Defined by Beijing and Moscow on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine as a “friendship” that has “no limits”, relations between China and the defunct Soviet Union and Russia during the 20th century were a roller coaster ride, with ups and downs. And while the two giants have grown closer in recent years, thanks in part to the good relationship between Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, deep tensions and mistrust make both countries resistant to becoming overly dependent on each other.
“The close relationship between Putin and Xi is the glue that holds the two countries together at this point in history, but beyond the chemistry between the two leaders, the China-Russia friendship will depend on balancing shared interests at the global and regional level and on competing national interests,” said Professor Tai Ming Cheung, director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC).
The growing rivalry between China and the United States, on the one hand, and Russia’s plans to attack Ukraine and face NATO, on the other, led Xi and Putin to sign a “tight-knit strategic partnership” with no “forbidden areas of cooperation” at the opening of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games, suggesting that they would be willing to deepen engagement in once-avoided sensitive areas.
According to the speaker, until the beginning of the war in Ukraine, China-Russia relations were of middle strategic importance and did not significantly affect the global or regional order (in this case, East Asia). This, however, could change from 2022 onwards, with the Beijing-Moscow axis gaining relevance on the global stage, especially in the security/military area. “With Moscow cut off from the Western-led international economic system, its relations with China will be crucial to its medium- and long-term prospects,” he said.
For Tai, the China-Russia partnership has points of strategic convergence. Both countries express common views on sovereignty and territorial integrity, and Russia has expressed support for China’s approach to regaining control over Taiwan. However, China’s economic interests, whose impressive development in recent decades was based on exports, could become obstacles to establishing closer cooperation.
“The basis of the China-Russia relationship is not founded on bedrock, but on the regolith (loose layer of heterogeneous, surface material covering bedrock) of changing national interests,” said the expert on China’s defense and national security and East Asia affairs, in the webinar held by the FHC Foundation, CEBRI, and the Brazil-China Business Council (CEBC).
China and Russia’s relationship on the same level, or hierarchical?
The “trust deficit” reflects in the defense technology, one of the cruxes in the relationship, because Moscow fears that Beijing is misappropriating the Russian arms industry’s intellectual property, an accusation that has been made in the past. Each country’s standpoint on the newly-announced friendship awaits a position: Would China and Russia be partners on the same level, or would there be a hierarchy with one country more esteemed than the other?
“Russia sees itself as the senior partner in the relationship for having supported the Chinese communist regime in its first decade (the 1950s) and more recently for providing technology and military know-how to Beijing. China, however, believes it is in a position of strength to lead the relationship from now on as it is the second-largest economy in the world and is at the forefront of some of the technology of the future,” said the professor, whose areas of research include China’s efforts to become a world power of science, technology, and security. His new book, “Innovate to Dominate: The Rise of the Chinese Techno-Security State,” will be published in August by Cornell University Press.
In recent decades, the center of gravity of China-Russia relations has been in defense & security, science & technology, and arms transfers, with China as the buyer and the Soviet Union/Russia as the seller. “This relationship has had its ups and downs, given the allegations of espionage and technology misappropriation, but the ties have stabilized since the middle of last decade, even with both sides aware of the risks of doing business with the other,” said Tai.
More recently, however, the Russian and Chinese military and technology sectors have been forging ahead with new partnerships in so far unexplored areas, such as anti-missile defense systems, early warning systems, and hypersonic weapons. The Russian and Chinese armies have also run joint exercises on land, in the sky, and at sea in East Asia, in the Vladivostok region, and around Japan and South Korea.
Good relationship between Xi and Putin has been key to intensifying the partnership
Xi Jinping’s first overseas visit after taking office as President of the People’s Republic of China in 2013 was to the Kremlin’s almighty Vladimir Putin, who has been in power since 1999. “Both are products of and really believe in the systems they have worked on for most of their respective careers: Putin in the KGB intelligence apparatus, and Xi in the Communist Party,” affirmed Tai.
According to the professor, Russian and Chinese leaders have political and ideological affinities and similar views on national security and global landscapes, among other crucial issues. “They also share an abysmal distrust and even hostility towards the West,” he said.
While mutual antipathy towards the United States is bringing China and Russia closer together, this shared hostility is unlikely to result in a comprehensive and full-scale security/military alliance. “China-Russia relations suffer from a historical animosity that originated in the early 1960s, when a decade of good relations went down the drain, nearly leading to a war between the defunct USSR and the People’s Republic of China in 1969. Over the next 30 years, Beijing and Moscow went their separate ways,” Tai explained.
According to the Ph.D. in War Studies at King’s College (London University), this historical mistrust has been partly overcome, somewhat due to the efforts of Xi and Putin, but it’s settled right beneath the surface and helps limit the strategic trust, especially in each other’s military sectors.
Could China be a bridge between Russia and the West?
Critical of NATO’s expansion towards Eastern Europe, China did not condemn the invasion of Ukraine and did not adhere to the sanctions imposed by the West against Moscow, despite pressure from the US government. While Beijing has pressed Russia and Ukraine on the urgency of a negotiated solution, China has not yet made a public attempt to mediate the conflict.
“China would like to serve as a bridge between Russia and the international community at this time of crisis and in the medium to long term, but that will be a huge challenge given the West’s growing distrust of the Chinese regime,” Tai said.
What are the war’s implications for Taiwan?
If Russia had won the war against Ukraine quickly and decisively, the military option of regaining control over Taiwan would have become more attractive to Beijing. However, the Russian army’s difficulties in Ukraine have led the Chinese military to postpone any potential plans for military action against the island, which declared itself independent in 1949 but was never recognized by China as such.
“Beijing has no set date for reunifying Taiwan with mainland China, but the war in Ukraine will cause China to accelerate its efforts to modernize its war arsenal and its armed forces to become a military world power by 2049 (when the communist regime hits 100 years in power),” said Tai.
After his opening speech, Tai Ming Cheung answered questions from political scientist Hussein Kalout, professor of International Relations at Harvard University and advisor to CEBRI, and journalist Cláudia Trevisan, former correspondent for Estadão in Beijing and Washington DC and CEBC’s Executive Director. Journalist Otávio Dias, the content editor at the FHC Foundation, mediated the event and curated questions from the audience.
Otávio Dias is the content editor at Fundação FHC. He is a political and international affairs journalist, former correspondent for Folha de São Paulo in London, and former editor of the estadao.com.br website.
Portuguese to English translation by Melissa Harkin, CT & Todd Harkin (Harkin Translations).