China – Russia, partners or allies
China – Russia relations are factually better than ever before but, as both parties notice, there is still significant potential for advancing practical cooperation in a broad range of areas. The Covid-19 pandemic that broke out in early 2020 has posed a challenge also to Moscow-Beijing relations, which have found extra need to coordinate their stances and courses of action even more closely.
In the current Russia-China partnership, “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era” upgraded in 2019, political and military strategic cooperation is more advanced, while trade, economic and investment cooperation lags behind. This imbalance is not only due to the fact that Russia is behind China economically but also to the objectives of the global development and positioning of the two countries.
The countries maintain a traditionally high level of military and military-technical cooperation, which is manifested in regular exchanges between military structures, joint military exercises and nowadays joint air patrolling over the Asia Pacific region. Russia and China are now working together to develop missile attack early warning systems (nuclear weapons), which indicates a high degree of mutual trust in sensitive areas.
In their exchange of new year greetings, late December 2020, Presidents Xi and Putin underlined “the unwavering development of China-Russia partnership”. Although these kinds of contacts usually are full of liturgical formulations, the message and purpose became clear. The present status between the two countries will be confirmed and further developed in coming years.
Presidents noticed that the two countries have actively taken the lead in international cooperation against Covid-19, promoted coordination between the Belt and Road Initiative and the Eurasian Economic Union and jointly celebrated the 75th anniversary of the victory of the World Anti-Fascist War (WWII) and the founding of the United Nations. As the year 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the China-Russia Treaty of Good-neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, the two sides will take the anniversary as an opportunity to further expand and deepen bilateral cooperation in a larger scope.
Although the coronavirus pandemic affected the traditionally intense schedule of the Russian-Chinese face-to-face contacts, the Presidents, ministers and other high-rank officials have maintained regular contacts and phone meetings. The parties have noticed that the US has continued to withdraw from international organizations, increased containment measures against the parties and caused military conflicts around the world, which moves are having destructive effects on global stability.
China and Russia have announced openly striving for multilateral and multipolar international system with multifaceted world order instead of American unipolarity with Western liberal political order and seeing their relationship as a strategic stabilizer. Collaboration within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and BRICS remains a priority for Russia and China. The Covid-19 pandemic has also highlighted the importance of developing cooperation in global healthcare within these two groups.
Commercial and economic cooperation
China is Russia’s largest trading partner, with the cross-border trade volume having grown for several consecutive years and reaching a record $111 billion at the end of 2019. According to official statistics, in 2020, the volume of Russian-Chinese trade exceeded $107.8 billion, having decreased by 2.9% amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Russia’s exports of food and agricultural products to China increased by 25 percent in 2020, trade between China and Russia in the agricultural sector broke a historical record and exceeded $5.55 billion. Russia more than doubled its meat exports and China has become the largest buyer of Russian meat.
In 2021, the Chinese authorities plan to intensify trade and economic cooperation with Russia in order to increase bilateral trade to $200 billion by 2024, the Ministry of Commerce of China stated in January 2021. China is interested in expanding economic contacts with Russia both at the central and interregional levels. Beijing seeks to implement large-scale strategic projects with Russia as well as to achieve cooperation in the field of science and innovation.
The Intergovernmental Russian-Chinese Commission for Investment Cooperation is processing six new projects, worth $20 billion in total, which may soon be added to a long list of Russia-China joint investment initiatives (currently covering about 70 projects with total value of $112 billion).
E-commerce may be the driver for expansion of Russian businesses in China. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba could be one of the main drivers to enhance business cooperation between the two countries. In 2019, Chinese Alibaba launched a joint venture with three Russian partners. According to the deal, it will allow Russian suppliers to reach 1.5 billion customers in China and globally.
Chinese technology giant Huawei is building a 5G network in Russia and announced a strategic partnership with Russia’s Sberbank to provide cloud services for Russian businesses in early March 2021. The clients of SberCloud-service are projected to range from large businesses to small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups.
The export of gas to China through the Power of Siberia gas pipeline continues to grow, also in 2020, when supplies regularly exceeded Gazprom’s daily contractual obligations. The agreement on gas supplies via the Power of Siberia pipeline was reached in 2014, with Russia’s Gazprom and China’s CNPC inking a 30-year contract. Russia is set to further increase supplies of piped gas to China, including via the Power of Siberia 2 project. The latter pipeline entered the design stage last year (2020) and will be capable of delivering 50 billion cubic meters of gas once finished while Gazprom becoming China’s biggest gas supplier.
BRI & EAEU & Meridian
The Russian brokered end of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (November 2020) has laid the basis for a major geopolitical transformation of the South Caucasus. While Russia has expanded its role and consolidated its position in its backyard, the primary importance lies in the fact that no Western powers were involved in that process.
Controlling the region would be important also for the US because the region has emerged as one of the most suitable routes for the extension of China’s Belt & Road Initiative into Europe. But the South Caucasus now under the Russian political influence and Chinese economic investment, is rapidly changing into a territory away from the reach of the US authority. Azerbaijan has particular importance for China–Central Asia–West Asia Economic Corridor, principally the Trans-Caucasus Transit Corridor (TCTC), that connects China to Europe via a network of railways, seaports, roads, and potentially pipelines. China is developing a trade route via Kazakhstan that crosses the Caspian from the Kazakh port of Aktau to Baku.
Trade connections between China and Europe are growing and maritime transport is indispensable for some types of cargo but if freight can be delivered by land, then land transport is much faster, and in most cases even cheaper. In the context of China’s BRI, there is already one land route from East Asia that leads to Europe through Russia: the renowned Trans-Siberian Railway, which crosses virtually all of Russia’s territory. It was integrated with BRI’s transportation system a long time ago.
Railways have a wide range of applications and are best suited to ship large volumes of goods. However, road transport is better suited to support a heavy flow of small freight shipments. The project for a motor vehicle route from China to Europe that passes through Russia has already been prepared and has been known for several years as the Shanghai-Hamburg Expressway; starting in China, it is supposed to go through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, and Poland, ending in Germany.
The Russian section of this motor vehicle highway is dubbed the “Meridian”. It is supposed to start from the Russian-Kazakhstani Sagarchin border crossing point and head in a northwest direction through the Russian Federation’s Orenburg, Samara, Saratov, Tambov, Lipetsk, Orel, Bryansk and Smolensk provinces. The Meridian will be about 2.000 kilometers long, while the total length of the Shanghai-Hamburg Expressway is about 8,500 kilometers. The highway will consist of both existing roads and new sections built to connect them into a unified route, which will reduce the time needed to deliver goods between the EU and China by about one fifth.
Besides the asphalt road itself, the Meridian highway requires extensive infrastructure to create conditions that are comfortable and safe for traffic. This infrastructure includes gas stations, motels, food service establishments, repair shops, stores for spare parts, etc. meaning that the Meridian road can be considered to be an enormous business center, bringing income to the economy at the federal and regional levels and creating plenty of jobs. The start of construction work on the “Meridian” is scheduled for 2021 and it is estimated that operations will begin for the expressway in 2024.
Beijing and Moscow could together reduce their vulnerability to Western sanctions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said in March 2021. They can reduce sanctions risks by strengthening technological independence, by switching to payments in national currencies and in world currencies, alternative to the dollar as well as moving away from the use of Western-controlled international payment systems.
Both Russia and China have been shifting away from the US dollar for trade. In 2020, the two countries switched to the euro, yuan and the ruble instead, while the share of the dollar in bilateral trade fell below 50 percent for the first time, the share of dollar going down to 46 percent. The 54 percent of non-dollar trade is made up of Chinese yuan (17 percent), the euro (30 percent) and the Russian ruble (7 percent). Movement away from the dollar can also be seen in Russia’s trade with other parts of the world, such as the European Union. Since 2016, trade between Moscow and the bloc has been mainly in Euros.
The Bank of Russia’s Financial Messaging System (SPFS) will underpin increasing volumes of trade between the two countries. The system is designed to allow financial institutions to communicate between each other, keeping transactions flowing. It is an analogue of SWIFT, a Western-made international payments system through which more than 30 million messages move each day. Although Russia’s Central Bank is among those represented on the oversight panel for SWIFT, there have been consistent calls in the US and EU to cut the country out of the network as part of escalating tensions.
As Washington is increasing sanctions pressure on its geopolitical competitors and using the US dollar as an instrument to promote its political agenda, China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran have announced need to come up with a new international currency to counterbalance the greenback’s hegemony. This is not the first time that Russia has called for fleeing the dollar and switching to national currencies: in July 2019 the two countries signed a deal to settle bilateral trade in their respective currencies, while in October 2019, a similar agreement was struck by Moscow and Ankara. A month earlier, the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) announced that the Islamic Republic and Russia had agreed to carry out all financial transactions with domestic money, adding that about 30 – 40% of mutual trade between Iran and Turkey had been settled in liras and rials and the rest in euros.
China is now pushing ahead with the internationalization of the yuan in the countries participating in the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Besides this, China has come up with a digital yuan project that may challenge the dollar’s hegemony in global trade, not in so far future. During its presidency of the eight-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2020, Russia actively advocated the development of an ecosystem for payments in national currencies within the bloc. Together with four observer states, the SCO bloc accounts for approximately half of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s GDP. For its part, the BRICS’s New Development Bank, is also seeking to focus on local currency lending. Delivering a speech in April 2020, the president of the bank, K.V. Kamath, noted that a quarter of the $15 billion in financial aid given in 2019 was in national currencies.
In January 2021, China started a test process of a digital renminbi (RMB or the yuan) in Shanghai, a virtual currency administered by the People’s Bank of China. Its impact and position as a means of payment and functioning in the currency market remains to be seen. It may be even a game changer in the international currency market within next few years.
More info of strategic importance of reserve currency is available in my blog “Dollar collapse – a complex issue” on March 1, 2021.
Energy cooperation, climate protection and space cooperation
Russia and China have a wide-range cooperation going in the overall energy sector. Besides massive fossil energy agreements (oil, gas and coal), the common interest sector is also a nuclear energy, where China, Russia and France have been clear world leaders for nearly two decades.
Paris Climate Accords and the climate protection in general have turned the public opinion in the West (first in Europe and now also in the US) as negative and punishing mood against the manufacturing industry (“smoke pipe industry”) and fossil energy use, while seeking fast ways to decarbonization and use of renewable energies (windmills, solar panels etc.). Now it seems that EU is moving nuclear energy totally aside focusing only to alternative, renewable energies like windmills and solar panels risking the security of electricity production as a whole in Europe.
China, Russia and India together represent over 50% world nuclear energy projects while the West has all but abandoned the technology long ago. Having signed several joint agreements on nuclear development and technology sharing over the past decade, China and Russia have become world leaders in nuclear power, not only in their own borders, but internationally as well, providing the technology widely across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America.
Cooperation between the partners is reaching even on the Moon. In July 2020, Russia’s Roscosmos and Chinese National Space Administrations (CNSA) announced on Russia-China Lunar Pact where they plan to build a joint research base on the Moon. Parties have signed a space cooperation program with six sections, including study of the Moon and the far space, space science and related technologies, satellites and their use, hardware components and space materials, cooperation in remote sensing of the earth and other issues.
Surprisingly, there is a long-term technological-commercial purpose behind this endeavor. China has become a leader in nuclear fusion development with aims to mine the moon for Helium 3 isotope (found in abundance in Lunar soil, but nearly totally absent on the Earth due to our magnetic field). When the inevitable fusion breakthroughs arise, experts estimate that about three truck-loads of this isotope shipped to the earth from the moon will supply one year of energy needs at current capacities.
The military strategic cooperation between Moscow and Beijing is turning from a bilateral component of Russia-China relations into a major geopolitical factor of global significance and the US-China confrontation reinforces the trend.
Further development between Russia and China seems to turn the present strategic partnership into radically deepened and closer military and political cooperation. Some military experts believe that the most likely scenario is the creation of a certain quasi-alliance based on political consensus that is not framed in a special agreement.
Military and political relations between the two countries have reached a level where even in the absence of a formal union, a potential adversary preparing an attack on one has to account for various joint response scenarios. Such strategic certainty will act as a deterrent for any hypothetical adversary and their allies. The deterioration of relations with Washington will further stimulate Beijing and Moscow to deepen and expand their collaboration in nuclear missiles, among other areas.
Russia and China retain their own approaches, which may differ on certain individual matters, yet the two states will remain united in their overall strategic assessment of the world order. The American factor plays an important role in their relations, primarily in the geostrategic and military-political terms. This factor, however, is neither a prerequisite, nor the driver of the bilateral cooperation. It does not define the overall essence of their relations.
Sino-Russian military-political partnership has already reached the level of “no-return” and therefore mutual benefits derived from close cooperation are so evident that both parties will go on the common way.
Ballistic missile early warning system (BMEWS)
President Putin announced at a session of the Valdai Club in December 2019 that Russia was assisting China to develop its national missile early warning radar system. The Russian leader said that the system would radically increase China’s defense capabilities because only the United States and Russia had such systems today. Putin’s statements did not reveal any detailed parameters of Russia’s participation in China’s project but it can be assumed that Russia is not factually building the system for China but is rather assisting China to develop its own system. Most likely, there are several separate contracts for technology development or transfer that have to be concluded with various Russian enterprises participating.
The early warning systems are the most complex and top-secret types of military equipment and cooperation in areas of such sensitivity suggests a high level of mutual trust that is usually typical for de facto allies.
Other military cooperation
In November 2018, Russia and China signed an agreement regarding the joint use of the GLONASS and BeiDou satellite navigation systems. Even though this is an example of civilian cooperation, navigation satellite groups could also be used for intelligence and as guidance systems for high-precision weapons. Russia delivered two S-400 regiments to China in December 2019. It also seems that China continues the purchases of 4G+ aircrafts (Su-35).
Regular contacts between the ministers of defense were used to advance international security forums launched by Moscow and Beijing in 2019 and 2020. In July 2019, it was reported that Russia and China were working on a new military cooperation agreement to replace the 1993 Agreement between the Russian and Chinese defense ministers. The agreement is expected to set forth new, more complex and advanced forms of military cooperation the two countries had transitioned to in the 21st century.
In 2019, the parties continued the regular joint exercises they had previously launched. In May, the latest Naval Interaction exercises were held in the Yellow Sea. In September, China joined Russia’s strategic command post exercise Center-2019. In October 2019, the latest anti-terrorist exercise of the units of the National Guard of Russia and the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force was held in the framework of Cooperation-2019. China’s military continued its active participation in the International Army Games. Long-range bomber patrolling in the Asia Pacific region has become a new high-prolife joint activity of the Russian and Chinese militaries, which patrolled off-shore in July 2019. Overall, 2019 -2020 was a period of relatively rapid development of bilateral military technical and military cooperation.
A separate research report of China-Russia military cooperation will be released later in this year.
China – Russia relations in the international context
The coronavirus pandemic unfolds China’s grip on Eurasia is strengthening. The persistence of increasing Western sanctions against Russia, the investments generated by China’s state-driven economy and the acceleration of the trend toward great power rivalry together suggest that Russia and Central Asia will continue to drift further into Beijing’s orbit.
Western claims that Russia’s increasing economic dependence on China will lead to the former’s “vassalage” are highly exaggerated. Although the economic component of Sino–Russian ties is a useful barometer for measuring the advancement of their strategic partnership, economic ties are not necessarily determinative of political or military relations. Given China’s rising power and continued tensions in Russia–West relations, Moscow has little option but to anchor its economy and foreign policy in entente-type relation with Beijing. Russia’s entente with China now serves as a power multiplier – a key mechanism through which Moscow can amplify its influence on the world stage.
Russia’s deepening partnership with China exhibits a mixed picture, featuring both instrumental and genuine elements. Moscow and Beijing have been brought together in recent years by a convergence of worldviews. They reject the notion that the expansion of the Washington-led global liberal order and the Brussels-centric European order can continue forever but see the world as a spectrum of multifaceted orders. Moscow’s declared “pivot to the east” (Putin’s Edicts 2012) is also reinforced by the perceived dynamism of rising Asian economies, contrasting with the supposed political dysfunction and moral corruption of a West in relative decline.
Western analysts have noticed that the rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing has occurred largely along “negative” lines, declaring their opposition to American hegemony but failing to offer a comprehensive set of alternative principles for world order.
I have drawn attention to this matter in my blog “New World Order” (Jan 25, 2021) on this website. Anyway, this issue is much wider and multifaceted than what the critics is saying. On the other hand, what is also being overlooked by Western analysts, is the internal dynamics and momentum of bilateral cooperation between China and Russia. The range and depth of partnership has reached “a level of no-return”.
China – Russia political challenge versus the US
According to analysis, many of the officials of the Biden administration come with a legacy of widely known Russo-phobic / anti-China attitude meaning that the new administration will find it a lot more difficult to give a positive spin to great power relations.
While the military aspect of tensions has never been less important, the US-China “trade-war” is expected to turn into a “war of military resources” (REE, strategic minerals, microchips, AI etc.). Russia is also sensing growing tensions with the US. The Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has recently said that that Moscow expects nothing good in relations with a “deeply hostile” US under the incoming administration of Joe Biden, adding further that “We are heading from bad to worse.”
World Economic Forum in Davos, in late January 2021, saw two really significant speeches with minimal or non-existent coverage across the Western media: the speeches by President Xi and President Putin. Xi was arguing powerfully for multilateralism as the only possible road map to deal with global challenges and stressed nothing substantial may be achieved if the inequality gap between North and South is not reduced.
Putin’s speech was unexpected, in similar way as his stunning intervention at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. Putin’s important reference to the ominous 1930s – “the inability and unwillingness to find substantive solutions to problems like this in the 20th century led to WWII catastrophe”. Putin amplified Xi’s earlier remarks, laying out three domains for reform starting with 1) economic development for all, 2) the prevention of the takeover of world policy by big tech giants saying “they are de facto competing with states”, and 3) a reform towards win-win international relations.
Xi and Putin’s speeches were de facto complementary – emphasizing sustainable, win-win economic development for all actors, especially across the Global South, coupled with the necessity of a new socio-political contract in international relations. This drive should be based on two pillars: sovereignty – that is, the good old Westphalian model and sustainable development propelled by techno-scientific progress.
Moscow and Beijing have paid great attention to their interaction within the United Nations, including coordination in the Security Council and the UN’s principal institutions and commissions, especially given the UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020.
The US pivot from anti-terrorist course towards great power competition
The Biden administration’s start has been contradictory and controversial. On the other hand, a renewal of the START nuclear arms treaty and the US return to Paris climate agreement have been positive features but on the other hand, increasing and hardening stakes in great power competition have accounted for tense and escalating international atmosphere.
Washington sees Russia and China as strategic competitors, even adversaries, and uses harsh instruments of geopolitical and economic containment against them. US-China relations have been deteriorating rapidly in recent years, which creates significant escalation risk for the entire world and specific threats for Moscow as well. Not since the Cold War has the US been so actively using strategic containment instruments (sanctions and others) against Russia and China than right now.
These profound changes have created new challenges for the two countries in terms of their strategic partnership but they have also created a number of opportunities. Given the common challenges, the two states are increasingly motivated to deepen their strategic collaboration, while expectations concerning their bilateral ties are growing.
Experts point to the opportunities that Russia-China cooperation will develop through the alignment of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the creation of the Greater Eurasian Partnership. The relevant agendas for deepening cooperation between the two countries within the SCO, BRICS, the RIC-format (Russia-India-China strategic triangle talks) and other venues are being developed. All these Sino-Russian endeavors aim to cope with the US tightening containment policy in Asia.
Biden’s recent decision to withdraw all American and NATO troops from Afghanistan may open new ways and means in the triangle game of great powers. I have released two articles on this situation “Afghanistan on Grand Chessboard” and “May 1, Afghanistan upside-down”.
The consensus on interconnectedness in Eurasia probably becomes also the specific agenda for trilateral cooperation with Europe. The Asia-Europe Meeting may be used for this purpose or a new venue may be set up to conduct the dialogue between Russia, China and the European Union. The recent investment pact of China-EU took place in this framework. On the other hand, Europe’s transatlantic relations (with the US) have strong impact on China-EU affairs as well as EU-Russia relations like in the case of Nord Stream 2 project.
China – Russia versus the US, military moves
The Biden administration’s resolution to replace “America First” with the “America back” inherently involves more military competition taking place both in South China Sea, Taiwan region, Black Sea and Baltic Sea.
China-Russia responses to the US moves indicate that both states are willing to challenge the US position. The US is preparing to shift its focus to East and South China Seas. This move is not only to reinforce the US military presence around China but also to strengthen its relations with regional allies, including Japan, South Korea, Australia and India. Russia and China, sensing increased US military pressure, have already begun to coordinate their own moves to challenge the US plans.
The joint aerial strategic patrol held by the air forces of Russia and China over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, in December 2020, makes a big statement in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. This type of joint operation is likely to become a routine affair. Increased China-Russia coordination comes against the immediate context of increasing US military activity in the region. Within last 2-3 months, the US naval ships made several moves (freedom of navigation operations, FONOPS) near the South China Sea, in the Taiwan Strait and patrolled the South China Sea conducting ad hoc live-fire drills.
Biden’s administration has aimed for reviving and strengthening two existing formats, Quad and Five Eyes, in using them as extra leverage in containing China in Asian theater.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, also known as the Quad) is an informal strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia and India that is maintained by talks between member countries. The dialogue was initiated in 2007 and was widely viewed as a response to increased Chinese economic and military power. The Five Eyes (FVEY) is an intelligence alliance (originated in WWII signals intelligence) comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The geopolitical containment of Beijing through the formation of a broad coalition of mostly liberal democratic states in the Indo-Pacific that oppose China remains one of the main areas of US pressure on China, with India seen as the main “counterbalance” to China. Beijing will strive to prevent the consolidation of the Indo-Pacific front, viewing it as a mechanism for China’s geopolitical entrapment. China and Russia will highly likely utilize multilateral cooperation modes, like SCO and RIC-format, in order to change these situational balancing forces supported by the US.
In his recent briefing to foreign military attaches in Moscow, Russia’s chief of General Staff of armed forces, General Valery Gerasimov, said that “The major increase in the number of NATO ships’ visits to the Black Sea, Baltic and Barents seas is alarming. Also, the number of flights by US strategic aircraft has grown. Training activities of the alliance troops are carried out with a pronounced anti-Russian orientation, in which non-block countries are increasingly involved. There has been an increase in provocative activity near the Russian borders.” According to Gerasimov, this shows that the US and the NATO alliance remains largely pre-disposed to confrontation with Russia and this confrontation is likely to become a dominant face of US relations with Russia and China during the Biden era.
It seems now clear that the Biden administration will pursue a dually competitive approach to both China and Russia. This will have some long-term geopolitical consequences. The diplomatic, political and economic relationship of two countries is likely to continue to improve and deepen. As Biden eyes a tougher approach on Russia in order to drive forwards his goals, it will create a strategic conundrum that continues to drive America’s two biggest adversaries together, and ultimately complicate his own foreign policy. Logically, you would have expected him to choose one or the other of the two to focus on – not a balancing act of both which puts them on the same team.
China – Russia versus the US, sanctions and trade war
To some degree, the American factor affects trade and economic cooperation between Russia and China. Due to the Western sanctions, Russia has become more inclined and willing in developing economic cooperation with Chinese partners. Russia could use the US-China trade war to expand its presence on the Chinese market with a range of important commercial items, primarily hydrocarbons and foods.
The US is actively trying to form a united Western trade and investment front against China, with the involvement of EU countries, Canada, Japan, South Korea and other allies and partners. In calling for “Western solidarity,” the US does not so much stress trade but instead it emphasizes common problems when dealing with Chinese partners – protecting intellectual property and hi-technology, opposing “unfair competition,” preventing China from penetrating into strategic economic sectors and collective opposition to “politically motivated” projects, among which the United States counts the BRI.
The “united Western front” against China creates indirect threats for Russia, too, since new mechanisms for coordinating Western approaches to Beijing could also be applied to Moscow. It is beneficial for Russia to advance a rapprochement between China and Europe, China and Japan, and China and other East Asian states, provided that Moscow also becomes part of the new multilateral agreements, including those that mitigate the negative consequences that the US sanctions have for Russia.
Russia – China warming relation in the Arctic has not been left unnoticed in the West. In a CSIS virtual panel on High North security issues in June 2020, Tobias Ellwood, the U.K.’s chair of the Defense Select Committee in the House of Commons, said that it is the largest threat to security in the region. “You can see this alliance developing, getting strong and stronger, and like I say, I really worry that there is this split, this schism, between the way that China and Russia will do international business, versus the West,” he added. Russia’s massive investments in infrastructure, facilities, equipment, regional capabilities and “Arctic special know-how” in the Arctic area indicate, how seriously Russia takes now this issue.
Summary of latest discourse…alliance or not
In last couple of years among Western pundits, the issue of Sino-Russian alliance has been a target of active discourse. In Chinese and Russian academic circles, views advocating such an alliance have existed for a long time but they are not mainstream. The governments of both countries have always adhered to the policy of strategic partnership rather than alliance and the issue of the alliance is not on the official agenda of China-Russia dialogue.
Historical view of Sino-Russian alliances
In history, China has formed alliances with Russia more than with any other country. This may sound surprising but the two countries have formed alliances three times, during the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China, respectively.
The first official alliance in the history of Sino-Russian relations was signed in 1896, the Li-Lobanov Treaty in Moscow also known as the Sino-Russian Secret Treaty. The Treaty was suggested by Russia in defense against Japan for a period of fifteen years but was left as unreal and dead letter from the word go.
In August 1945, the Chinese Nationalist government and the Soviet Union signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in Moscow. This was the second official alliance between the two countries, valid for a period of 30 years. The second Sino-Russian alliance was short-lived. In 1949, after the creation of the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union established diplomatic relations with the new Chinese government. It broke off relations with Chiang Kai-shek’s government, annulling the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in 1950.
In February of 1950, the Soviet Union and China signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance, which was to extend for a period of thirty years. This alliance was significantly different from two previous alliances, because of its comprehensive range covering political, economic, security, diplomatic and ideological interests, and it brought big practical benefits to China. Although this alliance lasted longer than the previous ones, cracks in the relationship began to appear and the alliance existed in name only. In the period of turbulence in 1960s and -70s the alliance was completely meaningless. In 1980, when the term of the alliance was reached, it was not extended.
Partnership instead of alliance
Today both the Chinese and Russian administrations insist on the policy of non-alliance and prefer a high-level partnership policy instead. Since the establishment of Sino-Russian diplomatic relations in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two countries have officially established the coequal partnership policy. This topic is analyzed in details here on this website, while other particular features of Sino-Russian relationship are discussed here and here.
China-Russia partnership is enlarging and deepening in parallel with growing tension in respect of the US. As said above, the status of the present relation seems to be a certain quasi-alliance (entente) based on political consensus and primarily on coordinated military cooperation. Now this cooperation covers even the most sensitive part of military capability, that of nuclear weapons.
China-Russia strategic partnership of today
The Sino-Russian partnership has become a peer competitor to the US, now in the most important capability sector – in the military capability. This state of affairs is beginning slowly to be realized even among the Western experts, mainly in the US military circles.
As to the alliance issue, the conclusion is simple thus far. China and Russia will maintain a high-level strategic partnership, take full use of the possibilities it contains and leave the door open to alliance formation. Under the condition that international situation continues to deteriorate and strategic and military security threats are likely to increase, there will be a certain critical point, where the alliance becomes a practical need for China and Russia.