30 December 2019

CHINA-RUSSIA: “Never against each other, but not always with each other”

Sergiu Medar

Starting with 2014 and US and EU’s sanctions’ imposition on Russia after the Crimean invasion, Moscow became closer to Beijing. Putin’s relation with Xi Jinping turned warmly and their states’ cooperation stronger, including in terms of the military field. The military technology and liquefied gases transfer from the Russian side to China, as well as the 5G communication and high Chinese technology to Russia were the first changes which got everyone thinking that these two big powers may create an alliance to have global geostrategic effects.

Image source: Mediafax

Between June 4th and 6th 2019, China’s president, Xi Jinping, made a three-day visit to Russia, celebrating 70 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Given their issues and the things agreed and declared at this meeting, they got to the conclusion that their relation reached, as Putin was saying, “an extremely high level”. First of all, this comes as a result of the major common interest that Russia and China have identified, which is blocking or cooling down US’s actions’ effects. Russia relies on China’s banking financial support to slow down US’s sanctions’ result. In its turn, China, which is at trade war with US, relies on Russia’s military and economy support.

Putin stated that “these countries’ relation has successfully stood the test of time”, and Xi also declared that: “step by step, we have been able to bring our relations to the highest level in history”.

Russia’s National Defence Strategy explicitly identifies US as a threat. China, in its National Defence Strategy, sees US as a threat on its national security. During Russia and China’s leaders June meeting, it was agreed to establish common defence programs to militarily deter the US. Both states are projecting and executing their military equipment to a technological level whose effectiveness is measured and tested relative to US’s equipment. One can say these measures could trigger a new arms race, similar to Cold War’s one.

The proof that Russia and China are seriously looking into these bilateral programs is that on December 2nd it was opened the liquefied gases pipeline, which connects these two countries, the Russian energy source overpassing, in terms of quantity and length, all the other sources.

As for the military relations between these states, it all starts from the idea that Russia’s military technology and equipment are superior to China’s.

On September 24th 2019, within the cooperation commission meeting of these two powers, the delegations led by defence minister have agreed on a new cooperation agreement for 2020-2021.

Russian Minister of Defence, Sergey Shoigu, states that it was established a “great cooperation plan for the near future”. On the other hand, the Chinese Minister of Defence, Wei Fenghe, has stated also, at the Tsentr 2019 developed by these two states and other 6 in the region, that the common drill proves a “high level of shoulder by shoulder interaction” between states’ military men.

Satisfied on the signed agreement and this drill’s results, both leaders have concluded their armies are in a common military integration process. In fact, the Russian and Chinese armies have developed so far more than 30 exercises together, for the past 10 years. The common naval exercises were held in strategic interest regions, such as South China Sea, Mediterranean Sea and the Baltic Sea. They also developed air patrol mission in Japan’s Sea. With the INF Treaty, Russia and China could not develop such missiles. However, China is not part of the INF, therefore it developed such nuclear missiles and 90% of the nuclear missile they have are 5000 km range of action missiles. This way, the East and South East of Asia and Western Pacific Intermediary Nuclear Forces balance favors China. This is the main reason why US has THAAD missiles dislocated in South Korea, though opposed by China and Russia.

Vasily Kashin, professor at the High Economic School in Moscow was writing back in 2018 that “If at some point Russia and China decide to jointly intervene in a local conflict, their militaries would act as a very strong force multiplier for each other.”

“Until 2 or 3 years ago, Russia exported inferior military equipment to China, however better than the Chinese one”, says Paul Dibb, emeritus professor at the National University of Australia. Currently, Russia gives China low-frequency acoustics submarines, ship defence supersonic missiles and it started to offer consultancy in creating an early warning center for ballistic missiles.

Everyone can see that, as times goes by, the Russia-China relations will evolve from military drills and equipment procurement to the opposition against any US and Western Europe activities that may be seen by China as threats on its interests.

Given the increased cooperation between these powers, Artiom Lukin, professor at the Federal University for Far East in Vladivostok, was stating: “If this tendency will persist for the next 4-7 years, by the end of 2020 we will witness a de facto military alliance between China and Russia”. Moscow officials do not admit such a possibility, which was recently denied by the Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, Sergey Lavrov.

In his October 2019 speech at the International Conference of Valdai Club, Vladimir Putin, talking about China-Russia relations, was mentioning that they are “alliance-like”. On short term, this is not actually possible, as the leaders of these two powers have followed the security cooperation principle “never against each other but not always with each other”.

This means strategic and tactical support, but they are opened to different positions as well. For example: China does not recognize Crimea as part of Russia and Moscow is, formally, neuter in terms of the US-China disputes in South China Sea.

On the other hand, they may keep the alliance option for a while, in order to avoid a hierarchy of these two powers.

On May 8th 2015, at the annual parade celebrating the end of World War II, the Russian and Chinese presidents have talked about Eurasia Union’s integration with “Belt and Road Initiative”, Xi Jinping’s main strategic program. If we also consider Putin’s discussion with French president Macron on a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, we could identify, in all this geopolitical confusion, Putin’s ambitions, who is always seeking global power.

Putin and Xi Jinping have a great personal relation which allows them to exchange perspectives in terms of international developments. Therefore, this Moscow-Beijing cooperation may continue, at least as long as both leaders will control their countries.

Not all political analysts agree with the transformation of this cooperation into an alliance. The Russia analyst, Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy director at the Institute for Political-Military Analyses in Moscow, was underlining in an article about Russia-China relations that both Moscow and Beijing are more interested on the relation with Washington, than the one they have.

For now, we cannot say there is a Russia-China alliance, because of the lack of trust between them. Despite all efforts of these leaders who supposedly are friends, they can hardly cancel the feelings hunting them for centuries.

China does not want to disturb its European interests, and a formal nearness to Russia could lead to that. In times when EU tries to take a stance as global power, a Russia-China alliance would completely take it out of the competition. Also, Russia does not want to make hostile the South-East Asia states, which do not have a great relation with China.

Russia and China can develop air and maritime patrols in South China Sea, but not in Taiwan’s territorial waters or above it. They do not have a great military importance, but it could have a political one for the deterrence of states disputing the control over the waters of exclusive economic zones in this side of the world.  

Although, on short term, an alliance against US is not a possible, the political, economic and security partnership between Russia and China is an extremely important element for the international situation estimation.

Translated by Andreea Soare