How deep are Russia’s ties with China?
The strategic partnership between Russia and China has been growing stronger. Though both countries eschew alliances, Chinese President XI Jinping recently said that the “relationship even exceeds an alliance in its closeness and effectiveness.”
Both Russia and China were reluctant to accept the reality of a new cold war or the intensifying of hostility with the West, but there is no doubt that that reality accelerated their relationship. Their relationship has benefited from the personal rapport between their two leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called Xi “a very reliable partner” and told an interviewer that Xi “is probably the only world leader I have celebrated one of my birthdays with.” Xi has called Putin “my best, most intimate friend.”
Those two facts have led many analysts in the West to dismiss the Russia-China partnership as one of convenience that will not survive the current hostile situation nor the transition to future leaders. They should not be so dismissive.
Though the Russia-China relationship has benefited from the close relationship between Putin and Xi, it began long before that. In “China and Russia: the New Rapprochement,” Alexander Lukin says that “the rapprochement between the two countries was not … desired only by individual leaders.” Rather, he says, “It continued under all leaders.”
In fact, it began, according to Lukin, “as early as the final years of Leonid Brezhnev’s time in office.” Improving relations with China was a priority for Gorbachev. In 1986, Gorbachev first suggested the idea of pivoting to Asia and considered normalizing relations with China a priority. Days before Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the two countries’ deputy foreign ministers held talks on a new relationship between Russia and China. The year before, faced with a new unipolar world and the need for economic development, Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had already decided that “whatever changes have occurred in the Soviet Union, we should calmly develop relations with it, including political relations.”
Improving relations survived the transition from the Soviet Union to Russia. In December 1992, Boris Yeltsin went to China and signed a declaration that identified Russia and China as “friendly states” that would “develop relations of good-neighborliness, friendship, and mutually beneficial cooperation,” the foundation upon which today’s relationship would be built. Becoming increasingly disillusioned with the role Russia was being given in the new U.S.-led unipolar world, Yeltsin began to see that Russia would need to develop “good-neighborly and friendly relations between Russia and China,” according to Chinese Russia expert Li Jingjie.
By 1995, China had become “a country of prime importance” for Russia. Yeltsin said, “Relations with China are extremely important for us in terms of global politics. We can lean on China’s shoulder in relations with the West. Then the West would treat Russia with great respect.”
This idea of a multipolar world that would seismically challenge the U.S. plans for the post-Cold War international order may have made its first appearance as early as 1994, long before Putin and Xi. That year, Russia and China signed a declaration that identified each other as “powers which are a major factor of maintaining peace and stability under the situation of an emerging polycentric international system.” That embryonic idea was formally adopted in April 1997 when Yeltsin and then-Chinese leader Jiang Zemin signed “the Russian-Chinese Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order,” a relationship that can survive Putin and Xi because it predates them.
That declaration could be signed because by 1996, according to Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, Russian foreign policy had started to shift from Atlanticism to a greater emphasis on rising powers, like China and India, and advancing multipolarity. Both countries were ready for the shift. That year, one Chinese writer, Xi Laiwang, described the basis of the relationship as three don’ts and three dos: “do not enter into an alliance, do not oppose each other, do not take action against a third party” and do “be good neighbors, good partners, and good friends.” That same year, Yeltsin first called the relationship a “strategic interaction.” Lukin says that those are the words still used today for the official policy.
Two years later, Jiang Zemin was already referring to the Russian-Chinese relationship as “international relations of a new type.”
The emergence of Putin did solidify the relationship. According to Lukin, “China always had some worries regarding Boris Yeltsin because of the instability of his policies and even his personal behavior.” Putin would stabilize the foundation. In 2001, Russia and China made their relationship official and signed the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, giving a legal structure to the many documents they had signed in the decade prior to Putin. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that the Treaty “laid a reliable political and legal foundation of stable, predictable, and multifaceted relations between the two countries.”
And potentially looking past Putin, Lukin points out that “the election of Medvedev … in March 2008 did not lead to changes in Russia’s policy toward China.”
It follows from this long history of developing Russian-Chinese relations that that relationship is not only built on conditions that have emerged since the crisis in Ukraine in 2014. Sakwa told me that “the Sino-Russian alignment is an enduring one based on the alignment of interests and normative understandings of the international system.” He has said elsewhere that “On the fundamental issues in world politics, their positions are remarkably similar.”
As soon as Putin came to power, he said, “China and the Russian Federation share positions on a wide range of international issues and adhere to similar principles. I am referring, above all, to our goal of maintaining and strengthening the multi-polar world.”
But that did not begin with Ukraine. Lukin says that by the early 1990s, “Chinese leaders had already begun making anti-unipolar references in their approach to Russia. Beijing began to realize that Russia … could become a partner in the struggle against the … unipolar world that Washington was bent on achieving.” By 2007, it was already clear to Beijing that “China and Russia hold common positions on such major issues as working to establish a multipolar world and establishing a just and rational international order.”
The crisis in Ukraine acted as an accelerant to a relationship that was already warming. The spark was Russian and Chinese concern over the twin unipolar problems of NATO supplanting the Security Council and NATO expansionism. And though the Ukraine crisis fanned that flame, it was not only not the spark that ignited it, it was not even the first accelerant. Sakwa says that it was NATOs bombing of Serbia without Security Council authorization that turned the flame into a fire.
It was precisely because “China and Russia both stand for the basic norms governing international relations with … the UN Charter as the cornerstone,” Xi said, that “we both support progress toward a multi-polar world.” Recent Western hostility, sanctions and a push toward a new cold war have accelerated that relationship, but it is older and more enduring than that.
Though the relationship has intensified, it has not, consistent with the plans and policies of the two countries, become an alliance; though militarily, it is verging on the level of a quasi-alliance. But, though the relationship that has evolved between the two countries is extraordinarily close, it is not without its challenges.
There are disagreements. Though China blames U.S. encroachment and interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries for the crisis in Ukraine, it does not agree with Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Though, even here, China has been supportive of Russia.
There is also concern in some quarters, though not usually official quarters, of potential Russian economic dependence on China. But at the time of the choice to pivot to China, Russia had seen clearly that the alternative was certain dependence on, and forced subordination to, the United States. Besides, as Lukin points out, China’s economic superiority is not necessarily something for Russia to be afraid of any more than Canada should be afraid of U.S. economic superiority.
There is a third challenge that integration has been slowed to realistic levels because, as Sakwa puts it, “the publics in both countries and business elites have not really forged deep ties.” Here too, though, the governments are aware of the challenge and are addressing it through cultural exchanges and encouraging the learning of each other’s languages.
Lukin says that none of the challenges “constitute problems that can cause a dramatic worsening of bilateral relations. … The present basis of the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership is so strong and solid that any differences can be effectively resolved.”
The developing relationship between Russia and China will survive the current leadership in the two countries and endure beyond the crises of today. As former Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying minister said, “The Chinese-Russian relationship is a stable strategic partnership and by no means a marriage of convenience: it is complex, sturdy, and deeply rooted.”