With U.S.-Russian confrontation over Ukraine at high pitch, and a summit between the Russian and Chinese leaders looming this weekend at the Beijing Olympics, many wonder how China might respond to the rising military tensions between Washington and Moscow. Indeed, as America’s competition with these two major powers expands simultaneously, the Russia-China relationship matters for the United States to an extent not seen for decades. Understanding its scope and limits is therefore critical to U.S. policymakers.
In Russia’s standoff with the West over European security, Chinese diplomatic rhetoric has been “firmly in Russia’s corner,” as The Washington Post put it recently. This has led analysts to speculate both about China’s support for a Russian invasion of Ukraine and about China’s possible use of war in Europe to launch a military operation of its own. Such scenarios put emphasis on bellicosity as a defining feature of Sino-Russian ties; however, China has few incentives to welcome war in Europe, as the resulting upheaval could jeopardize its key interests, not least of them economic.
More broadly, Beijing and Moscow’s increasingly close relationship has emerged from a mutual commitment to non-aggression—and to not threatening one another’s important interests—that allows each government to focus on its strategic aims. Whether the arrangement is sustainable over the long-term, which some have doubted, appears remote from current events in Ukraine or elsewhere. Washington can develop strategies to manage the Russia-China relationship and should be able to affect each government’s calculus in supporting the other to some extent. But, for now, the Russia-China alignment is here to stay.
Chinese Responses to Ukraine Crisis
Perhaps the most visible recent example of the two countries’ political cooperation is China’s defense of Russia’s demand for a halt to NATO expansion and more general reiteration of Russia’s key talking points on the matter. While Moscow’s veto in the United Nations Security Council would have been adequate to thwart any U.N. action over its implicit military threat to Ukraine, Beijing’s backing prevents unified U.N. condemnation and lends Russia a degree of legitimacy among governments outside America’s global alliance networks. Symbolically, for China’s President Xi Jinping the scheduled Feb. 4 meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, will be his first in-person summit with a fellow head of state in almost two years.
The geopolitical implications of the Ukraine crisis for Beijing have been a focus of intense speculation. Some observers suggest that Xi would back a Russian invasion but prefers that it occur after the Olympics. Others fear that China might exploit a military operation by the Kremlin to attack Taiwan simultaneously and present America with a “nightmare scenario” of war in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Yet others warn that, deliberately or not, Moscow and Beijing are jointly putting considerable pressure on NATO member Lithuania—the former through its troop deployments in neighboring Belarus, the latter with an import ban in retaliation for Lithuania’s agreement to host a Taiwan representative office (under that name rather than “Taipei,” Taiwan’s capital, which the United States and others have used to limit China’s ire).
There are also China watchers who see greater caution and attempts at a balancing act in Beijing’s approach to events surrounding Ukraine. They have pointed out, for example, that China does not recognize Crimea as Russian territory (as Moscow does not recognize some of China’s claims in the South China Sea) and that China has cultivated certain commercial interests in Ukraine, such as military technology, as well as agriculture and infrastructure for its Belt and Road Initiative, and hence would be unlikely to welcome war there.
More generally, China’s government has often assigned high priority to economic growth as a source of political legitimacy, so the possible disruptions for the global economy (and Chinese firms) that could result from a Russian invasion of Ukraine—especially sanctions affecting Russia’s banking sector or an energy market shock—may seem unattractive for China’s leaders as they manage their economy’s pandemic recovery. Earlier this year, a Chinese Communist Party official wrote that maintaining economic stability was “crucial” in advance of a forthcoming Party congress, at which observers expect Xi to pursue a third term as president.
Allied or Not, and What to Do About It
These discussions fit into longer-term American debates surrounding Russia’s relationship with China. Though few U.S. observers would call Moscow’s current ties to Beijing an alliance, some analysts argue that a “three-decade-old nightmare” has become reality as “Beijing and Moscow have ganged up on America.” Others see the relationship as geopolitically convenient for Russia’s and China’s leaders but lacking the depth necessary for a durable state-to-state alliance.
These differing viewpoints, in turn, have policy implications and thus have prompted policy debates. Prior to Moscow’s ongoing implicit military threat to Ukraine, some suggested that Washington should try to “lure” Russia away from China. Skeptics argued that this approach “won’t work.”
Chinese and Russian officials, meanwhile, each have an interest in playing up their relationship as they simultaneously manage difficulties with Washington. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described a December videoconference between Putin and Xi as “a discussion between allies.” After the call, however, Putin’s foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov reported that Xi had acknowledged that the two nations are not allies, yet added that the Chinese leader claimed “their effectiveness even exceeds this level.”
It is essential to remember that Russia’s post-1991 relationship with China emerged from the troubled Soviet-Chinese relationship, which the two countries had incentive to change for strategic reasons. The undeclared 1969 Sino-Soviet war demonstrated to both sides the possible consequences of enduring tensions along their 2,600-mile border. Soon thereafter, former President Richard Nixon’s 1972 opening to China showed how Moscow’s and Beijing’s rivals could exploit those tensions to the detriment of either or both parties.
After the Soviet collapse, the two sides gradually signed a series of agreements, which helped further establish the foundation for today’s Russia-China relationship. Two border deals—the 1997 agreement limiting troops on the Russian-Chinese border and the 2008 treaty finalizing Russian-Chinese border demarcation—did not resolve Russian-Chinese differences or eliminate mutual suspicions. What they did, however, was to establish a minimum threshold of mutual trust. A 2001 Russian-Chinese friendship and cooperation treaty (renewed in 2021) included one of the earliest formal acknowledgements that leaders in Moscow and Beijing shared concerns over American conduct (alluding to the 1999 U.S./NATO war against Serbia) as well as a commitment to consult “if a threat of aggression arises.”
Managing Competition Without Watching Your Back
This stance matters because presidents Putin and Xi have expansive global ambitions that neither can fulfill if each must constantly watch for a knife in his back. From this perspective, the Russia-China relationship is perhaps best understood as a non-aggression pact that has enabled deepening economic, political and security cooperation. With their backs covered, Moscow can face to the west and Beijing can face to the east. That doesn’t rule out disagreements to Russia’s north (the Arctic) or south (Central Asia), where some Russian officials worry about China’s growing presence. It does, however, establish a framework in which the two governments can approach their bilateral competition—something the United States currently lacks in its relations with either Russia or China.
Most important, the shared desire to avoid a military confrontation has established a floor beneath which Russia-China relations will not deteriorate absent a radically different strategic environment. In this sense, those who insist that America cannot “split” Russia from China are correct that Washington is highly unlikely to succeed in persuading Moscow to take any steps that would threaten the foundation of its relationship with Beijing. Still, sophisticated U.S. policy could create an environment in which Russia’s and China’s leaders do not reflexively align with one another and against the United States on most issues.
Costs and Benefits of Cooperation
The ceiling for the Russia-China relationship is in theory unlimited but in practice depends on the costs and benefits to each specific form of cooperation that the two governments might undertake. Those who say that Russia and China will not form an alliance are probably right because an alliance—as traditionally understood—would require a mutual defense commitment, something with potentially high costs for Moscow and Beijing since it could conceivably draw either into the other’s war with the United States and its allies. Indeed, if one defines allies as nations willing to endure significant costs for one another, neither Russia nor China has any such partners; they have clients whom they can aid or not as it suits them. For Moscow or Beijing, the marginal benefits offered by a bilateral alliance would be little beyond those of a non-aggression arrangement, since each country has (and would probably be prepared to use) nuclear weapons to address military threats beyond those its conventional military forces could handle.
Nevertheless, that Russia and China do not have, and are unlikely to create, a full-scale alliance does not constrain their military and security cooperation, much less any other cooperation they might otherwise wish to pursue. The existing Russia-China relationship already allows for consultation and coordination on security affairs, economic matters and other policy issues. This poses sufficient dangers to the United States that the absence of a Russian-Chinese mutual defense agreement is largely irrelevant. After all, Russian and Chinese forces would be unlikely to fight together too much even if both countries were simultaneously at war with America. The principal theaters for these two hypothetical wars would be thousands of miles apart.
Perhaps most dangerous is Russia’s sharing of military technology with Beijing, though China’s technical capacity is expanding rapidly across multiple areas. Russia’s weapons sales to China have also been a longstanding concern for America. While the volume of these arms deals peaked in 2005—and was at just one-fifth of that level in 2020—Russian firms have supplied China with modern systems (such as Su-35S interceptors and S-400 air defense systems). Earlier, Russia reportedly provided engines for China’s J-20 stealth fighter.
Rubles and Yuan
Finally, the economic relationship between Russia and China is still deepening and this can help protect Russia from some of the consequences of Western sanctions, including diminished trade with the United States and many of its allies. China’s share of Russia’s oil and gas exports in 2020 were 31% and 5%, respectively. Russia’s goods exports to China, by one measure, more than tripled from $16 billion in 2009 to $58 billion in 2019—about four times more than goods exports to the U.S. for the same year. As a result, unilateral U.S. trade sanctions have limited impact on Russia outside technology restrictions such as those related to defense, dual-use and energy technologies, which can be more significant. (Russia’s trade with the European Union is considerably larger than its commerce with America or China, especially when energy exports are factored in, and Europe’s largest economies are quite unlikely to sever or even dramatically reduce their trade relationships with Russia.)
Rules of the Game
Security, economic and political collaboration between Russia and China does not rest on an authoritarian alignment—though shared defense of their governing systems contributes to it—or on a formal alliance. Instead, its foundation is the mutual recognition that enduring Russia-China tensions would considerably undermine each government’s efforts to secure the global role it seeks. It is likewise notable that their relationship has expanded beyond that in parallel with each government’s growing frustration at attaining its aims through cooperation with the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia. This is not to say that all Moscow’s and Beijing’s goals have been entirely reasonable, or that every effort at cooperation has been sincere. Rather, it is to note that from Russia’s and China’s perspective, Washington and its allies are obstructing rather than facilitating what leaders in each country have seen as a legitimate desire for greater influence, including a voice in defining the rules of the game. Thus, China’s rhetorical support for Moscow’s efforts to force a role for itself in European security is both helpful to Russia and self-serving. Even so, it seems unlikely that Beijing will do too much more.
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