My View on Contemporary China-Russia Relations
Since the beginning of 2014, the Ukrainian crisis has become the hottest international issue, captivating public attention from around the world. It is fair to say that the Ukrainian conflict has been one of the major crises in international relations since the end of the Cold War. It has serious repercussions for Ukraine’s future, the evolution of Russia’s relations with the West, Europe’s security, and the evolution of global strategic patterns.
China-Russia relations have deepened in 2014. The two sides have strengthened mutual trust in the political realm, improved economic and security cooperation, reinforced bilateral coordination in multilateral institutions, and made strong headway in working together on various facets of global governance. The increase in diplomatic activity between the two heads of state gave new impetus to bilateral relations. Especially notable in this regard are Xi Jinping’s attendance at the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, Vladimir Putin’s attendance at the Shanghai CICA summit in late May (where he appeared side by side with President Xi), and the two leaders’ attendance at the BRICS summit in Brazil. The close interactions between the two leaders have likely sparked more initiatives for cooperation.
There are different international interpretations of the evolving China-Russia relations. One view is that China and Russia constitute the same regime type, and that they have formed an informal alliance to counteract the West, with China’s pro-Russia position on Crimea being one of the manifestations. Some worry that China would emulate Russia’s actions in Crimea and use force in resolving its own territorial and sea disputes. In this author’s view, such judgments are completely unsubstantiated, not based on rational analysis, but are driven by a subjective interest in strengthening military alliances to contain China’s rise.
In fact, China has maintained an objective and impartial position on the Ukrainian crisis throughout. China has consistently stressed that it values Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Given the complex historical factors underpinning the Crimea issue, its hope has been that Ukraine and Russia would come to an agreement through respectful and peaceful dialogue. China’s ambassador to the UN, Liu Jieyi, has explained this position in detail: “The situation in Ukraine is extremely complex and highly sensitive, with the latest developments being a product of complex historical and practical factors. The Chinese side expresses regret about the recent conflicts in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, condemns all violence, and urges the rights and interests of the people of all nationalities to be taken into consideration in resolving the crisis and restoring social order. China has tried to remain objective and fair throughout the conflict. It has consistently adhered to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations and the principle of upholding sovereignty and territorial integrity. The key priority now is to avoid further escalation by ensuring that both sides remain calm and maintain restraint. We have to continue using political and diplomatic means to resolve the crisis. We hope that the parties involved will safeguard the interests of all people of Ukraine through dialogue and coordination and will start to resolve their differences by safeguarding the region. China welcomes the mitigation efforts by the international community and any other constructive measures, suggestions, and initiatives to help resolve the crisis. China wants to continue to play a constructive role in seeking a political resolution to the Ukrainian crisis.”
In my view, internal (or domestic) factors serve as the main impetus for strengthening Sino-Russian relations, as the two countries work on improving the international climate and promote mutually beneficial development. From China’s perspective, improving relations with Russia is conducive to sustaining domestic economic development as well as maintaining an orderly environment at the China-Russia border. Cooperation with Russia takes advantage of mutually complementary economic resources and helps direct these resources into meaningful modernization projects and avoid bilateral conflicts. Some people wrongly believe that China-Russia cooperation is aimed at countering the United States. Such analysis favors the geopolitical games of chess rather than China’s strategic thinking. China’s key task in the 21st century is to fulfil the dreams from the past two centuries, and for that China needs to cooperate with the United States, Europe, Russia, Japan, India, and other global powers, rather than get bogged down in competitive games. While improving relations with Russia, China has also been striving to establish an “equal and respectful” great power relationship with the United States. China does not view its relationship with Russia as replacing that with the United States, but rather seeks to maintain strong and productive ties with both nations.
Some in China believe that after the Ukrainian crisis, the United States has had to adjust its global strategy and focus more on Europe and the Middle East. According to this thinking, China and Russia should establish an informal alliance in facing common pressures from the United States. Russia could thereby distract the Americans and delay their Asia pivot, and China could gain more room for strategic manoeuvring. The author believes, however, that while the Ukrainian crisis has pushed the United States to reaffirm its commitments to European allies, this crisis is unlikely to substantially diminish or affect its pivot to Asia. US policymakers realize that Russia is at most a regional power, not a global one, and is, therefore, unable to pose a serious challenge to US hegemony. Barack Obama, therefore, on his recent visit to Japan, reasserted the US alliances with Japan and the Philippines and pressed harder on TPP negotiations with the purpose of establishing a new regional order in the Asia-Pacific that benefits US interests. In order to give the “Asia rebalancing” initiative a legal backbone, on April 29, the House of Representatives put forward the “Asia-Pacific region priority bill,” hoping that it would increase US understanding of and engagement with Asia and “strengthen the capacity needed for maintaining peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific.” In considering the US-China benefits and concerns with regard to peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific, therefore, it is necessary for both nations to work out appropriate compromises in establishing the new great power relations in the region.
One can say that the Ukrainian crisis has not slowed down the US “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific strategy, and that the imagery of a China-Russia alliance contradicts major trends in international relations as well as the strategic demands of China and Russia. Nonetheless, China and Russia have fostered closer collaboration in upholding balance in the international system, in maintaining stability in Northeast Asia and Central Asia, and in fighting terrorism.
Since China-Russia relations have their own inherent value and intrinsic logic, the Ukrainian crisis cannot have a substantial effect on their development. Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that the relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated as a result of the crisis. In light of the US sanctions against Russia, Russia’s desire for economic and political cooperation with China has increased, which has fostered more enthusiasm on Russia’s side for a closer relationship with China. In the economic realm, the recent gas deal is a prime example. In May 2014, during Putin’s visit to Shanghai, Gazprom and CNPC signed a 30-year gas deal valued at USD 40 billion, and agreed on the construction of a gas pipeline in eastern Siberia to transport gas from Russia to China. Although Europe’s declining demand for Russia’s gas was one factor pushing Russia to search for other export markets, the underlying factor is the US shale gas “revolution,” which has been transforming the global gas market. The rise in shale gas supplies in the United States has diminished its import of liquid natural gas from the Middle East and North Africa, which in turn started selling more gas to Europe, making Europe less reliant on Russian gas. As a result of these global developments Russia’s position as a gas exporter has declined, pushing it to seek out and reconsider alternative markets, such as China.
National strategists like to discuss regional politics, but in the age of globalization, markets and technology likely play a more significant and a more long-lasting role.