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There’s no (new) China–Russia alliance

Posted By on June 26, 2020 @ 10:45

Many narratives on geopolitics in the age of Covid-19 include an assumption [1] that the pandemic is pushing Beijing and Moscow closer together as allies. The two are old hands at orchestrated disinformation and misinformation campaigns, the argument goes, and the pandemic has provided a vehicle [2] for them. Both reject US hegemony and believe the international order should reflect a multipolar reality.

There’s also the fact that the Russian Far East, with its sparse and declining population, borders a burgeoning China. The two countries have a neat energy-security dynamic, with the world’s largest gas reserves located next to the world’s largest gas consumer.

Both Russia and China are on Washington’s blacklist [3] for challenging the liberal, rules-based order and intensifying great-power competition.

Yet, beneath these commonalities are calcified divisions that will ensure no strong alliance materialises.

China and Russia have built a working relationship based on realpolitik [4] and a convergence of interests. They will continue along that path—until their interests no longer align. That point may be closer than many realise, and the pandemic might actually accelerate divisions between Moscow and Beijing.

Moscow and Beijing still don’t describe their relationship as an alliance. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s has classified [5] their ties as ‘bilateral strategic coordination’. Moscow studiously avoids [6] using the term ‘ally’ to frame its engagement with Beijing, instead calling the relationship a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination’.

What does a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination look like? Russia and China have found an avenue to work together to craft a mutually acceptable global order and international arena for realising their respective national goals.

They plan to coordinate on the heavy lifting to create this environment through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the BRICS bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and via their veto votes on the United Nations Security Council. Moscow’s support [7] of Beijing’s policy on Hong Kong is not a result of allegiance, but rather an indicator of mutual interest in ensuring that matters of domestic concern remain free from international involvement.

Beijing’s refusal [8] to back the Kremlin on Crimea and Ukraine, however, is evidence of tension in the China–Russia partnership.

Moscow and Beijing may have clear overlapping interests, but there’s clear tension between their values. Even when their values did align through communism during the Cold War, the two failed to forge a lasting alliance and friction resulted in the Sino-Soviet split [9].

History provides all we need to know about the characteristics of Russia–China ties and it’s difficult to foresee a scenario in which they can move beyond their current arrangement. Their relationship is mired by hangovers of conflict, mistrust and suspicion, and has been since [10] at least the time of the ‘unequal treaties’ in the 19th century.

Renewed Sino-Russian ties are not a consequence of Covid-19. Their coordinated strategic partnership is often boiled down to an overstatement based on bilateral energy deals. This is particularly true of discussions of the Power of Siberia pipeline [11], which delivers 38 billion cubic metres of Russian gas annually to China. The deal took more than a decade to seal due to price disagreements, investment gaps and a stalemate over the pipeline’s location. Beijing won out: the pipeline connects directly to China, avoiding Moscow’s preferred route, which would have required negotiations with Mongolia.

In March, Russian gas giant Gazprom announced [12] plans for Power of Siberia 2. This second route in the Russian Far East is tipped to supply up to 50 billion cubic metres a year to China via Moscow’s preferred western route through Mongolia. This route better positions Moscow to pivot [13] between its European and Asian gas customers.

Power of Siberia gas networks

Source: Gazprom [14].

Moscow’s plans to renew its engagement with Beijing have been evident since at least 2010 and were outlined [15] in Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s 2014 ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy.

Russia’s impetus for developing the Chinese market was hastened by events surrounding Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. The resulting Western sanctions on its energy and financial sectors drove Russia further into China’s embrace.

For Beijing, providing capital injections to take the edge off the sanctions was a shrewd act exploiting Russian vulnerability. This is not lost on the Kremlin and further feeds the notion that Beijing is merely a partner of opportunity. Chinese capital helped Moscow deal with its cashflow issues and afforded Beijing coveted avenues to inject itself into Russia’s massive Arctic natural gas projects.

We know the endgames for both Beijing and Moscow as they are directly articulated [16] in their strategic documents and generally are pragmatically followed. Neither wants to be the junior partner, which means we might see them again on course for a split.

Moscow is not going all-in with Beijing. It is pushing [17] to develop a ‘privileged’ strategic partnership with India and is continuing its efforts to engage and arm [18] other Asian partners to diversify its relationships and offset its ‘comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination’ with China.

It’s a worry that some Western scholars, analysts and policymakers have failed to fully grasp the intensely deep-seated suspicions that underlie Moscow’s view of Beijing. Covid-19 has been injected into the international system, throwing up new challenges and sharpening existing ones, and it’s simplistic to argue that the pandemic has driven Russia and China into an alliance against the US.

Russian and Chinese interests overlap [19] in some places and we can expect the two countries to continue to coordinate strategically on areas of mutual interest. To borrow the wisdom of Mean Girls matriarch Regina George: stop trying to make the Sino-Russian alliance happen; it’s not going to happen. A Sino-Russian comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination, on the other hand …

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URLs in this post:

[1] assumption: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/23/coronavirus-pandemic-china-eurasia-russia-influence/

[2] provided a vehicle: https://thehill.com/opinion/international/496053-the-russo-chinese-axis-reveals-itself-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic

[3] blacklist: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/05/05/how-to-win-americas-next-war-china-russia-military-infrastructure/

[4] realpolitik: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/12/13/unpacking-the-china-russia-alliance/

[5] has classified: https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-05-24/Wang-Yi-China-Russia-ties-to-be-boosted-after-COVID-19-QKJbppYM5W/index.html

[6] avoids: https://tass.com/world/732297

[7] support: https://tass.com/politics/1160485

[8] refusal: https://carnegietsinghua.org/2015/04/01/explaining-china-s-position-on-crimea-referendum-pub-59600

[9] split: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/cambridge-history-of-the-cold-war/sinosoviet-split/56EB7BF822C23C161F296B1CE7985B90

[10] since: https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/Russia%20and%20Eurasia/russiachinamay06.pdf

[11] pipeline: https://www.gazprom.com/projects/power-of-siberia/

[12] announced: https://www.ogj.com/pipelines-transportation/pipelines/article/14173035/gazprom-begins-power-of-siberia-2-pipeline-design-survey-work

[13] pivot: https://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Russias-gas-pivot-to-Asia-Insight-40.pdf

[14] Gazprom: https://www.gazprom.com/press/news/2020/march/article502475/

[15] outlined: https://eurasianet.org/lavrov-lays-out-russias-new-china-centric-foreign-policy-line

[16] articulated: https://warontherocks.com/2019/09/anticipating-a-new-russian-military-doctrine-in-2020-what-it-might-contain-and-why-it-matters/

[17] pushing: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/et-editorials/special-privileged-strategic-partnership/

[18] arm: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/russian-arms-flood-southeast-asia

[19] overlap: https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2020/04/04/the_russo-chinese_alliance_does_it_stop_with_information_warfare_115173.html

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