GLASGOW – An alliance with a powerful actor is never safe. Russia and China may no longer share a common philosophy, but the invisible hand of geopolitics is driving the two together nonetheless. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are playing a game of brinkmanship that has the scale to topple the American unipolarity. According to the Worldwide Threat Assessment in 2019, Russia and China are more aligned than at any point since the mid 1950s. Commercial ties have strengthened significantly, and there is growing talk of military cooperation, with some officials hinting at a formal military pact. But, how feasible is the China-Russia alliance? Can it last? And, if so, who would make for the senior partner?
The definition of an alliance can be construed in many ways. The classical explanation is the balance of power theory, which describes an alliance as a mutual expectation between multiple states that they will have each other’s support in disputes or armed conflicts. An alliance is formed when two or more states share a common adversary and are incapable of increasing their power independently. So, they combine their resources to survive.
For Russia and China, that common adversary is the United States. After three decades of unopposed American dominance, the Russians and the Chinese have come to feel increasingly anxious. By the own actions, with Russia focusing around Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and China moving deeper into the Asia-Pacific battlespace, they’ve placed themselves in the crosshairs of the Pentagon. Taken separately, the Chinese and the Russians would struggle to prevail against the United States and its vast network of allies. But together, Moscow and Beijing would dominate much of Eurasia, as imagined by the Heartland Theory that characterized the Cold War.
An alliance between China and Russia, where the economic influence of the former is combined with the diplomatic and military weight of the latter, would produce a pact that would rival the West for global supremacy. The two complement each other’s strengths. Russia is an enormous land power with large volumes of natural resources, notably hydrocarbons. It also has the world’s largest nuclear weapons arsenal, as well as a high-tech military industry. The Russian population, however, modest in comparison with its terrestrial size. Meanwhile, China is an economic powerhouse, with a massive population that can rival the markets in the West. It also has many valuable deep-water ports and a blue-water navy that is increasingly capable. That said, the Chinese military remains conventional by current metrics. Seen from this angle, the two nations reinforce each other’s strengths, but they also have much in common in terms of geopolitical interests.
Both seek for a multipolar world where the distribution of power is more even. Both have antagonistic attitudes to the West, and both hold a grudge to American hegemony. What Moscow and Beijing want more than anything is greater say in global affairs, and in recent years, the two have come together as allies in pursuit of that mission. For China, 2020 was a year of increasingly hostile rhetoric from the United States. Think of the trade war, the persecution in Xinjiang, the new security laws in Hong Kong, as well as the use of Huawei in 5G infrastructure. All these developments ratcheted up apprehensions. On the Russian front, American and European sanctions have hurt the macro-economy badly. So much so that the Russians have gone out their way to search for alternative markets. More pressingly, since 2019, much of the trade between China and Russia has not been transacted in US dollars but in local currencies – a sign that the two want to move away from the dollar as the global reserve currency. But the pact between China and Russia goes beyond economics.
At its core, the relationship is a personal one. After being inaugurated for this third term in 2012, China was the first country Putin visited. A year later, Xi returned the compliment when he assumed the office of the presidency. Putin and Xi have met about 30 times throughout their political professions, and they’ve grown increasingly flattering of each other. Putin refers to Xi as his “dear friend” and his “long-time friend”, while Xi describes Putin as his “best and bosom friend”. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed things down, the two have still met on several occasions. This reciprocal endorsement may seem peculiar, but it ensures a robust relationship at the leadership level.
In December 2020, a poll conducted by China’s Global Times showed that more than half of Chinese view Russia as the most important country in foreign policy. While an earlier poll by the US-based Pew Research Center, in December 2019, showed that 71 per cent of Russians hold favourable opinions of China – the highest ratio in the world. Clearly, with the public and political elite on the same page, there is plenty of room to expand relations.
It is that confidence that allowed for cooperation into the military sphere. In 2018, during Russia’s large-scale Vostok exercise, China provided 3,200 of the 300,000 troops involved. It was an impressive display of brute force alongside the Sea of Japan, and it served as a preview of the power of a Chinese-Russian pact. So, why hasn’t an alliance happened already? What’s keeping Moscow and Beijing from signing a binding treaty? The answer is in the striking disparities between the two.
Although military peers at the moment, Russia’s military spending has fallen well behind. Take the annual budget of 2017 as an example. While China made the largest absolute increase in military spending globally, Russia went in the opposite direction and made the largest decrease. Military spending-wise, China dwarfs Russia by more than 52 billion USD. At the same time, Chinese scientists are reverse-engineering high-tech Russian weaponry at an astonishing rate. In some military domains, China has even surpassed their Russian counterparts. It is clear that, in time, the Russian military will subordinate to China. Looking past the military dimension, the Russian GDP stands at 1.6 trillion USD per 2018, while the Chinese GDP hits above 13.6 trillion USD. That’s eight times the size and growing. In terms of trade, China and Russia seek to double trade to 200 billion USD by 2024. As significant as that sounds, it still represents less than a third of China’s trade with the United States. So, the bilateral partnership is more important for Russia than it is for China. Considering the military and economic disparities, a binding security treaty between China and Russia would render Beijing as the senior partner. Serving in the backseat of an alliance is not what policymakers in Moscow mean when they talk about restoring a multipolar global order.
Allies of convenience
Seen in this light, a Russian-Chinese alliance is more trouble than it’s worth, and the previously mentioned disparities are only the beginning. Another striking inconsistency is the demography. The Russian Far East is vastly underpopulated, especially compared to the more populous and prosperous Chinese border area. Currently, an estimated 300.000 to 500.000 ethnic Chinese populate the Russian Far East – a number that is steadily growing. By some estimates, if the current migration continues unabated, ethnic Chinese will become the majority in the Russian Far East by 2030.
Both the Russians and the Chinese have invoked historical narratives to justify their geopolitical ambitions. So, while Russians claim Crimea on historical grounds, Chinese nationalists recall that the Russian Far East, including the city of Vladivostok, was forcefully seized from Qing China in the mid-19th century. These policy narratives are not only incompatible but inflammatory.
Imagine that in a Chinese-Russian alliance with Beijing serving as the senior partner, and with an ethnic Chinese majority in the Russian Far East, there may yet come a time when Beijing asks Moscow to relinquish or concede some of its assets or territories. As the junior partner in the binding treaty, Russia would not have the right or even capacity to refuse. It stands to reason that a backseat in an alliance is a dangerous, unpredictable long-term commitment, and, therefore, not acceptable to the Russian leadership.
The more one unpacks the supposed-alliance, the more it is revealed that China and Russia are, in fact, geopolitical adversaries. That rivalry is particularly noticeable in Central Asia, where Russia retains the Soviet legacy of political leadership. President Xi has thus far handled Chinese influence in Central Asia with great sensitivity, but his flagship project the Belt and Road Initiative is blatantly encroaching on Putin’s proposed Eurasian Economic Union, which is another display of incompatibility.
The lack of a shared cultural background or ideology further invalidates the supposed-alliance. Both countries consider themselves as civilization states and frame their domestic and foreign policy according to civilizational identity. In terms of cultural kinship, there are 14 times as many Chinese students attending universities in the United States than attending Russian universities. The Chinese just do not look up to the Russians for cultural inspiration. Considering the growing economic, military, demographic, and cultural disparities, Russia will sooner see China as an enemy than an ally. The cordial relationship that exists between Moscow and Beijing will eventually reach its expiration date.
A possible flashpoint in this context would be the Arctic – a region that holds high economic potential and is undergoing radical change. We talked about this in a previous report. Russia has a legal claim over vast Arctic territorial waters, and approximately one-fifth of its territory is north of the Arctic Circle. In the last six years, Russia has been more assertive about its claim, actively stepping up the Arctic military presence by reopening Soviet bases, holding military exercises, etc. China has long-term interests in the Arctic as well, and it has been beefing up its diplomatic activity to establish a foothold in the region. That said, the Arctic is the one place where Russia is clearly the dominant power, and will not yield easily. Intransigence in Arctic policymaking could result in the meltdown of relations.
By mid-century, at the time of the Arctic’s opening, Russia will be significantly weaker elsewhere. It will lack the economic and demographic capacity to compete with China or the United States. And, since it cannot keep up, Moscow may instead prefer to balance between the two. Relations with China would have to be downgraded, while ties with America would need to be restored. This then explains why Russia wants to keep its options open. It’s a long-term policy because some allies are more dangerous than enemies.
Ian Taylor and Shirvan Neftchi
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- Review of troops held after Vostok 2018 military manoeuvres – Kremlin.ru
- Meeting with President of China Xi Jinping – Kremlin.ru
- Russian freight train from Russia to Manzhouli, China – Wikimedia
· China’s Top Trading Partners (World’s Top Exports, 2020) http://www.worldstopexports.com/chinas-top-import-partners/
· Rachman, Gideon., Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century, (London, Penguin, 2016).
· China’s defence budget likely to grow despite economic cost of coronavirus (Reuters, May 2020) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-parliament-defence/chinas-defence-budget-likely-to-grow-despite-economic-cost-of-coronavirus-idUSKBN22U0R8
· How China is replacing America as Asia’s military titan (Reuters, April 2019) https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/china-army-xi/
· Norway’s ‘northernmost Chinatown’ eyesBeijing’s Arctic investments (Euractiv, January 2020) https://www.euractiv.com/section/arctic-agenda/news/norways-northernmost-chinatown-eyes-beijings-arctic-investments/
· Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community (Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, January 2019) https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR—SSCI.pdf
· Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance (Arms Control Association, August 2020) https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat
· Ever Closer Alliance? New Developments in Russia-China Relations (Chatham House, December 2019)
· Global military spending remains high at $1.7 trillion (SIPRI, May 2018) https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2018/global-military-spending-remains-high-17-trillion
· The Limits of Authoritarian Compatibility (The Brookings Institute, June 2020) https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/FP_20200615_the_limits_of_authoritarian_compatibility_xis_china_and_putins_russia.pdf
· Russia & China: Axis of Revisionists (The Brookings Institute, February 2020) https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/FP_202002_russia_china_stent.pdf
· Russia’s Vostok-2018 Exercise is About a LotMore Than War With NATO (Royal United Services Institute, September 2018) https://rusi.org/commentary/russia%E2%80%99s-vostok-2018-exercise-about-lot-more-war-nato
· Understanding China’s Arctic activities (IISS, February 2020) https://www.iiss.org/blogs/analysis/2020/02/china-arctic
· Global defence spending: the United States widens the gap (IISS, February 2020) https://www.iiss.org/blogs/military-balance/2020/02/global-defence-spending
· China-Russia relations the most important bilateral ties with neighboring countries: GT survey (Global Times, December 2020) https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1211006.shtml
· People around the globe are divided in their opinions of China (Pew Research Center, December 2019)
· China, Russia set to double trade to US$200 billion by 2024 with help of soybeans (South China Morning Post, September 2019) https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3027932/china-russia-set-double-trade-us200-billion-2024-help-soybeans