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Why China and Russia's partnership threatens the West

Pundits have been flooding the media and Internet with their analyses of China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, more generally, the China/Russia axis following Vladimir Putin’s very recent visit to Beijing. You can find speculative responses to each of the following questions and many more.

Why is China providing substantial support for Russia’s war efforts against Ukraine, thereby further exacerbating its already tense relations with the West? Is the China/Russia axis a new strategic alliance, bolstered by Iran and North Korea, that represents a strategic challenge for the West? Or is it a marriage of convenience based on their shared opposition to the Western-dominated rules-based order? Could the West drive a wedge between China and Russia and relieve Russia of its junior partner status?

In reality, the future of the China/Russia axis is profoundly unknown, much as it was on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, it is important to attempt to understand the issues.

China/Russia partnership is not new

A good starting point is remembering that these two countries have shared a very long history, as Philip Snow writes in his recent magnum opus, which examines “four centuries of conflict and concord” between them. There have been great shifts in the balance of power, from the wealth and strength of early Qing China to the Tsarist and Soviet ascendancies and episodes of intense conflict followed by harmony.

During the early postwar period, the Soviet Union had the upper hand, while today, the pendulum has swung back in favour of a dynamic China, under the assertive leadership of Xi Jinping. A superficial reading of history might suggest that China and Russia’s relations will continue to have ups and downs. Thus, the current tight relationship may not last.

In any event, these two countries can hardly avoid each other. They share a 4,000-kilometre border. And they are both geopolitical heavyweights. China’s population of 1.4 billion is the world’s second-largest (slightly less than India’s), and Russia is the world’s largest country in terms of land area. While Russia’s economy is only one-tenth the size of China’s, Russia does have an extraordinary endowment of energy, mineral, and agricultural resources. This provides a great source of economic complementarity between the two in light of China’s relative lack of such resources.

Post Cold War China/Russia alignment

Following a brief period of close alignment with the West under Boris Yeltsin during the early 1990s, Russia quickly decided to foster good neighbourly relations with China. During Russia’s economic difficulties in the 1990s, China helped Russia’s military-industrial complex by very large imports of military equipment. And the attractiveness of developing a deep partnership with China was enhanced when Russia’s hoped-for Western-financed “Marshall Plan” did not transpire. Over the years, the two sides resolved all their border disputes. In sum, they have become “Leaders of the Opposition in a world dominated by the United States.”

The strengthening relationship in the 21st century

The period around 2014 would see a dramatic strengthening of China/Russia relations. Russia’s relations with the West deteriorated following its invasion of Crimea and the fomenting of rebellion in the eastern regions of Ukraine. Around the same time, China occupied and built structures in the South China Sea, much to the displeasure of the US, other Western countries, and many of China’s neighbours.

In sum, this period around 2014 saw both Russian and Chinese interests collide with the West, and having a common adversary led to a substantial strengthening of China/Russia relations. In 2015, they agreed on a comprehensive strategic partnership. Throughout this period, Russian exports of energy and military equipment (including technology transfer) grew substantially. Ever closer relations reached a new peak when Xi and Putin announced a “no limits friendship” at their February 2022 summit on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One byproduct of the axis is that China’s military modernisation has greatly benefited from cooperation with Russia.

Partnership strengthening following the invasion of Ukraine

It is unclear how much Putin informed Xi of his planned invasion of Ukraine. But certainly, Xi never imagined (nor did Putin) that more than two years down the track, the two sides would be bogged down in a quagmire resembling the trench warfare of World War 1.

Western countries responded to the invasion by applying strong sanctions against Russia and offering massive assistance to Ukraine. At the same time, China has offered substantial support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though it attempts to steer clear of the “red lines” of the West out of fear of being hit with secondary sanctions.

China has played a big role in filling Russia’s trade hole caused by Western sanctions. Trade between the two countries has soared to $240 billion in 2023, more than twice what it was in 2019. Chinese exports have been filling the gap for consumer goods, while Russia now sells large quantities of gas and oil, albeit at discount prices, to China, as well as military equipment and nuclear technology.

The military aspects of the partnership

China also provided significant military support, notably “dual-use items,” like trucks or excavators that can be used for civilian and military purposes. It claims that it has not provided any lethal aid, although there have been recent UK reports of Chinese exports of lethal equipment. Hong Kong’s shipment of Western semiconductors and electronic products to Russia has been a growing concern for the US and the European Union.

While China has abstained from many UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion, in its public pronouncements, it has supported Russia’s narrative that NATO aggression was the fundamental factor leading to the conflict in Ukraine. Underpinning China’s support for Russia has been the relationship between Xi and Putin. These two leaders have met over forty times in the past decade, and most importantly, they met face to face twice since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict, once in Moscow and once in Beijing. These meetings underscore the close political relationship and demonstrate that the Western efforts to isolate Russia on the global stage have, in fact, failed.

From China’s point of view, it is critical that Russia not lose the Ukraine war. If Putin’s regime were toppled, that would result in instability on China’s border, with regime security risks for China. In the minds of many Chinese leaders, the US is hellbent on regime change in both China and Russia. And following China’s strong support for Russia, defeat would make Xi lose face domestically. Moreover, China would also lose its key partner in its quest to weaken the US and the West. In short, China is strongly committed to helping Russia and will never abandon Russia.

Decoding the China/Russia relationship

Some analysts are wont to downplay the importance of the China/Russia partnership. There is no formal alliance between the two countries, like that between NATO countries. Today, it is an unbalanced relationship, with Russia very much a junior partner, something which is an affront to Russian national pride. Russia (like China) does not want to be subordinate to any other country, especially an Asian country! China is also becoming more active in Central Asia, Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. And Russia’s demographic and economic decline exposes the vast Asian side of Russia to possible de facto Chinese colonisation, as Chinese people migrate across the border.

Against this, the current phase of the China/Russia partnership has been developing for some three decades, and it has only become stronger over time. There is a strong personal dimension to the relationship with the very strong bond between Xi and Putin, and they frequently refer to each other as the best of friends.

Further, as China and Russia have become more authoritarian over the past decade or so, and their leaders have entrenched themselves as potential leaders for life, they are increasingly united in seeing the US and the West as political threats. They are also working together to build elements of an alternative world order through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the BRICS. And this is being supported by parts of the Global South, as the US and the West have fallen out of favour.

Could the West drive a wedge between China and Russia?

With a return of Donald Trump to the White House increasingly likely, there is, of course, speculation about what this could mean for the China/Russia axis. Would Trump withdraw US support for Ukraine and seek to build a new relationship with Russia based on his affinity for Vladimir Putin? Some European countries like Germany and France may also be happy to cut a deal with Russia in the hope of restoring peace to the old continent, especially in light of their own weak defense capabilities. And peace with Europe would be in Russia’s economic interests, as it has much more energy infrastructure directed to European markets than to Asia.

But it is difficult to see Putin jettisoning China for the US when US foreign policy can change every four years based on the outcome of presidential elections. Such uncertainty is much less likely with authoritarian China.

Moreover, China would likely mount great efforts to prevent a wedge between Russia and itself. Xi’s China believes the US and the West are existential threats bent on “regime change” – and it sees Russia as a critical partner in protecting itself.

Conclusion

There are too many unknowns and unknowables – like the outcomes of the Ukraine war and the US presidential elections – to draw any firm conclusions. But at the moment, the China/Russia partnership is very consequential and has only become even more so through the Ukraine war. It represents a great challenge to the US and the West’s global leadership and the future of the rules-based liberal order. In sum, while China/US might be the most important bilateral relationship in the world, China/Russia has also emerged as a significant relationship of the 21st century.

As he left the Kremlin one year ago, Xi said to Putin: “Right now there are changes – the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years – and we are the ones driving these changes together.” The Russian president responded: “I agree.” Xi then shook Putin’s hand and said: “Take care, please, dear friend.” Putin responded by holding Xi’s hand with both of his and saying, “Have a safe trip.”

 

John West is Executive Director of the Asian Century Institute and author of the book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge”. He has had a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury, OECD, Asian Development Bank Institute, and Tokyo’s Sophia University.

This article was first published on econcurrents.com.

 

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