After experiencing many ups and downs in their relationship, China and Russia have forged a strategic partnership since the advent of the 21st century. While Russia’s relations with the United States and the European Union have hit a rough patch, its ties with China are on an upward trend. Meanwhile, the United States and Europe are closely watching the two big neighbors in case of the event of a creation of an anti-Western “axis.” Grounded in an analysis of the unique advantages of China-Russia relations, this paper argues that the two countries have established a high level of political trust and will continue to work in concert on all fronts. It also looks back at how China entered into alliances throughout its history and the lessons it has learned from those experiences. It emphasizes that China does not deem the establishment of exclusive alliances or political blocs as a foreign policy option.
The thriving China-Russia relationship has given rise to questions as to whether they will form an axis.
The year 2015 appears poised to be another year bustling with activity for China and Russia. In July 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping participated in the summits of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS nations in Ufa. Xi also paid a visit to Russia to attend celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the victory of Russia’s Great Patriotic War in Moscow on May 9. During June last year, Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, headed to Russia for a meeting of the cooperation committee of the two countries’ legislative bodies and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Parliamentary Forum. The schedule for the second half of 2015 was busy as well. In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin attended China’s own celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War. The two countries’ heads of government held their regular annual meeting at the end of the year—the 20th of its kind. At a time when Russia’s ties with the United States and nations in Western Europe are showing signs of frostbite, its warm relations with China have caught the world’s attention. When visiting American think tanks earlier this year, I was asked many questions regarding the direction of China-Russia relations. International scholars and members of the media have begun dusting off anxieties that were once shelved, curious to discern the nature of the partnership between the two countries. The parallels between the global turmoil of today and the Cold War are closing in—will containment and bloc alliances play a sinister role once more?
There have long been two arguments on how to assess and predict the future development of China-Russia relations. One holds that these relations are vulnerable, complicated and filled with uncertainties. As the gap in power yawns between the two countries so will the amount of suspicion harbored against each other’s foreign policy. These, coupled with their reluctance to have their hands tied by the other, have made it impossible for them to become allies in a Cold War context. After the two countries vetoed a UN bill on Syria in May 2012, George D. Schwab, former President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy characterized the China-Russia relationship as a «marriage of convenience» guided by expediency. On the other hand, some believe that it is inevitable that the two countries, both under heavy U.S. pressure and perceiving the United States as a main threat, will create an anti-Western alliance. Such an alliance, according to those suspicions, would be aimed at dethroning the United States from its leading position in the world and thereafter shaping a new world order. An article published on the U.S.-based Business Insider website even proposed nine ways in which China and Russia could undermine the United States. The proposals included massive military as well as nuclear forces buildup, the consolidation of territorial claims, and the support of «rogue regimes» both economically and militarily. In addition, waging cyber warfare worldwide, indirectly facilitating terrorist groups and obstructing the UN’s decision-making process were deemed as likely methods for causing havoc.
China gained its understanding of alliance from historical experiences
Throughout history, the formation of alliances was often a way to create a blocs of power, allowing weak states to coalesce and maneuver for survival. From China’s point of view, a traditional alliance is likely to be composed of four main features. First, it would grant the members the ability to cope with external threats in special situations. Second, there is often a disparity between the abilities of each member, resulting in the subordination of the weaker component. Third, an alliance is often formed at the sacrifice of the interests of one or more parties involved. Fourth, most alliances are not set in stone, and are therefore unsustainable when the situation changes or the goals of the collaboration are met. From an international perspective, an alliance is often the product of political blocs, which results in an unequal and unfair world order filled with double-standards. This point of view can easily trigger contradictions and conflicts among countries or country groups, and constrain the policy choices of allied nations when facing major international issues. It is safe to say that the currently existing alliances are the dregs of the Cold War and are not consistent with the trends of the 21st century.
Such a conclusion was drawn on the basis of China’s historical experience. In the decades between the 19th and 20th centuries, China signed three alliance treaties with the Russian Empire and its successor, the Soviet Union, all of which ended in vain.