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Russia and China: A Eurasian alliance?

A US-China meeting in March was recently described as an “undiplomatic war”. American officials even accused China of “grandstanding”. As a result, the details of China’s rapprochement with Russia will prove to be of great interest to the US and its allies.

October 25, 2021 - Yegor Vasylyev - Articles and Commentary

The giant Chinese gate on the border with Russia in Manzhouli, Hulun Buir Inner Mongolia. Photo: B.Panupong / Shutterstock

Analysts Richard Haas and Charles A. Kupchan’s idea of a “New Concert of Powers” continues to occupy the minds of international relations experts and policy-makers all over the world. This idea presumes that the structure of the existing international order is outdated. A new multipolar world subsequently needs an informal consultative steering group, made up of both liberal and illiberal countries, such as China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia and the US. First and foremost, this is needed to enable strategic dialogue.

Alternatively, a vision of distinct blocs could also emerge. This would see authoritarian states, such as China and Russia, face off against the liberal West (Australia, the EU, the UK and the US) and its allies (like South Korea or Ukraine). The capacity for dialogue in this scenario would be predictably scarce. These blocs will likely find themselves in permanent confrontation.

Currently, the proponents of a third position in which the US-led liberal West would continue its global dominance are vastly outnumbered.

So, are Russia and China forming an alliance?

China’s push for dominance

Gone are the days when the two states could find common ground. The last Strategic & Economic Dialogue of the Obama administration in 2016, for example, began with a conciliatory message from then–Secretary of State John Kerry. This resulted in a declaration that identified 120 different areas of cooperation.

During a meeting in March, Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi made several remarks about America’s “long-arm jurisdiction and suppression”. In response, Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that it is never wise to bet against America.

By now, there is little doubt that China did indeed bet against the US. However, whilst Donald Trump called China “a foe” and “an adversary”, some still hope that the bilateral competition does not have to end in conflict. The rivalry could even be constructive. This was exactly the point stressed by Joe Biden in his first telephone talk with Xi Jinping.

At the moment, competition is comprehensive and hardly constructive. It includes spheres such as the economy, digital technology and space. This competition is now taking place in various parts of the world. Of course, the US and China have irreconcilable differences in the Asia-Pacific region. US influence is greater in Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines and Singapore, while China dominates in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Rivalry is also intensifying in Africa, where Beijing has overtaken the US as the area’s largest economic partner and investor with the support of many local governments. Washington is now apparently playing catch-up, opposed to what it calls “Sino-imperialism”. Chinese influence has also eroded America’s advantages in South America and Western Europe. In short, it is a competition for global influence.

It is often stressed that the American and Chinese economies are intertwined and there is indeed deep interdependence. The Rhodium Group estimates that US investors held 1.1 trillion US dollars in equities issued by Chinese companies. By the end of 2020, there were also as much as 3.3 trillion US dollars in US-China two-way equity and bond holdings. China does not oppose this development. However, this does not keep the country from seeking dominance abroad in regions of interest. It is clear that its interests are growing with every year.

In China’s play for dominance, US analysts highlight America’s potential to counterbalance the influence of Beijing. Moreover, a recent study shows that an increasing number of China-backed projects have been suspended or cancelled since the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013. There is great evidence of “buyer’s remorse” in countries as far afield as Cameroon, Costa Rica and Kazakhstan.

Despite this, the main challenge to constructive US-China links is, apparently, the possibility of an authoritarian alliance between Beijing and Moscow. This group would oppose the US and the West in general on all active fronts.

Russia’s geopolitical assertiveness

Russia’s assertiveness and burgeoning geopolitical ambitions have become the focus of extensive analytical discussion over the last decade. The occupation of Crimea has shown Vladimir Putin that laying claim to what Russians see as Russian lands in the near-abroad is an effective way to preserve his authority, power and approval ratings. Critics allege that Russia is trying to punch above its weight. Issues such as the country’s economic stagnation and backwardness, demographic problems, and heavy dependence on hydrocarbons are usually at the centre of such criticism. Overall, those who believe this view think that Moscow is bluffing in the international arena.

However, after a dismal performance in 2008 during the Georgian campaign, the Russian military now appears to once again be a capable force. This is the result of a great number of reforms, which have given the armed forces new weaponry and a steep budget rise. It is clear that Russia’s leadership places its newly acquired hard power at the centre of its international strategy.

The Zapad-2021 military drills in September showcased Russia’s active defence strategy. The drills were based on a simulated NATO aerospace attack during the initial stage of a war. The drills also showed the new heights in bilateral relations enjoyed by Russia and Belarus. Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka even stated later in an interview that the two countries now effectively have one army. In the event of a conflict, he said that the entire Western segment of the Russian military would support his government. 

Currently, Belarus is a key supporter of Russia’s regional integration projects in its neighbourhood. Despite this, the Kremlin is braced for a new wave of disappointment in its relationship with the leaders of Ukraine. The Kremlin hopes to reinvigorate its relations with the beleaguered country under a more friendly government. Russians think that they have already tamed Georgia and that Moldova will only interest Romania if it is not within the Russian sphere of influence.

Russia-China cooperation and interests

In response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Russian officials started to talk about a “Greater Eurasia” project that would accommodate Moscow’s view of the region and provide a stable basis for balanced cooperation with China. Russia hopes that this plan will help it avoid the role of junior partner in any formal alliance. In general, the concept of a multipolar world is greatly important for Russia and China. It allows these states to exert ever more influence on the global stage without following a playbook defined by the West. This was certainly not the case during the early post-Soviet era.

The post-Soviet years have seen both states do many things together. In June, Russia and China announced the extension of a 20-year old friendship and cooperation treaty. Cooperation is especially clear in the military sphere, with Russia selling advanced weaponry (including Su-35 fighter jets) to China. According to one report, bilateral defence cooperation has generated significantly greater gains for China than it has for Russia.

Nevertheless, the countries hope to take their partnership to new levels. This could involve implementing high-tech projects, including the building of nuclear reactors by Rosatom in Tianwan and help with the Xudabao nuclear power plant.

It is true that the Russian media from time to time tells scary stories about Chinese tourists. For example, that they wear nationalist t-shirts with the Chinese names for Vladivostok and Khabarovsk and avoid contributing to the local economy. Other stories include ideas that the Chinese are turning the Siberian taiga into a desert, or that there are few Russian newspapers left in Blagoveshchensk. By and large, however, the Russian public does not see China as a threat and 75 per cent of Russians have a positive attitude towards the country.

Russia’s push for dominance in post-Soviet Europe, a region of the utmost importance for the country, is not challenged by China. Overall, the Chinese show little to no ambition with regards to the region. In return, Russia respects China’s interests in South East Asia, as the region is peripheral to its own ambitions. The countries complement each other in Africa and South America. The situation is only somewhat different in Central Asia, where a process resembling political and economic competition can be observed.

Prominent Russian China scholar Alexander Lukin alleges that Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy annoys the Russian elite and that the countries have passed the high point in their bilateral relations. However, it is likely that their official strategic partnership will continue to deepen.

The future: stopping short of an alliance

The world is now looking at Afghanistan and analysing America’s hasty withdrawal from the country. The US invested a great amount into the country and this will raise the stakes in the region for both Russia and China, who are eager to engage with Afghanistan and Central Asia as a whole. The US is simply viewed as an adversary in the region and the EU has failed to become a geopolitical force, so its voice is often ignored by Russia and China.

China is definitely not going to westernise and become a democracy. Any opposition to the Chinese Communist Party is ruthlessly persecuted. At the same time, such criticism is marginal, as there is widespread consensus in Chinese society that the country is going in the right direction. Those aware of internal trends within the party point to its different factions and clandestine competition for influence. The fact is, however, that Xi has effectively forced out the rival “Shanghai clan”, sidelined others, and effectively placed his own people in all of the meaningful positions. He has simply ended the limited internal democracy established by Deng Xiaoping.

Russia is also stable in its illiberal democracy, which remains controlled by the siloviki. The new generation of Russians appears to be the least open to a European identity according to a recent opinion poll. However, the country’s enthusiasm for its great power status appears to be subsiding. Polls show that around 66 per cent of Russians want Russia to become a country with high living standards and not one of the most powerful in the world. Only 32 per cent want to see Russia act as a great power, respected in the world and able to influence others.

Currently, there is nothing to suggest that either China or Russia is interested in any Concert of Powers that would curtail their newly acquired enthusiasm for geopolitical competition. Most recently, the creation of the new AUKUS alliance encouraged Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to warn of a new nuclear arms race. It is expected that China will respond aggressively to what it sees as the “ruining of a strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific”. Russia is taking steps to integrate Belarus for good and will not cease to demand the federalisation of Ukraine. If this happens, Moscow will be the kingmaker on the Ukrainian front once again.

So, there are a number of factors that are drawing China and Russia closer together. Both countries will work to control what they see as their spheres of influence, disregarding any Western objections. China and Russia are clearly interested in further cooperation. Whilst they have different interests in Central Asia, they have successfully cooperated in other spheres and regions. Both see their future in terms of a developing strategic partnership. However, cautious Russia will stop short of becoming a junior member of an official alliance, as it continues to pursue an independent foreign policy and avoids formal dependence on any other geopolitical player.

Their illiberal politics, which they claim is the result of their historical, political and social preconditions, will not change and the countries will increasingly compete with the West. The New Concert of Powers would potentially be a solution to this issue. However, a lack of will on Russia and China’s part will likely result in direct competition with the West.

At the moment, it looks like decision-makers in the West realise this. They are now seemingly on the path to building new coalitions of their own. Hopefully, this ongoing competition on the global stage will not lead to new wars, but to a mutually recognised global balance of power.

Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst and political consultant specialising in politics and governance of post-Soviet states. He is the Board Chair at ‘The New Bridge’ Analytical Centre. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics, where he was a British Chevening Scholar, following five years with the Ukrainian civil service.

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