first place.

The present political situation, where expanding sanctions and threats of various trade wars, even real military interference, have been proceeded by the US Administration, does not promise any easy future and is apt to wrap up ever-strengthening Sino-Russian military buildup.

On the other hand, the internal dynamics of the mutual Sino-Russian cooperation has reached such a critical mass in the last couple of years that this momentum will make an extensive impact to the whole cooperation process between the countries.

Both China and Russia oppose expansion of the NATO, which Russia views as encroaching too close to its borders. Chinese opposition to NATO expansion is partly out of solidarity but is also driven by its own fundamental security concerns. China is suspicious of NATO expansion because of a broader US strategy to contain rivals through alliances, including with Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

Both China and Russia supported the 1972 Soviet–US Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which they viewed as helpful in preventing the development of armaments that could threaten their nuclear deterrents and lead to a renewed arms race. Thus, both governments condemned the US’s withdrawal from the treaty in 2001. China and Russia have also worked closely to promote a treaty on the prevention of an arms race in outer space since 2002. This sphere has again become acute, when the US has left INF Treaty. China and Russia have jointly and separately condemned the US action.

In 2019, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries (1949-2019).

This anniversary year can be taken as “a benchmark” for taking a comprehensive overview of their bilateral relations, assessing the achievements and unresolved issues and considering a strategy for further interaction.

The present leaders of China and Russia have repeatedly stressed during their tens of bilateral meetings that no matter how the international situation was changing, the two countries would support each other’s efforts to safeguard their respective core interests, including preserving sovereignty, security and territorial integrity, which has made them trusted partners to each other in true sense.

Russia is clearly moving strategically into a political, military, economic and cultural alignment with China. The growing alignment is an entirely logical course of events as the two Eurasian giants are largely complimentary. China is seeking to unify the Eurasian land-mass for commercial reasons and is increasingly dependent upon Russian raw materials, agricultural supplies, transit corridors and certain technologies.