Russia and the Asia-Pacific Region

Gaye Christoffersen: The Sino-Russian Partnership in the Asia-Pacific

September 19, 2013



Although there is much speculation on the nature of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, most Western scholars view the Sino-Russian strategic partnership as limited, fragile, easily fractured, and not a formal alliance. There was always an assumption that Moscow and Beijing knew what the partnership was even if the outside world did not. This paper is a case study of how Beijing and Moscow failed to agree on the partnership’s identity and purpose during the 2012-2013 Diaoyu/Senkaku (D-S) territorial dispute.


Russia’s response to the Diaoyu/Senkaku crisis


A China-Japan dispute should offer Russia an opportunity to play one off against the other, and in the process develop an expanded role for itself in the Asia-Pacific, what Russians call “shift tactics.”  A decade ago, Moscow successfully played Tokyo against Beijing over the direction of the East Siberian-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline.  However, the use of such triangular politics could only undermine Russian economic integration with East Asia which Moscow seems to understand today. Russians hope that investment from both China and Japan will flow into the Russian Far East, and Russia will participate in East Asian economic growth. Shift tactics could not construct an Asia-Pacific architecture, a goal many Russian analysts had promoted although the Russian design of the architecture is unclear.


On September 27, 2010, Russia and China issued a joint statement on a proposed framework for the Asia-Pacific, a joint initiative for a “new security architecture.”[1] The statement created an expectation that the Sino-Russian partnership might become “the cornerstone of a new security system in East Asia and the Pacific region” although it lacked concrete initiatives.[2] In it Russia supported China’s territorial claims in principle, but the statement only mentioned those territories considered China’s core interests—Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan. There was no mention of the Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands.


This statement was issued a few weeks after the September 7, 2010 fishing boat incident near the Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands. Japanese media interpreted this statement to mean that Russia supported China’s claims against Japan in the D-S dispute.[3] Chinese also perceived this 2010 statement to mean that Russia supported China on the D-S issue.


In November 2010, a Valdai discussion club meeting in Shanghai continued the theme of a new architecture constructed in the Asia-Pacific which mentioned a U.S.-China-Russia trilateral framework that would solve regional problems in the Asia-Pacific.[4] The optimism of the meeting was reflected in its report, Toward the Great Ocean, or the New Globalization of Russia.[5]  The Club has written several reports on a new Asia-Pacific architecture, and Sino-Russian relations in the architecture.


In East Asia, Russia anticipates diversifying sources of investment in its oil and gas industry, diversifying export markets. Therefore, Russia would avoid being a resource appendage to either China or Japan. According to a Russian analyst, the D-S dispute undermines this Russian strategy for Northeast Asian energy security.[6]


In September 2012, the Russian Foreign Ministry, regarding the D-S dispute, urged both China and Japan to find a peaceful solution. The Chairman of the State Duma International Affairs Committee, Alexei Pushkov, noted  that the D-S issue would not create tension in Russian-Japan relations territorial disputes because they were separate issues. Pushkov noted that the D-S dispute arose because China was asserting itself as a new superpower with which all countries in East Asia, including Russia, would have to reckon.[7]


In October 2012, during a visit to Tokyo, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council stated “Russia will not takes sides in this dispute…Japan and China must solve this problem through a dialogue.”[8]  American analysis viewed Moscow as using shift tactics.[9]


The government-owned newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta noted that Russia wanted diversified relations in the Asia-Pacific.  If Russia were to align with China, it would create for itself the “threat of asymmetrical dependency,”[10] a Russian dependence on China within a bipolar order in the Asia-Pacific.


In October 2012, China’s Ambassador to Russia, Li Hui, listed all the reasons Moscow and Beijing should be aligned on the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute--the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, the September 2010 Sino-Russian joint statement, the close contacts the two countries maintained over regional issues, and Sino-Russian agreement on not overturning the Post-WW II order which included the D-S issue. Russian media noted that the Chinese ambassador was expressing Chinese concern over “Moscow's position on the Chinese-Japanese territorial dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands.”[11]


Chinese Expectations


On November 14, 2012, the Chinese government view was expressed by Guo Xiangang, a vice president of the Chinese Institute of International Affairs which is under the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Guo proposed a united anti-Japanese front whose members would be China, Russia and South Korea. Russians perceived this to be a trial balloon to gauge what the Russian reaction would be, but was also a reflection of the Chinese leadership’s thinking because Guo was closely affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.[12]


In November 2012, Feng Yujun, Director of the Institute of Russian Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), stated Chinese expectations more subtly, that China and Russia shared a “common responsibility to avoid a new imbalance in Asia-Pacific, preventing hot disputes from souring into real conflicts.”[13]


Yan Xuetong advocated China pursue a formal alliance with Russia and begin using intervention diplomacy to protect its national interests, such as in the Diaoyu Islands, which its allies [Russia] would participate in.[14] This would be Russia’s role in the alliance. In early 2012, Yan had claimed Russia was a reliable ally. Yan expected Russian cooperation with China because this would give Russia a larger role in East Asia.[15]  By 2013, Yan assumed Russia would align with China in an alliance against the US which would shift the world toward a new bipolarity.[16]


Russian media coverage of the D-S crisis seemed to confine itself to factual reportage, although an article in Voice of Russia referred to Chinese maritime ambitions,[17] and also noted that it was Japan that sought a diplomatic solution to the crisis.[18]


Chinese analysts had assumed that China’s territorial disputes with Japan were similar to Russian territorial disputes with Japan, something China and Russia could cooperate on, drawing on the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. These expectations have their origin in the September 2010 joint statement on the Asia-Pacific.


Nevertheless, during some of the tensest moments of the Diaoyu/Senkaku crisis, sometime during late 2012 into the spring of 2013, Chinese pressure on Moscow for Russia’s diplomatic and public support in the crisis seemed to intensify but without a decisive result.


Xi Jinping’s Visit to Moscow


Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Moscow on March 22-23, 2013. A joint Russian-American commentary noted that during Xi’s visit he may try to pull Moscow onto China’s side in the D-S dispute but would not be successful.[19] In Global Times, Dmitri Trenin argued that although China wanted Russia to side with it on the D-S dispute, Moscow would retain foreign policy independence.[20]


Despite numerous Russian statements that the partnership was not an alliance and Russia would remain neutral on the D-S dispute, Chinese media continued to build up expectations. On March 2, 2013, Russia and China had announced they would hold joint large-scale naval exercises in the Sea of Japan, to be called “Peace Mission-2013.” Global Times implied the naval exercise was preparation for a future D-S crisis when China and Russia would joint confront the US and Japan.[21]


A voluminous amount of Russian media commentary was clearly meant to prevent the question of Russian involvement in the D-S dispute from awkwardly arising while Xi Jinping was visiting Moscow.  Evgeny Tomikhin, Minister Counselor at the Russian Embassy in Beijing, noted that there were Chinese experts that had “expressed concern over Russia's stance on the Diaoyu Islands,” but he stressed that China’s territorial disputes were not related to Sino-Russian relations.[22]


Even after Xi’s visit to Moscow, a Russian scholar in Global Times restated that relations had not become an alliance.[23] Two scholars from Moscow’s Institute of Far Eastern Affairs emphasized that although Russia was China’s only potential ally in the D-S dispute, Russia would not get involved.[24]


Chinese Views Divided


During Xi’s visit in Moscow, a Sino-Russian joint statement was issued supporting each other’s territorial core interests but it did not cover the D-S issue. This statement was similar to the September 2010 bilateral statement that omitted the D-S issue.


A Beijing University professor thought Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow was an attempt to restart the relationship which had not progressed in the past decade. He thought Russia’s neutrality on the D-S dispute was an example of the partnership lacking substance, and recommended that both countries needed to rethink their foreign policies.[25]


A few days after Xi’s visit, a Chinese analyst from the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), under the Foreign Ministry, voiced a more realistic view of Russia’s position on the D-S dispute, that “Russia is not taking sides” in the D-S dispute and China was “not seeking Russia’s support” in the dispute.[26]


During the July 2013 Sino-Russian “Joint Seas-2013” naval exercise held in the Sea of Japan, the Chinese and Russian foreign ministries reassured Japan that the exercises were not related to the D-S issue. The Japanese Defense Ministry stated its acceptance of this explanation. A Japan Times editorial noted that Russia was not interested in getting sucked into Sino-Japanese disputes although Moscow and Beijing often made “rhetorical common cause.”[27]


Nevertheless, China’s Global Times would try to use the bilateral naval exercise to imply that Russia was collaborating with China in its territorial disputes with Japan.[28] Referring to the naval exercise, an analyst of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) claimed the “two groupings,” the US-Japan alliance and the Sino-Russian partnership, in their confrontation with each other, would shape the Asia-Pacific order, and that this was related to the D-S issue.[29]


Given the diversity of Chinese views on Russia’s role in the D-S dispute, it is surprising that no Chinese analysis considered the implications for the East Asian regional order if Russia had aligned with China in the dispute. Chinese never discussed what the impact of a new bipolarity might be on Asia-Pacific or East Asian multilateralism. Analysts such as Yan Xuetong view Asian regional organizations as “worthless.”




If the Sino-Russian strategic partnership had been drawn into the D-S crisis, a new bipolarity would have emerged in East Asia with Russia and China on one side, and Japan, the US, and probably most of East Asia on the other side. Because Russia would have been the junior partner to China’s leadership in a new bipolar order, its choice not to get involved in the Diaoyu/Senkaku crisis was made in its own national interests.


Not many Russians are strong proponents of the norms of Asian multilateralism, nor have they studied it carefully, and yet, in the 2012-13 D-S dispute, Russia contributed to the Asia-Pacific multilateral order by not supporting a shift to bipolarity in the region which would have been the result if Russia had aligned with China against the US-Japan alliance. It is not an exaggeration to say that Russians “saved Asian multilateral civilization” by not participating in formation of a bipolar order in the region.



Gaye Christoffersen, Resident Professor of International Politics, Johns Hopkins University, Nanjing Center

[1] Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China on comprehensive deepening of Sino-Russian partnership and strategic cooperation, September 27, 2010,

[2] Victor Larin, “Russia and China: New Trends in Bilateral Relations and Political Cooperation,” From APEC 2011 to APEC 2012: American and Russian Perspectives on Security and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, Rouben Azizian and Artyom Lukin, eds. (Vladivostok: Far Eastern Federal University Press and Honolulu: Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, 2012), p. 178.

[3] Seima Oki and Kyoko Yamaguchi, “China, Russia team up on territorial claims,” Yomiuri Shimbun, September 29, 2010,

[4] Valdai Discussion Club. Regional Stability through Harmonious Development: Russia and China in the New Global Architecture, November 25-26, 2010,

[5] Oleg Barabanov and Timofei Bordachev. Toward the Great Ocean, or the New Globalization of Russia. Valdai Discussion Club, July 2012,

[6] Sergey Sevastianov, “Russia and Northeast Asia Energy Security,” in From APEC 2011 to APEC 2012, p. 49.

[7] “Corridors of Power; Moscow calls for peaceful solution to territorial dispute between China and Japan,” Interfax, September 21, 2012.

[8] “Russian security chief says territorial claims are key threat to security in Asia Pacific,” ITAR-TASS, October 25, 2012,

[9] Stephen Blank, “Russia Plays Both Sides Against the Middle on Senkaku Islands,”

Eurasia Daily Monitor vol. 9 issue 209, November 14, 2012.

[10] Fedor Lukyanov, "Manoeuvre Most Valuable of All, "Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Moscow, 26 September 26, 2012, “Pundits urge Russia to maintain its room for maneuver in Pacific region,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, October 5, 2012.

[11] “China insists on implementing statement that condemns falsification of WWII results,” Interfax, October 26, 2012.

[12] “Eminent Chinese expert calls on Russia and Korea to form front against Japan,” Irina Ivanova, The Voice of Russia, November 19, 2012

[13] “Russia-China rapport can be pillar of international stability,” Global Times, November 29, 2012.

[14] Yan Xuetong, “The weakening of the unipolar configuration,” in China 3.0, Mark Leonard, ed. (London: European Council on Foreign Relations, November 2012), p. 112-119, Yan is the Dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University.

[15]阎学通:俄罗斯可靠吗?2012-07-24, accessed August 13, 2013; originally found at: Yan Xuetong, “Is Russia Reliable?” International Economic Review (March 2012),

[16] Yan Xuetong, “For A New Bipolarity: China and Russia vs. America,” New Perspectives Quarterly 30, 2 (Spring 2013): 12.

[17] “Is China-Japan war imminent?” Yekaterina Kudashkina, The Voice of Russia, Jan 17, 2013,

[18] “Japan seeks diplomatic solution of Senkakus issue – PM,” The Voice of Russia, February 23, 2013,

[19] Douglas H. Paal and Dmitri Trenin, “Why Xi Is Going to Moscow First,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 18, 2013,; Douglas H. Paal is Vice President for Studies. Dmitri Trenin is Director Moscow Center.

[20] Dmitri Trenin, “New era of Sino-Russian tandem begins,” Global Times, March 21, 2013,

[21] “Russia warms up for Xi's visit to strengthen cooperation,” Global Times, March 21, 2013,

[22] Liu Sha, “China, Russia eye next step in ties,” Global Times, March 25, 2013,

[23] Oleg Ivanov, “Sino-Russian summit not signal of shared pivot to anti-US alliance,” Global Times, April 15, 2013. The author is chair of the Political Science Department at the Diplomatic Academy in Moscow.

[24] Natalia Mihailova, “The storm around Diaoyu Islands: seeking a peaceful settlement,” gbtimes [Gilgit Baltistan Times], March 22, 2013

[25] “Xi's visit set to usher Sino-Russian friendship into a brand-new era,” Global Times, March 21, 2013.

[26] Su Xiaohui, “Don’t Misinterpret China-Russia Relationship,” China-US Focus, March 25, 2013,, also on website of the China Institute of International Studies,

[27] “China and Russia practicing again,” Japan Times editorial, Jul 12, 2013,

[28] “Sino-Russian drill stirs fears in Japan,” Global Times, July 8, 2013.

[29] Chen Xiangyang, “Sino-Russian Marine Maneuver Helps Asia-Pacific Stability,” China-US Focus, July 16, 2013, Also found at: Chen Xiangyang is Deputy Director of the Institute of World Political Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.


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