By Nivedita Kapoor, Junior Fellow with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme
A decade ago, Bobo Lo famously described the Russia-China partnership as being an ‘axis of convenience.’ It was then argued that a contentious history, potential areas of conflict, growing power asymmetry and the desire to maintain a stable relationship with the West would ensure a limited partnership.
However, driven by domestic factors and interests and a changing world order – not to mention a strained relationship between Russia and the West – the dynamics have changed in the past years.
This rapprochement, which increased in the years following the financial crisis, has further strengthened since the 2014 Ukrainian crisis and the annexation of Crimea. For Russia, the importance of the partnership has increased significantly due to deterioration of ties with the West. Now, China remains its strongest external partner, as Moscow has struggled to diversify relations in Asia and the relations with EU and US remain at a historic low.
From strength to strength – bilateral developments
The year 2019 marked 70 years of diplomatic relations between China and Russia with President Xi Jinping referring to the ties as being at their best in history. Analysts have echoed this sentiment as well, noting that the relationship has not been this good since the mid-1950s when Soviet Union was actively involved in helping the People’s Republic of China establish itself.
Apart from regular meetings at the presidential level, regular ministerial level meetings have been instituted which include twenty sub-commissions in addition to working groups that meet annually. Bilateral trade touched $100 billion in 2018, wherein Russia mainly supplies natural resources to China and imports machinery, equipment and consumer goods. While China’s share in Russia’s trade stood at 14.1 percent, the reverse figure was at 1.7 percent. China’s heavy dependence on hydrocarbons means the trade volume fluctuates with the rise and fall of commodity prices. Despite the fears of Russia becoming a raw material appendage to China, the former is under no illusions about its ability to shift the reliance of its economy away from natural resources.
Due to Western sanctions, China has emerged as Russia’s key trade partner. In 2019, Russia became the largest crude oil supplier to China, displacing Saudi Arabia. The $400 billion Power of Siberia deal to supply natural gas to China, which has come under scrutiny for the pricing being in favour of China, was struck soon after the 2014 sanctions on Russia. The pipeline is exclusively for China hindering Russia’s plans to diversify its exports across the Asian continent. China, which is worried about SLOCs in Asia (that carry over 80 per cent of its oil imports) being blocked in case of any conflict, has been actively looking towards direct pipelines from Russia and Central Asia to secure its energy supplies while also maintaining diversified sources of imports to avoid becoming over-dependent on one country.
Also, Russia has now changed its policy and allowed Chinese companies to invest in upstream sector in the Far East and Siberia, reflecting a closer relationship that has overcome old fears of a ‘yellow peril’ as well as the need to attract investment. Last year, the amount of Russian reserves in Yuan reached 15 percent in an attempt to move away from dollar reserves.
In contrast to the economic ties, the strategic partnership is far more symmetrical in the military domain. Most recently on July 23, for the first time, Russia and China conducted joint air patrols over Sea of Japan and East China Sea. China’s defence ministry spokesperson noted that the patrol was a step towards ‘upgrading joint operations capacity between China and Russia.’ This came soon after the decree dated 18 July 2019, in which Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev directed the Defence Ministry to conclude a military cooperation agreement with the PRC. Soon after followed the Chinese White Paper on national defence noting that the military cooperation between ‘China and Russia continues to develop at a high level.’
Due to increasing trust, Russia overturned its decades-old policy of not supplying the latest weaponry to China by agreeing to the sale of Su-35 fighter jets and S400 missile defence system in 2015. The former due to their range would be critical for China to maintain its claims over East and South China Sea while the latter brings all the flights over Taiwan, South China Sea and East China Sea within Chinese target range – complicating the US position and affecting the military balance of power in the region.
Signs of change were already visible in the ‘ground-breaking presence’ of Chinese forces at the largest ever-military drill in Russia called Vostok 2018. Never before has Russia invited a country to its domestic drills not a part of CSTO, leading scholars to see this as a sign of lessening of the Chinese threat in Russian minds. The two UNSC permanent members also coordinate positions on several issues of critical importance like Iran, North Korea and Syria.
The two countries have an abiding interest in maintaining peace on their shared border, any destabilization on which would take away resources for both countries from other priority areas, a prospect they can ill-afford at this point. Russia has reconciled itself to the reversing of the Cold War equations wherein it used to be the superpower. The main areas of contention – threat of Chinese takeover of the Russian Far East, increased influence in Central Asia and reverse engineering of military technology – have been analysed and found to be not consequential in deepening of ties.
The fact remains that Russia has through its pivot to the East failed to build strong relationships with other players in the region. This combined with a breakdown of ties with the West has meant it is in search of other partners to bolster its strategic presence. China fits the bill. This is not to say that China does not need Russia. Apart from providing a stable strategic rear, Russia is a major energy and arms supplier to Beijing. Any shift in Russian policy away from China and in favour of the US would be detrimental to the position of the rising power – especially in Asia-Pacific. Given this, China has taken care to accord due respect to the former superpower.
The two countries share ideas about a multipolar world order where US would not be the hegemonic power. They also believe in non-interference in internal affairs of countries and a strict adherence to sovereignty becoming powerful drivers for the relationship to flourish, despite their ideas on an alternative world order on which the views and interests of the two are not convergent. Both Russia and China have expressed their opposition to the Indo-Pacific, with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov labelling it an ‘artificially imposed construct’ aimed at ‘containing China.’ However, the Russian side has expressed willingness to ‘consider’ any idea that does not ‘rely on bloc mentality.’ Both Moscow and Beijing have been opposed to the Quad comprising US, India, Japan and Australia.
There is no denying the growing asymmetry of ties between the two partners, as China strengthens its position as a major power while Russia has accepted that it would be unable to match the same. However, given its long experience as a superpower, nuclear arsenal, permanent United Nations Secure Council (UNSC) seat and a strong arms industry, Russia continues to extend its influence in areas beyond its immediate neighbourhood including Syria and Afghanistan. In addition, its actions in its immediate neighbourhood demonstrate that it cannot be ignored.
The two sides have however dismissed talk of any alliance as neither wants to alarm other regional states and force them into closer ties with the US. In addition, in the event an alliance crystallised, Russia would be the junior partner, a prospect it would rather avoid. The formation of an alliance has also been held back due to concerns about economic dominance of China in the long-term over the Russian Far East; and the latter becoming a raw material appendage to the rising power. China has also not openly supported Russia’s actions in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Crimea – instead choosing to remain neutral. Russia has followed much the same policy in the case of the South China Sea (where it maintains a close relationship with another claimant, Vietnam, including through sale of arms and joint drilling for oil in the disputed waters of South China Sea) and East China Sea.
However, the recent joint air patrol is an indication of the growing closeness of ties that pose a unique challenge to US power, not to mention a cause of concern for India. While the profits from arms sales are a factor for Russia, the deepening of military ties are real, a process that has gathered steam because of a ‘shift in strategic thinking’ after 2014.
The strained ties with the West and continued sanctions have further pushed Russia into China’s arms – which is also dealing with its own trade war versus the US – and reduced chances of conflict. Even though China might not always agree with Russia’s foreign policy adventures, given that it benefits from close cooperation with the West, it has found benefit in maintaining semblance of equal partnership with Moscow.
Evidently, the Russia-China strategic partnership has grown increasingly strong, despite the asymmetrical nature of the relationship. The two sides have also managed to successfully navigate their potential areas of conflict and recognised the strategic significance of each other in a changing world order. Despite the challenges, the two sides have not engaged in conflict with each other and have managed their divergent interests without them affecting the broader partnership.
Concerns remain about the ability of Russia to be able to maintain its position vis-à-vis China as the latter continues to grow, widening the capacities between the two countries. This does make Moscow wary about its long-term implications, concerned about the possibility of rise of Chinese hegemony at the regional and global level. However, in the short to medium-term, given the strategic rationale and uncertain global conditions, the idea that Russia and China ‘will never be against each other’ even if they are not always with each other will prevail.