By Jacob L. Shapiro
Summary The idea that Russia and China are going to become close allies fails to account for the constraints and geopolitical imperatives of both countries. Neither can be content in a situation where the U.S. has untrammeled power in the world. But that does not change the geography that makes the interests of Beijing and Moscow so different. In this case, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
The United States is the world’s dominant power, and is without peer. But Russia and China are arguably the next two most significant world powers on the list. Russia’s economy may be in shambles, and it is in the process of updating its military and rearming for 21st century conflict – but even so, Moscow boasts a formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons and just demonstrated in Syria how effective a limited deployment of Russian troops can be. China now has the second largest GDP in the world, and convulsions in the Chinese economy have global ramifications, as the crisis of the exporters has demonstrated.
U.S. relations with Russia and China have become tense in recent years. The American “reset” of relations with Russia froze with the Ukrainian revolution of February 2014. The U.S.-China relationship is less hostile: there has been ostensible progress on economic issues, on isolating North Korea and levying sanctions against Pyongyang, and even on issues related to climate change. But China’s saber rattling in the South China Sea is a challenge for America’s Asian allies and a nuisance to the U.S. Nor can the U.S. be comfortable with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s moves to affirm his status as Chinese dictator. On the surface, it would make sense for China and Russia to marry their fortunes together. An alliance would create exactly the type of Eurasian force that U.S. policy is designed to thwart. But here, geopolitics asserts itself.
Areas of Increased Cooperation
That Russia and China might seek to increase cooperation to the point of becoming allies is not a red herring argument. On both a macro and a micro level, relations between Russia and China are arguably better today than they have been at any point since World War II. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Sino-Russian relations have improved markedly. The 1991 Sino-Soviet Border Agreement settled many territorial disputes between the two countries – the last of these disputes was addressed in a 2004 agreement that dealt with the eastern section of the border. In 2001, China and Russia signed a Treaty of Friendship, a 20-year agreement that not only provides the basis for peaceful relations, but also has been interpreted as an implicit defense pact.
The countries’ ties have accelerated in recent years in three areas: energy, finance and infrastructure/technology. Russia and China flirted with energy cooperation in the past, but in 2013 the two sides signed a number of deals, including a $270 billion oil deal and a joint venture between Rosneft and China National Petroleum Corporation that constituted Russia’s first attempt to break into China’s gasoline market. Overall, according to the Bank of Russia, Chinese foreign direct investment into Russia increased by a factor of five from 2009 to 2014.
The 2008 financial crisis hit Russia hard and would turn out to be a harbinger for more serious problems to come. Russia once bragged it could survive if oil prices dipped as low as $70 a barrel, which now seems like wishful thinking. The recent March “rally” in oil prices to $40 then just made a catastrophic situation a little easier to swallow. Meanwhile, Moscow’s underestimation of the crisis in Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions tacked on after Russia formalized its rule of Crimea drove Russia to look east more than it had in the past. In May 2014, Putin signed a bevy of agreements, though many of these have not moved forward at the anticipated pace. More important for Russia is financing – and this also has picked up. Just last month, Gazprom secured a $2.17 billion loan from the Bank of China, and according to the Bank of Russia, new Chinese loans to the non-financial sector and households in Russia in 2014 totaled $11.6 billion – almost four times as much as Russia’s next biggest lender.
On the more mundane level of diplomacy, Russia and China also have seen some of their interests converge. Both have reacted negatively toward recent North Korean nuclear provocations and even signed on to U.S. sanctions against North Korea. But both also see a strong U.S. presence in South Korea, which can be expected to increase over the next decade, as a threat. China is still not quite sure what to do about Russia’s Ukraine problem. On the one hand, China has affirmed Ukraine’s sovereignty. On the other hand, China does not want to condone the Ukrainian revolution for fear of implicitly lending legitimacy to separatists in places like Taiwan or Tibet. But by and large, China and Russia find themselves, if not on the same side of many issues, pleasantly indifferent to the other’s position.
Despite these converging interests, geography and history keep China and Russia from becoming meaningful allies, or enemies for that matter. China and Russia have the sixth-longest international border in the world at roughly 4,209 km (2,615 miles). But that figure is misleading, as is simply looking at the border on a flat map. Russia’s major population centers are in the west – the view from Moscow looks out across the North European Plain, not towards the Urals.
The bulk of China’s population lives on the coast and drops precipitously west of the line marking 15 inches of annual rainfall. China can be seen as a very densely populated island, surrounded on one side by ocean and on the other side by vast buffer regions of mountains and deserts. Much has been made of China potentially slowly taking over Siberia through demographics. It’s unclear how many Chinese people live in Siberia but even if immigration increased wildly, Siberia is far from China’s core – Beijing has a hard enough time managing its northwestern Xinjiang territory. China has never in its long history dominated Siberia, and there’s no reason to expect it to begin to now.
But the distance between Russia and China is more than just the vast swaths of desert and mountains between the major population centers. Russia’s most important strategic issue is re-establishing its traditional buffer zones in Europe. China has relatively little, if any, interest in Russia’s European buffer. China is much more concerned with developing capabilities that would make it harder for the U.S. to assert its naval dominance in the various seas to the east over which the U.S. currently maintains control. There is not a great deal that China and Russia can do for each other, and neither side is interested in provoking hostility from the U.S. right now. Russia is looking for a temporary accommodation in Ukraine, and the moves China makes in the South China Sea are more smoke than fire, meant for domestic political consumption in a period of transformative restructuring in the country.
The downturn in oil prices and sanctions have encouraged Russia to look east, but the costs of building the infrastructure necessary to supply China have historically outweighed the benefits. Despite the various niceties between Moscow and Beijing since 1991 and the myriad deals that have been signed between the two countries, there is still no gas pipeline that connects Russia to China, and according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, less than 1 percent of Russian liquefied natural gas exports went to China in 2014. Oil is a different story – China is a significant destination for Russian crude exports, making up about 14 percent of all Russian crude exports in 2014. But China is not about to replace Europe as the most important export market for Russia’s natural resources. In fact, using equations developed by Dr. George Friedman to establish export dependence of raw materials, we find that China is actually more dependent on Russian oil imports than Russia is dependent on exporting oil to China.
A History of Mistrust
Besides geography – and perhaps because of it – there is also a history of mutual distrust between Russia and China. The Slavic and Sino civilizations are considerably different. This is not the United States’ border with Canada, where there is similar culture and intelligible language on both sides. In fact, direct contact along the border is fairly limited and the border areas are mostly home to various Turkic and Mongolian groups.
This is also a border that Russia and China have been arguing over and fighting about for centuries, and despite the treaties of the 1990s and 2000s, there is still a great deal of suspicion on both sides. Russians worry that Chinese immigrants are pouring over the border and changing the demographics of Russian territory. The Chinese still talk about the 400,000 square miles of “lost territories” it was forced to cede to Russia by treaty after the Opium Wars of the 19th century.
Today, the border between Russia and China largely follows the Amur River, and the two sides have been fighting over that particular demarcation since the 1600s. In 1685, the Qing Emperor Kangxi assaulted the Russian outpost of Albazin on the Amur River – and in 1689 Russia and Manchu-led China signed a treaty that fixed the general placement of the northern border. But there have still been numerous clashes on the Amur River throughout the years, most recently in 1969, when a seven-month Sino-Soviet border conflict resulted in both countries massing large numbers of troops on the border and roughly 900 combined casualties. That conflict was defused in large measure because the U.S. threatened to intervene on China’s side should Russia throw its full weight into the conflict.
Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union and China competed for influence in Asia, for example in the Cambodian-Vietnamese war that began in 1975. China was also opposed to Soviet moves in Afghanistan, believing that the Soviets were trying to surround China.
Despite the fact that the USSR and China were the two most notable communist regimes after World War II, the countries’ different stages of development created an ideological gap, which manifested very early on in the Sino-Soviet relationship. On the one hand, the relationship with the Soviet Union was very important for the fledgling People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao Zedong only made two trips abroad during his time in power, in 1949 and in 1957, and both of those visits were to the Soviet Union. In the early 1950s, after Mao took power from the nationalists, the Soviet Union guided China as it pursued a centralized economy focusing largely on heavy industry.
However, Mao was increasingly disillusioned with the Soviets, believing that traditional Marxism was intrinsically European and had to be adjusted to fit non-European societies. By the late 1950s, Mao’s attitude towards the Soviets could be summed up by this statement to fellow Chinese Communist Party members: “I couldn’t have eggs or chicken soup for three years because an article appeared in the Soviet Union which said that one shouldn’t eat them. Later they said one could eat them. It didn’t matter whether the article was correct or not, the Chinese listened all the same and respectfully obeyed. In short, the Soviet Union was tops.” China’s development strategies also changed, as it began to focus on the mass organization of peasant labor to make the Great Leap Forward – which would have disastrous effects for China. It was also in many ways a Great Leap Away from the Soviets.
China and Russia are both powerful nation-states whose power and influence is proportional to the amount of national pride each population feels about its country. But they are also very different, separated geographically by formidable distance and barriers, and with different strategic priorities. Though recent international developments have brought Sino-Russian relations to a relatively high point, there are still plenty of stumbling blocks to the further advancement of those relations and geopolitical constraints stifling a super alliance that could theoretically challenge U.S. power. Perhaps the single element that the two countries have most in common is that both face very serious internal issues – foundational challenges that we forecast will lead to their obsolescence as regional powers over the next 25 years. Neither can help the other avoid those forces. Misery in this case cannot abide company.