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Extending the Russia-China Friendship Treaty: To What Extent Will Isolation and Great Power Rivalry Push China and Russia Closer Together

July 15, 2021

The Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship

On June 28, 2021, President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping announced the extension of the Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship, first ratified in 2001 by President Putin and Jiang Zemin, the then President of the People’s Republic. The treaty is intended to formalize mutual support for territorial integrity and national unity in both states and to present the two as close partners on the international stage. In recent years, the two states have indeed become increasingly close, and both China and Russia find themselves ever more isolated on the world stage.


REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

China has found itself at odds with many in the international community due to concerns over its assertive military policy in the South China Sea, so-called “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, and arbitrary detention of foreign nationals. China’s aggressive trade practices and intellectual property theft, its activities in the Xinjiang region against Uighur Muslims, and the crackdown on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, as well as, most recently, its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic have also contributed to this isolation. Besides, China has been the subject of economic uncoupling efforts by the previous American administration and its successor as the United States hopes to halt the rapid rise of China as an economic and military power. Russia’s international standing has been diminished by its actions in Libya, Syria and Ukraine following the 2014 Crimean secession and the subsequent conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Russia has drawn the ire of the United States, France and other states for its alleged election interference campaigns and cyberattacks with the 2020 SolarWinds hack causing widespread fear of Russian cyberwarfare capabilities. Russia has seen backlash over the activities of its security services in recent years. The purported poisoning of Yulia and Sergei Skripal, the 2014 bombing of a Czech weapons depot, and of course, the Alexei Navalny issue are among the dossiers typically cited in the West.

The increasingly hostile international environment has undoubtedly pushed the two states closer together, but does this represent a “marriage of convenience”—as some in the media and academia assert—or a deeper and more substantive partnership? This paper seeks to evaluate the present state of Sino-Russian cooperation in the political, military and economic spheres as well as evaluate the future of the Sino-Russian partnership. This paper will also take into account the historical relationship between China and Russia and establish that the Sino-Russian partnership is not a recent “marriage of convenience” but the result of long-standing historical developments. This paper will also demonstrate that despite the many areas of cooperation and potential for greater closeness in the Sino-Russian relationship, there are still many areas where the interests of the two states diverge and that fears of an authoritarian world order led by China and Russia are exaggerated.

Historical Context of the Sino-Russian Relationship

The context of history in the contemporary Sino-Russian relationship is vital to understanding that the closeness enjoyed by the two states today is not exclusively the result of recent isolation on the global stage. Vasily Kashin notes that the Sino-Soviet split in the Cold War was among the greatest strategic mistakes made by the Soviet Union. This split and the competition with China for dominance of the socialist world undeniably diverted critical resources and attention from the main theatre of competition with NATO in Eastern Europe. The Sino-Soviet split was not just a security issue, it was also an untenable economic burden for both states. The Soviets were forced to construct and maintain infrastructure in the harsh conditions of the Far East where logistical support from the center was prohibitively expensive. The Chinese were also forced to plan for the contingency of a conflict with the Soviets. This included maintaining a massive ground force on its Northern border and moving critical infrastructure and manufacturing capacity further South to prevent economic turmoil in the event of a clash.

In the mid-late 1980s, Soviet leadership had come to understand that it could not afford conflict with the PRC and that changes needed to be made in the relationship. Kashin mentions the example of sophisticated armament sales to the PRC in 1989 as a formal acknowledgment of this change in attitude. These sales were followed by the May 1989 Sino-Soviet Summit which formally normalized relations between the two leaders of the socialist world.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia and its beleaguered economy looked to China as a source of support for its ailing defense industry. In the 1990s and early 2000s, China was the largest customer of Russian military hardware. Although China no longer represents Russia’s primary market for defense exports, it remains an important partner for collaboration and development of military hardware particularly in terms of production capacity. In addition to the arms sales and economic support in the 1990s and early 2000s, Russia and China have maintained similar positions on international issues for decades. Mutual support in areas, such as human rights, cyber governance, state sovereignty and non-intervention in internal affairs, are not recent developments but long-established trends. The two have indeed become increasingly aligned in their position at the UN and on UNSC voting but cooperation and a similar approach to international governance cannot solely be attributed to the post-2014 events. Since the normalization of relations in the late 1980s, Russia has viewed China as an important partner on the world stage. The Sino-Soviet split taught both parties that it is much easier to be friends than enemies.

Political Cooperation

International cooperation on political matters between China and Russia is not a new development. It has become increasingly popular to define the Sino-Russian relationship as an authoritarian challenge to the U.S.-led world order following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent challenge of its dominance by China. While it is true that the Russians and Chinese do maintain many areas of political cooperation, there are also many areas where the interests of the two states diverge, which may hinder greater coordination between them.

As previously discussed, Russia and China are aligned on many issues in global politics. Elkman, Saari, and Secrieru point out that China and Russia have similar principles, worldviews, and threat perceptions that contribute to this close relationship. Both China and Russia view the current world order dominated by the United States and its allies as unfair and hostile towards their own ambitions to be recognized as important players in international affairs. They believe that the United States and its allies seek to challenge their respective regimes and that they are unable to assert their authority in ways that the United States has been doing for decades now. The authors believe that this threat perception allows for China and Russia to overcome their many differences and to embrace a policy of mutual acquiescence and non-interference. Cooperation and alignment on the UNSC, where both states are permanent veto-holding members, supports this assertion. Both China and Russia have abstained, vetoed or supported resolutions on the UNSC that are considered hostile to one another. Neither state has supported any resolution that the other has opposed since 2005.

Both China and Russia share a common position on human rights within a state’s sovereign territory; they believe that the international community should not interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state unless the state in question requests such interference. Both states believe sanctions directed at human rights violators without consent of the UNSC to be illegal. Many in the West have imposed some form of sanctions on Russia or China in recent years for human rights abuses, and this is likely to continue as political repression of opposition groups in both states—as perceived by the West—shows no signs of halting in the near future.

Russia and China’s cooperation is also a result of similar views on the R2P notion (responsibility to protect). In Russian nationalist political discourse, this R2P is manifested in the concept of Russkiy Mir or The Russian World. Nationalist proponents of Russkiy Mir advocate for the unification of all ethnic Russians or Russian-speaking peoples under one state. The 2014 Ukrainian Crisis, the 2008 conflict with Georgia and the subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia directly correlate to such an understanding of R2P. In both cases, Russian passports were given to people living within other sovereign states, while the Russian government then asserted the right to protect its own citizens across international borders.

China’s irredentist ambitions are also well-known; earlier this year, the PRC reasserted complete control over Hong Kong and implemented strict national security laws meant to whittle away at the democratic freedoms previously enjoyed by the former British colony. The issue of Taiwan has also become rather tense in recent months with China using increasingly threatening rhetoric and some “grey-zone war tactics” to intimidate the democratically ruled island.

Although China and Russia share similar views on these issues, neither side is likely to go further than abstention or non-objection in regards to these more aggressive incursions into other sovereign states. China has not recognized the secession of Crimea and it is not likely that Russia would become embroiled in any conflict in the South China Sea; support between the two states will not go so far as to damage the individual self-interests of either party. It is also worth noting that there is personal chemistry between the two powerful leaders of Russia and China, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. The two have met over 30 times and are each other’s most visible and vocal supporters on the international stage. This personal chemistry has led to many high-level and high-profile efforts at deeper cooperation; politically, economically and militarily.

Military Cooperation

Military cooperation between the two states has been the subject of significant media attention of late—and for good reason. The two states represent the second and third most powerful militaries on earth, both maintain nuclear arsenals and both harbor irredentist ambitions, wishing to challenge the current U.S.-led world order. Despite increased efforts at collaboration in recent years, fear of a formal alliance or collective defense pact between the two states may be overblown.

As previously mentioned in this paper, in the 1990s and early 2000s China was Russia’s largest customer for military hardware. However, this has been dwindling for quite some time. As the result of domestic progression and, to some extent, intellectual property theft and reverse engineering, China can produce domestic versions of most Russian military hardware that it previously purchased. The recent sale of advanced weapons systems, such as S-400 missile defense systems, can be viewed both as a necessity for the Russian defense industry and as a sign of growing cooperation between the two militaries. Russian arms exporters are increasingly short on hardware that would be of interest to the Chinese military.

Advanced weapons systems, missile technology, aircraft engines are among the only items that China does not maintain a domestic equivalent to at this time. If Russian exporters want to benefit from the Chinese market, advanced weapons systems are now the only option. Many analysts have speculated that this closing gap between the two defense industries will lead to less direct arms sales and greater joint-development of military technology. China, in addition to its superior production capacity, has technology, such as microchips and other electronic systems, that Russia lacks access to due to Western sanctions. Russia in turn, can provide raw materials, real combat experience and guidance as well as some advanced hardware that China lacks.

China and Russia have been increasing the frequency and complexity of joint military exercises in recent years; this, however, is also not necessarily a sign of a forthcoming military alliance or mutual defense pact. Many analysts have argued that these exercises are more about geopolitical signaling and demonstrating opposition to U.S.-led military posturing than preparing for actual combat. The two sides have not made a great deal of progress on improving interoperability between the two militaries. Both sides maintain individual command structures and enhanced communication is undeniably hindered by the language difference between the two. Military exercises held between the two thus far demonstrate the ability to fight parallel to one another, not to operate as one cohesive force. It can be argued that interoperability is not the most important aspect of military cooperation but it does signal that cooperation between the two is not as deep as some perceive it to be.

There is room for enhanced cooperation between the two militaries in the coming years, but most analysts question the need/potential for a formal alliance between the two. As Eugene Rumer and Richard Sokolsky point out, the most beneficial aspect of cooperation between the two sides at this time is that there is no need to secure the massive 4,000 km border between the two. This allows Russia to focus the majority of its military efforts in the West of its territory and for China to focus its efforts on the South and East.

The need for a formal alliance is also questionable. Neither side requires the nuclear deterrent of the other and it can be argued the current level of collaboration already achieves as much as a formal alliance would. NATO and other U.S.-aligned blocs already have to plan for the possibility of Russia coming to the aid of China in the event of a conflict and vice versa. Formalizing this possibility through an alliance or mutual defense agreement is somewhat redundant. The two will likely continue to increase the frequency of joint exercises but this will continue to be more about geopolitical signaling than interoperability. Increased collaboration between respective defense industries and cooperation on projects in space and manufacturing is the most likely next step for the two states militarily, not a formal military alliance as speculated by some.

Economic Cooperation

Economic cooperation between the two states is likely to be one of the more prolific areas of increased ties going forward. China is Russia’s number 1 trading partner at this time, and although Russia does not rank in the top 10 of China’s trade partners (as of 2018), there are significant projects where China requires Russian cooperation to achieve its goals. Russia is China’s primary source of raw materials essential to its continued economic growth. China lacks the natural resources, such as rare earth minerals, oil and gas, that are required to keep its massive manufacturing capacity functioning.

Both China and Russia are experiencing greater barriers to establishing other sources of raw materials or export markets. China has recently had several high-profile acquisitions of raw materials abroad come under review or canceled due to national security concerns, such as a gold mine in the Canadian Arctic. A recent trade war and anti-Chinese sentiment in Australia have also prompted concern that the continued supply of iron ore and other critical resources will become more difficult for the PRC.

Russia also faces complications with finding export markets. Problems surrounding the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany and the increasingly competitive energy market in Europe have prompted a “turn to the East” characterized by greater reliance on Asian markets for raw materials with China being the largest recipient. Sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas industry in the West have severely impacted any further exploration and drilling in the Russian Arctic where technology and expertise imported from the West are critical, prompting greater collaboration with China. Increased isolation of the two states by the international community will only enhance economic cooperation.

China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative also represents a significant boon to cooperation between the two states. Not only are raw materials needed to create infrastructure and products to service the BRI, but there is also the Polar Silk Road (PSR) component of the initiative which cannot be realized without the acquiescence of Russia. The two states share the desire for increased use of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) and its proliferation as a global trade route. Russia also requires Chinese investment and aid in infrastructure development to make its NSR ambitions a reality, as previous transit volumes along the route are far below the previously established government targets.

There are significant roadblocks to greater cooperation in the Arctic despite high-level cooperation on infrastructure projects. Russia’s insistence on protectionist measures for operating on the NSR is at least in part directed at China which favors a more international vision for the route. Several projects have been agreed to at the highest governmental levels, but actual tangible results in the Arctic are few and far between at this point, with Yamal LNG being the only major project to be fully realized. This can be attributed to the differences in approach between the Russians and their Chinese counterparts in terms of management of Arctic projects. Chinese investors have been insistent on obtaining a management stake in projects due to their high risk and high costs; Russia has thus far been reluctant to grant such concessions leading to many high-profile deals falling through.

Reasons for Skepticism Going Forward

Russia and China have undeniably been increasing cooperation politically, militarily, and economically in recent years. This can partially be attributed to increased isolation on the world stage by both parties, but this is not necessarily a “marriage of convenience”, as some assert. As demonstrated previously, cooperation between the two is a result of 30+ years of rapprochement since the Sino-Soviet split. Despite this continued progression, there remain many potential pitfalls in the Sino-Russian relationship that may inhibit further cooperation.

Despite high levels of cooperation at international institutions such as the UN, Russia and China do maintain fundamentally interest-based and independent foreign policies. The two maintain fundamentally different approaches to operating within the international system. Russia has recently thrived on operating outside of the international systems as a rogue actor; cyberattacks, the Crimean issue and an alleged shadow war in Eastern Ukraine as well as other malign actions have allowed Russia to punch far above its West-allowed weight on the world stage.

Conversely, no other state has benefitted more in the past 30 years from operating within the international system than China. Participation in the international system, contributing to international institutions, such as the UN and WHO and IPCC, has facilitated China’s rapid and peaceful rise to the status of economic and military great power. Russia’s reputation as a malign actor is in direct opposition to China’s attempts to present itself as a benevolent power, and collaboration between the two is not always seen as beneficial to China because of this.

Militarily, the two sides’ increased cooperation is more about geopolitical signaling than it is about interoperability. The two have very little to offer one another at this point beyond co-development of new technologies; both maintain a nuclear deterrent, yet Russia lacks the presence and blue-water navy capabilities to support China’s ambitions in the Asia-Pacific, whereas China lacks the presence in Europe to satiate Russia’s potential ambitions. Michael Kofman has also noted that Russian and Chinese defense industries and militaries are both nationalistic and autarkic, and that is not a particularly easy hurdle to overcome. It is unlikely that Russia would intervene in any conflict that occurs in the South China Sea while the same can be said for any conflict Russia could find itself in within Europe, as it would harm their respective vital economic and political interests in either region.

Economically, the two are becoming increasingly close partners but there are many areas where the two are active competitors. Central Asia will be a key region that will impact the Sino-Russian relationship in the coming years. China has no interest in allowing Russia to re-establish its dominance over the post-Soviet states, and Russia does not want to facilitate increasing Chinese influence in what it considers its own sphere of influence. China also maintains a significant economic presence in post-Soviet Eastern Europe and the Balkans; an area Russia is also seeking to re-establish its influence. In Asia, Russia actively engages with Chinese rivals—such as Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, and most importantly, India, which is Russia’s primary export market for military hardware that was recently engaged in a border conflict with the PRC.

What is more, Russia is eager to not be seen as a “junior partner” in its relationship with China. Although certain economic projects, such as the development of the Arctic, are shared ambitions and one of the few areas in which Russia maintains an advantage over China, it is a fact that Russia has nowhere close to the economic clout of China. Russian policymakers are wary of becoming too reliant on China and will continue to seek other means to reduce becoming dependent on China in the future.

There are also questions surrounding the utility of President Putin and President Jinping’s personal relationship. They have undeniably helped facilitate enhanced cooperation on many fronts, but the tangible results of this relationship are not nearly as prolific as official statements may insinuate. There is also the question of succession. Eventually, a transition of power will occur in both Russia and China. Russia’s next leader will most likely seek to maintain close ties with China, but there is also the potential for greater cooperation with the West and a reset in relations to avoid overreliance on China. China’s economy is also slowing, with its population declining, and the United States is actively trying to slow its ascent to the status of a global superpower.

Will China be able to maintain the level of financial support needed to achieve its ambitions in the BRI and PSR? And will a decline in financial support impact the Sino-Russian relationship? This remains to be seen. For now, the Sino-Russian relationship is strong and cooperation between the two is likely the highest it has ever been. Despite this, further cooperation is less certain and the prospect of achieving an “authoritarian world order” as speculated by some is even less likely.

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