The post-Cold War relationship with Russia should meet Beijing’s expectations. Fifteen years ago, Russia opted for a compromise and both states solved their long-standing border disputes. Today, faced with China’s rise to the status of a superpower, the Kremlin has chosen to embrace and accommodate its neighbour rather than to counterbalance it. Tensions in Russia’s relations with the West as well as numerous sanctions have made Moscow even more dependent on Beijing. Energy resources and arms provided by Russia have helped to fuel China’s growth. While observers remain divided as to whether both states’ cooperation deserves the term ‘alliance’, it has to be stressed that Beijing has managed to avoid entanglement in Russia’s brinkmanship, directed mostly against the US.
Between strategy and domestic politics
A combination of multiple factors has led to the current situation. The willingness of both sides to counter-balance the US has been pulling them closer together since the mid-1990s. But the current state of the relationship cannot be explained only by this strategic logic. Domestic political conditions in both countries have increasingly favoured cooperation.
The shared dislike of certain elements and norms in the Western-dominated international order is accompanied by a search for regime security and survival. Fear of Western-inspired protests and revolutions unites the ruling elites of both states and inspires sharing authoritarian best practices. Russian leaders need not fear that China will want to undermine the legitimacy of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime as it grows in power and vice versa.
In Russia, the number of people benefiting from close ties with its southern neighbour has been rising. On top of the list is Igor Sechin, the unofficial czar of the oil industry and Putin’s loyal henchman. Even if the contracts the Russian oil behemoth, Rosneft, signed under his supervision did not bring long-term benefits, they did yield multi-billion-dollar prepayments. Meanwhile, after 2014 the beneficiaries included private companies owned by people friendly to the Kremlin – such as Novatek, a gas company, which received billions in loans from Chinese banks, even though they had been cautious about investing in Russia due to Western sanctions. Thus, Russia’s cooperation with China has gone beyond the levels of strategy and great-power politics, and has become part of a corrupt political and economic system. While China has not flooded Russia with money and investments in the wake of the Western sanctions, Beijing has been careful to cater to Putin’s friends and reinforced the political-economic basis of the regime.
Good inter-personal ties between the two leaders reinforce the relationship. Vladimir Putin has found common ‘strongman’ language with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Neither Jiang Zemin nor Hu Jintao enjoyed such good personal relations with their Russian counterparts. Xi, in turn, seems to copy Putin’s efforts to increase personal power.
Moreover, Moscow has found itself in a much closer relationship than the Kremlin had initially envisioned. The failure to implement its ‘pivot to the East’ policy is another factor to blame for contemporary affinity with China. Russia has not managed to balance close cooperation with China by developing ties with other Asian states. China – rather than Japan or South Korea – remains the dominant buyer of Russian oil in Asia. The constructed gas pipeline will supply only the Chinese market. Political cooperation with Japan has been hindered by Moscow’s constant irritation with security ties between Tokyo and Washington. With regard to the North Korean nuclear crisis, Moscow follows in Beijing’s footsteps. Military cooperation with Vietnam and India, though substantial, is insufficient to position Russia as a reliable third party in the region, torn between China and the US.
Beijing’s self-restraint has also helped in alleviating the Russian elite’s fear. Increasing its economic and political engagement in Central Asia, China remained cautious not to challenge Russia’s privileged place openly, especially in the security realm. Beijing recognized Russia’s grand though empty project of Greater Eurasia as equal to China’s much more substantive Belt and Road Initiative.
Challenges and possibilities of change
When Russian and Chinese politicians boast about their relations being ‘the best in history’, even sceptical observers need to admit that there is a lot of truth in it. However, it is not yet set in stone. What has the potential to endanger the relations the most are: the growing power asymmetry between Moscow and Beijing, long-term divergence of interests, and a possible domestic change in Russia.
Material asymmetry between the two states has accelerated since the 2008-09 global economic crisis. China is on its way to becoming a superpower and is among the top three most important economies in the world. Russia has not been able to undertake a consistent and successful modernization effort. Two factors have helped to smooth this asymmetry so far. One is Russia’s willingness to get its place at the table or to challenge US primacy, using military force if necessary, which shows the Kremlin’s determination to maintain Russia’s great-power status. Another is the changing attitude towards China in the West. Beijing is no longer looked at as a responsible stakeholder in the liberal international order. It has become a rival and competitor for the US and, increasingly, the European Union and its members. Russia is thus no longer an outlier – Moscow and Beijing are now in the same ‘league’ of aggressive anti-Western authoritarian powers.
The current convergence of interests and close cooperation may still be undermined by both states’ long-term aspirations. China needs the outside world much more than Russia does, especially when it comes to places for Chinese investments, access to technologies and markets for Chinese products. Russia, in turn, does not have much to offer to the world. As a consequence, Moscow and Beijing differ on what kind of global arrangements should replace the Western-led international order. China needs economic globalisation and open markets. Meanwhile, populism and the xenophobia that characterise politics in a growing number of countries throughout the world, can quickly be directed against both the Chinese economy and the millions of Chinese emigrants. For the Kremlin, the spread of anti-globalisation and populist sentiments presents an opportunity to increase its influence. Russia sees global chaos as an opportunity, while China needs at least a minimum level of stability for its economic expansion.
Finally, a possibility of domestic change looms in Russia. It does not have to equate democratization. But it certainly will lead to changes in domestic political economy. As domestic politics played such an important role in bringing Russia and China closer together, they have the potential to unravel some of their gains. As developments in other states illustrated, close ties with China may become a weapon in the opposition’s arsenal and a burden for the incumbent. A new round of redistribution of wealth and assets may result in cooperation with China being no longer so beneficial to a new ruling elite. This, in turn, may change the strategic calculus.