The growing cooperation between Russia and China is reaching its historical apex as the two countries reinforce each other’s interests and security concerns in the global arena. Since 2014, Russia has caught international attention by reclaiming Crimea and carving out a global role for itself through its intervention in Syria to counter ISIS and its efforts to stabilize Afghanistan post the U.S. drawdown. China is also rapidly emerging as a global power set out to challenge the preeminence of the United States. It has been argued that Russia’s pivot to Asia strategy in 2014 was intended to expand its engagement with China in particular–one of the key contributors to the “rise of the Asian century.” Expanding bilateral cooperation between Moscow and Beijing to promote their mutual interests and address each other’s limitations is increasingly visible, especially in South Asia. Are Russia and China moving towards an all-weather partnership?
Evidence of Cooperation
As Samir Saran has argued, since 2000, Russia has successfully executed 20th-century geopolitics but failed to implement 21st-century geoeconomics as it continues to struggle with fragile economic conditions despite a formidable military and security capacity at its disposal. China, on the other hand, has made significant economic progress and is predicted to surpass U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) by next year. The two countries seem to be backing each other’s interests with China willing to provide Russia with economic assistance to prevent it from sinking back into the economic woes of the 1990s. For instance, China has invested in Russian energy through a $400 billion gas supply agreement with ready cash to start building pipelines and modernize their production. In turn, Chinese access to Russia’s energy market addresses China’s growing energy demand. The two countries have also agreed to integrate the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) projects.
Russia is also assisting China in its rise through defense cooperation. Although China has made prodigious progress in defense capabilities through indigenization and is fast becoming a potential competitor in global defense markets, it has a long way to go to achieve greater leverage in global defense technologies. Beijing continues to be dependent on Russia’s advanced weapons technologies. The issue of Chinese reverse engineering of Russian defense technologies seems to have been alleviated, as Russia has agreed to sell Su-35 aircraft and S-400 missiles to China. Despite being competitors in global defense markets, Russia and China today share the role of a defense supplier to nations like Pakistan.
Apart from Central Asia, the South Asian region is emerging as a zone of common interest for Russia and China. Pakistan is emerging as a key ally for both due to its strategic location, and participation in trade corridors and energy pipeline projects such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-India-Pakistan (TAPI) gas pipeline. Pakistan is now a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the emerging Russia-China-Pakistan nexus is set to undertake regional connectivity and integration, and place strategic priority on dealing with security threats emanating from the Af-Pak region.
Another crucial benefit of a strong China-Russia partnership is the veto power that the two countries enjoy in the United Nations Security Council. The strategic partners have used this privilege to accommodate each other’s global interests. For instance, last December, Russia and China both vetoed a United Nations Security Council Resolution calling for a ceasefire in Aleppo.
While Russia and China may see each other as partners in promoting their common interests, there are asymmetries and lack of trust between the two. The real challenge for China-Russia bilateral relations is at the bargaining table. It is widely argued that China tends to bargain against players that are either declining or weaker powers. The failure of India and China to resolve the border dispute is a case in point— nationalism, military strength, and economic growth in both countries stand in the way of an agreement. Should India at some point be in a disadvantageous position, China would not hesitate to progress the border settlement to its own advantage. Historically, Russia has acceded to Chinese demands at the bargaining table, as seen in the border dispute agreement signed in July 2008. Thus, it is advisable that Russia does not put all its eggs in the China basket, as Beijing may take advantage of or abandon a “weaker” Russia in pursuit of its own self-interest.
Given the expansion of ambitious common goals between Russia and China, particularly in South Asia, the two countries will need allies beyond Pakistan. Russia will need to rekindle its traditional partnership with India, with whom it shares mutual trust and understanding, and China will benefit from exhibiting benign behavior towards India, seeing as India is also a key contributor to the “Asian century” concept and a permanent member of the SCO. Moreover, the growing Russia-China relationship is not “anti-India,” but rather a counter to U.S. pre-eminence. Hence, Russia and China need to create a “balance of dependence” by aligning with India and reinforcing common interests as equal partners and co-designers for a stable and secure South Asia.
Image 1: The Kremlin