The relationship between Russia and China, the two giants of Asia, has ranged from one extreme to the other. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the erstwhile USSR and the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the two countries co-operated closely on most fronts, especially on the military front. However, due to ideological divergences in the late 1950s, the relationship between the Asian powers was marred by frequent confrontations in the border and also in foreign policy approaches, which led to the Sino- Soviet split. The diplomatic stalemate came to an end after the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev to China in the late 1980s and the normalization of bilateral ties thereafter. Ever since the waning days of the Cold War, the Russian- Chinese relationship has steadily developed and they have become much closer since 2014. The recent joint statement issued by the two countries describes their strategic partnership as one with no limits.
The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia has put to test this “partnership with no limits”. Professing the principles of non-interference and territorial integrity, Beijing is left speechless on this gross violation of the principles of international relations by its close partner, Russia. This research strives to answer the following questions to understand the future of Russia- China relations:
- What is the background of the history of cooperation between Beijing and Moscow?
- What are the key drivers for closer 21st-century cooperation between Russia and China?
- How does the Ukraine conflict affect China’s relationship with Russia?
- What does the future hold for Russia- China bilateral ties?
BACKGROUND OF SINO-RUSSIAN RELATIONS
The relationship between Russia/ erstwhile Soviet Union and China has seen highs and lows throughout centuries. Since USSR became the first country to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the two Asian giants have experienced periods of close cooperation as well as intense confrontation, escalating to actual military conflict. In 1949 China, a nascent nation relied heavily on Soviet help. The Soviet ‘big brother’ lent out military technology and equipment transfers and helped China to solidify its military. It was natural that the Chinese government saw an ally in the Soviet Union, as both had common ideological alignment and a shared vision of advancing a communist revolution. Mao adhered to the strategy of “leaning to one side”, this helped the new party-state to gain international legitimacy and win the backing of a powerful patron who provided China with the much-needed economic and military aid. This led to the signing of the 30-year Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. However, this treaty did not last more than a decade. Due to an intense ideological battle and Moscow’s efforts to dominate China, the two moved towards the Sino- Soviet split which lasted till Mikhail Gorbachev visited China in 1989. Following the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union(1991), and China’s Tiananmen Crisis (1989), the two countries warmed up to each other, resolved border disputes, and engaged in closer bilateral and international cooperation.
The two countries have gone from establishing a “constructive partnership featuring good neighborliness and mutually beneficial cooperation” in 1994, to announcing a “partnership of strategic coordination based on equality and benefit and oriented towards the 21st century” in 1996, to signing the landmark “Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation” in 2001 and then, establishing a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” featuring equality, trust, mutual support, common prosperity and friendship from generation to generation in 2011, which was upgraded in 2019. In May 2014, Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin signed the China-Russia Joint Statement on a “New Stage of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination”, and agreed to establish a strategic partnership of energy cooperation. In June 2019, the two heads of state signed and issued the “Joint Statement on Strengthening Contemporary Global Strategic Stability”. In the recent meeting between Putin and Xi on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics, 2022, the two leaders issued a “Joint Statement on the international relations entering a new era and the global sustainable development”, iterating that the “friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”
Apart from diplomatic ties, the two countries co-operate closely in trade relations. In 2019, the bilateral trade volume between China and Russia was US$ 110.757 billion, a year-on-year increase of 3.4%. China has maintained the status of Russia’s first trading partner for 10 consecutive years, and Russia ranks 11th among China’s major trading partners. In terms of local co-operation, as of September 2020, the two sides have established 148 pairs of sister cities and provinces and states. They also hold same or similar positions on a series of major international and regional issues and maintain close communication and cooperation. This is evident by the fact that when voting in the UNSC, the two countries agree 98% of the time. The formation of SCO, BRICS, and RIC are just a few examples of the two sides trying to mold the global order in a new direction.
KEY DRIVERS FOR CLOSER 21ST CENTURY CO-OPERATION
Up till the last decade, many academicians and international relations theorists described the Russia-China relationship as a mere “axis of convenience”, citing their adversarial history and shared mutual skepticism. But this view has changed now as we see increasing closer co-operation between Russia and China. This article highlights some of the major reasons which have led to increasing bonhomie between Russia and China. Some unifying interests include opposing US hegemony and amending the post-cold war international order and countering the US spread of democracy. As Fu Ying puts it, “their cooperation is conducive to balance in the international system and can facilitate the solution of some international problems.”
The rate of economic, energy and military co-operation has increased dramatically since 2010. From holding expanded joint exercises to opening up of Power of Siberia pipeline to China becoming Moscow’s largest trading partner, there has been an unprecedented rise in the level of co-operation between the two nations. The existence of similar regime types in the two nations and the deeply personal relationship shared by the two leaders, Xi and Putin is also another crucial reason for enhanced cooperation. Xi has described Putin as his “best and bosom friend”. Other drivers for mutual cooperation include challenging US-led international financial systems, internationalizing the RMB, gaining strategic advantage in cyberspace, and deepening socio-political cooperation.
THE UKRAINIAN QUESTION & THE ROAD AHEAD
As Russian forces invaded Ukraine on 24th February 2022, it brought war back to Europe. Apart from triggering a huge humanitarian crisis, the invasion has shaken the post-war international order and put into question the future of sovereignty. This crisis is also a crucial test for the Russia-China ‘no-limits’ partnership. China has refrained from using any proactive language or condemning the Russian acts of aggression. Beijing claims to “understand Russia’s legitimate security concerns” and also “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries”. China seems to be walking a thin line here as it tries to uphold its foreign policy principles of non-interference and respect for territorial integrity, while not criticizing Moscow and simultaneously trying to project itself as a global responsible power. In the past, Beijing has applied the same tactic of leaning towards ‘pro-Russian neutrality’ where it neither endorses nor criticizes Russia’s actions, like in the annexation of Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and the recent abstention from votingon the UNSC draft resolution deploring Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. China has also heavily criticized US actions for fuelling the fire and called out on NATO to create a sustainable European security architecture, free from cold war mentality.
Russia is yet again moving towards a cold-war-style confrontation with the West, where it will be isolated again, but will it have Chinese backing? China has stopped AIIB projects and China’s Sinopec has also paused Russia projects amid sanction fears. An isolated Russia suits Beijing’s long-term interests as it will further push Russia into a position of junior partner and would also shift US concentration to Russia, giving China some breathing space.
Beijing has often reiterated the hope that “all sides will keep the door to peace open and continue to work for de-escalation through dialogue, consultation, and negotiation and prevent further escalation”, but it has done quite little to aid this process. As events unfold, it seems that Beijing is not likely to change its stance and will continue to back Russia. The Beijing- Moscow consensus is based on real commonalities but as the war prolongs, China will be pushed to an increasingly difficult position of having to defend a ‘no-limits’ partner who is responsible for waging war on a sovereign nation.
Riya Shah is currently in her final year of her bachelor’s in Chinese at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is passionate about conducting extensive, multi-domain China-focused research. Her areas of research interest include international relations, Chinese foreign policy, and the geopolitics of the East Asian region.
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