China and Russia draw closer: but is this a return to the old Sino-Soviet alliance?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Back in the Cold War days, Henry Kissinger formulated his famous doctrine of triangulation. It held that if there were three major power centres in the world, global dominance would fall to the centre that managed to draw one of the other two into its geo-economic orbit. In the early days of the Cold War, the momentum in this respect seemed to favour the two great Communist behemoths of the Soviet Union and China. In 1950 Stalin and Mao Ze Dong concluded the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship. Supplied by Soviet arms and air power, the Chinese were able to push back the United States and United Nations forces under General Douglas McArthur in Korea.

Yet, within six years, the Sino-Soviet bromance started to go cold. Mao did not approve of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation campaign after the 20th Soviet Communist Party Conference in 1956, nor his policy of detente (no matter how inconsistent) towards the West. Increasingly Beijing and Moscow competed for leadership of the worldwide communist movement and for influence in the countries of Africa, the Middle East and Latin America which were emerging from colonisation or embracing socialism as their model of development. The Soviets pushed their form of communism based on heavy industry and massive infrastructure projects, while the Chinese believed that their model of rural, peasant-based production would prove far more suitable for these developing countries. In the 1960s the rivalry became increasingly antagonistic, and in 1969, China and Russia came to blows over a border dispute along the Amal and Ussuri rivers in Siberia.

This gave Kissinger the opening he was seeking. In one of the most dramatic turnarounds of the Cold War, Richard Nixon went to Beijing in 1972 and opened diplomatic relations between the US and China. Beijing soon took its seat on the UN Security Council at the expense of Taiwan. The rapprochement with China helped the US disengage from the Vietnam War and put pressure on the Soviet Union to conclude nuclear arms control treaties with Washington. Moreover, in the longer term, the US could hope that China would follow a different direction of travel than the Soviet Union. It would display greater boldness in economic reform by introducing market principles and welcoming foreign direct investment. It would join the World Trade Organisation and abide by the rules of the global multilateral system. It would embrace the forces of globalisation and integrated and interdependent supply chains that had proved instrumental in lifting 300mn Chinese people out of poverty in the 1990s alone.

Seeing how Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika had led to greater freedom and democracy in Russia but also led to economic collapse and rising impoverishment and social inequality, the Chinese concluded that the only lessons they needed to learn from their northern neighbour were negative ones. China’s rise could best be secured by cooperation with the West and playing by the rules of global free trade and investment, not by opposing them. Russia, a long-standing historical adversary and poacher of ancestral Chinese territory (especially in Manchuria) was a power in decline that did not merit much time and attention.

The ‘wolf warriors’ of Beijing are imitating the Kremlin’s disinformation lines and attacking the same targets

Today, those hopes for China’s Western future seem to belong to a bygone age. China has decided to pursue its development outside the multilateral liberal order and in increasing opposition to it. It accepts the rules only insofar that it can bend them to suit its own narrow interests. It participates in multilateralism while subverting it and, at the same time, trying to make it conform to its own norms and standards. As China moves back to a highly centralised and authoritarian state, it is finding that Russia has much to teach it and to contribute to it after all. Both Beijing and Moscow are mimicking each other’s tactics and exchanging playbooks when it comes to promoting their authoritarian model.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given them a high-profile opportunity for vaccine diplomacy, pushing their vaccines, such as Sputnik V or Sinovac, as faster alternatives to the Covax scheme or Western vaccines when it comes to offering vaccination relief to stressed populations in Eastern Europe, the Middle East or Africa. Indeed, they seem keener to market their vaccines or give them as gifts abroad than to vaccinate their own populations. Together they have made claims of discrimination from Western medical agencies against their vaccines and amplified messages casting doubt on the efficacy of US and European vaccines already certified for use by Western governments.

When it comes to hitting back against Western criticism of human rights abuses of the Uighur community or security crackdowns in Hong Kong, Chinese spokespersons are becoming understudies of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s communicator-in-chief, Maria Zakharova, who is notorious for her aggressive style, mockery, and sarcasm. The ‘wolf warriors’ of Beijing are imitating the Kremlin’s disinformation lines and attacking the same targets. Chinese TV picks up and echoes stories from RT and the Sputnik press agency.

This mutual diplomatic cover extends to multilateral organisations, especially the UN, where China and Russia operate as a diplomatic duo on the Security Council. They rigorously uphold state sovereignty, condemn all perceived interference in domestic affairs, and reject sanctions as a tool of foreign policy. Accordingly, Russia will support China when it comes to its bullying of Taiwan and Hong Kong; China will reciprocate by accepting at face value Russia’s reasons for imprisoning Alexei Navalny and other Putin opponents. They have staved off criticism of the military coup in Myanmar. Lately, they have followed the same line on the Iran nuclear deal, calling for the sanctions to be lifted before Tehran needs to return to its nuclear obligations. Both countries also seem to be coordinating their cyberattacks, sharing methodologies, and focusing on the same targets, notably pharmaceutical companies, medical research laboratories, and medicine approval agencies. Just a few days ago networks of the European Medicines Agency were breached in a near-simultaneous operation attributed to Russian and Chinese hacking groups.

Russia also continues to be a major arms supplier to China, particularly in the aeronautics, missile and electronic warfare areas

Yet, what will worry the Western democracies most is the growing military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow. They have conducted joint air patrols in the North Pacific and joint maritime exercises in the Baltic and Eastern Mediterranean seas. China has sent a battalion-sized unit to participate in Russia’s far eastern Vostok exercise, and NATO allies are waiting with some apprehension to see if China will join Russia for its Zapad exercise in its western military district this year. If it does so, it will be the first time that China will participate in military manoeuvres that are ostensibly directed against NATO.

Russia also continues to be a major arms supplier to China, particularly in the aeronautics, missile and electronic warfare areas. The Trump administration had hoped that Moscow would put pressure on Beijing to join strategic nuclear arms control talks as a follow up to the START 2 Treaty. Yet as the Chinese were clearly unwilling to engage, given their much smaller nuclear arsenal, Moscow did not press them. When asked at the recent Valdai Dialogue about the prospect of a Moscow-Beijing alliance, Putin did not exclude it. China, on the other hand, has a military doctrine of not engaging in formal alliances. So, we must see how this military relationship develops and whether it takes on formal mutual commitments beyond occasional exercises and demonstrative military sorties.

Western observers have often been sceptical about the Chinese-Russia rapprochement. They have pointed to the fact that neither country likes to be the junior partner to the other. This was certainly true of Mao’s resentment of his off-hand treatment by the Soviet leadership. The assumption is that Putin will be happy to use his relationship with Beijing to poke the West in the eye, but that he will want to retain his strategic autonomy. Indeed, Russia has been careful to retain relations with many Asian countries that are wary of China. For instance, it maintains a 2+2 dialogue with Tokyo at the level of foreign and defence ministers. It has carried out joint anti-piracy exercises with the Japanese Navy in the Indian Ocean and has welcomed Japanese direct foreign investment in line with the eight-point plan of former Japanese premier Shinzo Abe.

India is also a long-standing partner for Russia and a larger consumer of its arms exports than China. Moscow has sought to cooperate with India in naval exercises and operations in the Indian Ocean, particularly at a time when it sees New Delhi drawing closer to Washington and the US’s new Quad arrangement. Putin has indeed spoken of a ‘network of partnerships’ in the Asia-Pacific and the importance of countries preserving their freedom of choice as the US and China step up their rivalry in the region.

Russia knows that its considerable reserves of oil, gas, and coal are a declining asset

So, it is true that Moscow seems to want to diversify its Asia policy and avoid putting all its eggs in the China basket. At the same time, Russia is uneasy about Beijing’s growing influence in Central Asia, traditionally part of Moscow’s backyard. China recently played a diplomatic role in the election of Sadyr Japarov as the new President of Kirghizstan after considerable political unrest. Russia has also been worried in the past that its rapprochement with China could lead to millions of Chinese workers pouring into Siberia to work on Chinese-financed infrastructure projects. For all these reasons, sceptics have predicted that, as in the past, the China-Russia alliance will soon fragment as diverging interests in the long term prove more important than shorter-term tactical convergence.

At the same time, there is a school of thought that believes that greater Russian dependency on China is something that the West should welcome as it will weaken Russia over the longer term. This is most clearly visible in the energy relationship between Moscow and Beijing. Russia knows that its considerable reserves of oil, gas, and coal are a declining asset. It has about 10 years to continue to exploit its hydrocarbons as exports to finance its budget before the greening of the advanced industrialised economies sharply reduces the demand, as well as the prices, for fossil fuels.

Even China has now announced the target date of 2060 to achieve carbon neutrality in its economy and it will undoubtedly not want to be left behind the US and the EU when it comes to accepting more stringent national CO2 reduction targets at the COP26 in Glasgow this autumn. Yet, China still generates 60% of its electricity from coal, and it will replace coal with natural gas or nuclear energy. So, Russia has increasingly seen the Chinese market as essential to its ability to monetise its energy resources, even as it tries to export more to Turkey and the EU via new pipeline projects like the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline and Nord Stream 2. Thus, Russia has constructed the Heart of Siberia pipeline to send gas east to China and is extending its Yamal pipeline to connect with the Chinese grid as well. Its aim is to pump 38bn cubic metres of gas annually to China in the next decade.

The problem here is that, unlike liquified gas or oil, gas pipelines are a fixed infrastructure that can only go in one direction and usually to one customer. So, the more Russia relies on the Chinese market, the more Beijing can drive down the price of Russian gas, thereby depriving Russia of valuable revenues at a time when it has few other sources of foreign income. Hence Russia is banking on China sticking to its traditional economic model of massive state-owned industries and mega infrastructure projects requiring enormous quantities of cement – instead of moving to the Western model of a human-centric, digital and knowledge-based economy, built around services and consumer production. However, this is the direction that China is also moving in as it embraces the green and digital revolutions. By doubling down on fossil fuel production, Russia is keeping itself afloat in the short term but only at the expense of its own technological modernisation which will be further postponed. How Russia positions itself between the two high tech digital blocs of the world – the West and China – as they rival for power will become a difficult dossier for the Kremlin; all the more so as China is content to buy Russian gas and coal but is not putting much direct foreign investment into the Russian economy to stimulate its modernisation.

So, sitting back and waiting for the inevitable demise of the China-Russia rapprochement would not be wise policymaking by the West

Of course, Russia’s chief export to Europe is also fossil fuels, yet it receives far more inward investment from the EU than from China. Trade in goods that are not on the EU sanctions list is buoyant, and Russia knows that Western goods and technology tend to be better engineered and of higher quality than those it imports from China. True trade between China and Russia has increased by 10% over the past five years and Russia is pursuing its strategic and economic pivot to Asia just like the US and most other Western democracies, given higher growth rates, value supply chains, and emerging markets. Yet Russia clearly cannot afford to turn its back on Europe, contrary to what some of the overheated rhetoric among the orientalists in the Russian foreign ministry might suggest.

In conclusion, nothing suggests that the old Sino-Soviet alliance is going to make an inevitable comeback as a new ‘Axis of the Authoritarians’. Yet it would be a mistake to draw the lesson that history always repeats itself, as it doesn’t, or that there are implacable forces at work that determine certain outcomes. That abuse of history was the cardinal mistake of the Marxists. So, sitting back and waiting for the inevitable demise of the China-Russia rapprochement would not be wise policymaking by the West.

Whatever the longer-term diverging interests of both countries, they see many benefits of working together and copying each other’s authoritarian playbooks for the foreseeable future. It is all good politics and helps sustain their narrative that there is a viable alternative to the Western liberal model and that together they can protect the minor authoritarians, such as the military dictators in Myanmar, who would dare to defy the rule of law and the wishes of their own people.

So, for the time being, Russia and China working together can make life uncomfortable for the West and the achievement of its foreign policy goals that much harder. Which brings us back to the old question of what the EU and NATO can do to engage Moscow in a more productive dialogue and give it incentives to cooperate. Afghanistan, the Iran nuclear deal, the Arctic, anti-piracy, arms control, and risk reduction measures always come up in this connection.

Following the frustrating and unproductive visit to Moscow last month by the EU High Representative Josep Borrell, the allies might as well be wringing their hands in despair that any dialogue is possible. Moreover, the allies in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe will fret that any rapprochement with Moscow might come at the expense of their own secure defence. Yet Henry Kissinger was surely correct with his triangulation theory that at a moment when the West is gearing up for the China challenge, not having to worry about Russia at the same time would be a massive geopolitical advantage – how to achieve this would certainly be the task of a Dear Henry for our own age.

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