Below the surface, not everything is smooth in China-Russia relations, but it can be difficult to see past the exaggerated plaudits generated by powerful propaganda machines on the unique closeness of the two strategic partners. Only a few keen observers picked up on a remarkable discrepancy in the respective Chinese and Russian press-services readouts of an August 25 phone conversation between President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin. According to the Kremlin, “the conversation was held in the traditionally friendly and trust-based atmosphere” (Kremlin.ru, August 25). In addition to standard praise for the relationship, the Chinese transcript asserted that Russia “unswervingly supports China’s legitimate positions of safeguarding its core interests on issues related to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the South China Sea” (Fmprc.gov, August 25). The Russian version of the exchange contains no indication of such support, and two weeks later, the Foreign Ministry found it necessary to clarify that Russia’s position on the South China Sea is unchanged, and that Moscow does not take sides in the dispute as a matter of principle (Mid.ru, September 10). This minor but embarrassing misunderstanding signals a lingering estrangement that both sides find convenient to conceal. No particular disagreement is behind this trend, but it is indicative of a partnership that is based more on transactional interplay of political moves driven by ambitions of autocratic leaders than on the reliable overlap of respective national interests.
Diverging Trajectories and Incongruent Interests
Ties between China and Russia have been growing since 2005, when the long-standing border dispute was finally resolved, but the strategic partnership really took off in 2014, when Russia entered into a profound confrontation with the West caused by its aggression against Ukraine. In May 2014, Putin travelled to Shanghai to sign a deal to export large volumes of Russian gas to China, but the main thrust of the newly-launched proto-alliance (as important as energy matters were) was centered on joining forces to oppose US “hegemony” and it’s reshaping of the international order. The question of status in this clearly asymmetric bilateral relationship was of crucial significance for Moscow, and if in the beginning Russian experts still entertained the proposition that Russia qualified as a “big sister” for China, some five years later Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought to disprove the perception that China had become Russia’s “big brother” (Lenta.ru, February 20, 2015; Izvestiya, September 5, 2019).
Taking a common stance, typically more declarative than practical, against the US’s policy of upholding global leadership does not ensure harmonization of Russia’s and China’s objectively dissimilar interests in many regions. For example, in the Arctic, Russia’s core interest is asserting its sovereignty, and it relies heavily on military means to do so, whereas China perceives the High North as a “global commons” and is not interested in its militarization (ICDS, September 3). Moscow’s prime interest In the Middle East is oil prices, so Russia has joined forces with Saudi Arabia to curtail the output through the OPEC+ mechanism (Bloomberg, September 12). By contrast, China is interested in securing high volumes of energy supply at the lowest possible prices. Syria is the linchpin of Russian interests in the Middle East, and the stability of al-Assad regime is threatened by the economic desolation, but China has hitherto shown only tepid interest in investing in Syria’s post-war reconstruction (The Conversation, July 30).
Russia is struggling to play a role in the Indo-Pacific, despite the region’s economic and geopolitical importance. Its relations with Japan have hit a rock with the Kuril Islands territorial dispute, the old friendship with India has weakened, and arms sales to Vietnam are curtailed because of objections by Beijing. In Moscow, the formation of a new security cooperation grouping between Australia, United Kingdom, and United States (AUKUS) is recognized as a major geostrategic development that requires rethinking of the prospects of the Russia-China partnership (Carnegie.ru, September 29). Nuclear submarines that Australia will acquire in some 10-15 years are of lesser concern for Russian experts than the spectacular increase of China’s naval capabilities. Russia cannot match China’s rapid naval modernization with its Pacific Fleet, which tries to show the flag as far as Hawaii, but has to concentrate its main efforts on protecting strategic submarine bases on Kamchatka (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, September 30).
For Russia, the pivotal theater in the irreducible confrontation with the West is Europe. The massive Zapad-2021 exercises demonstrated that much of Russia’s military modernization and reform is focused on preparing for a contingency on its Western flank (Moscow times, September 23). China is cautious not to get involved in this fluid balancing between containment and power projection, and abstains from providing any support to Russia in its stance on Crimea. A recent exchange between NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi provides a bit of insight into current assessments in Beijing (NATO Press Service, September 27). Wang said that “NATO should stay committed to its original geographic location” essentially implying that China expects NATO to focus on the mission of containing Russia, and has no intention to interfere in this confrontation (XinhuaNet, September 28). Beijing and Moscow find it useful to downplay and deny multiple incompatibilities between their respective interests, but the hidden differences manifest themselves in the increasingly obvious failures to advance cooperation in many practical fields from public health to space exploration.
Marching to Different Beats
The official discourse on the ever closer China-Russia strategic partnership implies that practical cooperation between the two neighbors expands beyond the flow of oil and gas in one direction and consumer goods in the other; there are however, few signs of such progress in the fields that are of crucial importance to both countries. However, in the struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, China and Russia have pursued entirely separate courses, even if Moscow takes particular care never to ascribe blame to Beijing for unleashing the global disaster (Australian Outlook, September 14). Russia was the first country to announce the breakthrough development of a vaccine, but its success story was undercut by slow domestic vaccination caused by widespread mistrust in the Sputnik-V vaccine (TRT World, August 18). China achieved greater success by exporting its vaccines to Latin America, Africa and South-East Asia, but data on the efficacy of Chinese vaccines remains dubious, and lack of transparency on its domestic health situation prompted India to align with Australia, Japan and USA and proceed with a counter-offensive in “vaccine diplomacy” in the QUAD format (Outlook India, September 28).
One area where greater bilateral cooperation would be mutually beneficial is space exploration. Russia used to compare its capabilities to deliver satellites into orbit and supply space stations with those of the US, but now finds only frustration in such comparisons. Russian propaganda tries to downplay the success of various US private space endeavors as billionaires’ hobbies, but what really caught Moscow by surprise was the spectacular advance of the Chinese space program (Russian International Affairs Council, October 7). China launched the first Tiangdong space station module, and deployed the BeiDou satellite navigation system, relying entirely on its indigenous technological base without any input from Russia (DefenseOne, July 16). Of course, Russia cannot ignore the military implications of these achievements. Russia expected that the new cosmodrome Vostochny constructed at huge expense (inflated by exorbitant corruption) would be of interest to China, but while visiting the still expanding construction site this summer, Putin observed the launch site is idle (EDM, July 15).
Beijing has shown limited interest in developing cooperation with Russia to enhance its strategic offensive/defensive capabilities, despite the potential boost this might provide. In October 2019, Putin delivered a big surprise at the annual Valdai club gathering announcing that Russia was helping China to build an early warning system, but since then only a few vague statements about “certain success” have been issued (TASS, August 24, 2020). It is possible that whatever plans for joint construction of the Voronezh-M/DM type early warning radars, have been impacted by the COVID-19 lockdowns (EastAsiaForum, November 20, 2020). However, China’s own buildup of its strategic forces has not slowed down, and the new data on China’s ICBM deployment has been a shock to many Russian experts (Nezavisimaya gazeta, August 29). The test of a Chinese hypersonic missile last August surprised many Western experts, but there is no evidence that Russia shared the technology used for the Avangard glide vehicle, which it deployed in 2021, after many years of research and development (Financial times, October 17; TASS, August 10).
China’s rapidly improving strategic capabilities underscore to Russia the limitations of the existing bilateral framework of negotiating strategic stability matters solely with the US, which Moscow values as a unique boost for Russia’s international prestige. It is no surprise that the Geneva consultations are not progressing well, as Russia clings to the principle of nuclear parity with the US and is unwilling to find a way to incorporate China into the equation (Kommersant, September 30). Moscow has thus far bowed to Beijing’s resolute refusal to join any arms control framework.
China’s consistent choice against engaging in any meaningful cooperation with Russia in areas perceived as crucial for its national security is determined not only by the desire to avoid any dependency, but also by doubts over Putin regime’s stability, which are informed by lessons learned from the USSR’s collapse. The Kremlin may have no such doubts regarding Xi Jinping’s grasp on power, but is anxious about the contrast in global perceptions between China’s rise and Russia’s stagnation.
Autocratic Partnership is Personal
Every decision on launching a major cooperative project is taken at the highest level in Moscow and Beijing, so the slackening of practical cooperation in the partnership may reflect a degree of unrealized estrangement between Putin and Xi. The two strongmen prefer to praise the unique chemistry of their friendship, despite the vast differences in their upbringing and political background, but the frequency of their contacts has visibly decreased, and Putin’s early announcement of his plan to attend the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing can hardly compensate for this shallowness of dialogue (RFERL, September 16). The crisis in Afghanistan has provided an important issue to engage on, but joint efforts at taming the Taliban are hardly in the cards as China relies on its power to invest in the region, while Russia stages a series of military exercises. The recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, which neither Xi Jinping nor Putin opted to attend, was rather disagreeable, with Tajikistan using its host privileges for making the case of ostracism against the Taliban regime (Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 14).
The pandemic has distorted many items that were on the agenda for Sino-Russia relations in the last couple of years. The long-planned celebrations of the 75th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War in Moscow were abbreviated, but the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing spared no expense (China Brief, June 19). Putin’s problem is that the Communist discourse and ideals are entirely foreign to his system of power, so much so that he can only refer to the 1917 revolution as a “tragic event” (Rossiiskaya gazeta, September 1). What is more disturbing from the Kremlin’s perspective, is the unrelenting struggle against corruption executed by Xi Jinping, as all-penetrating corruption is to all intents and purposes a key structural pillar of Putin’s regime. Exporting corruption may be Putin’s instrument of choice for building networks of devotees in Europe, but in China, his courtiers cannot find reliable counterparts. Xi’s purges of top security officials and the fierce behind-the-scenes power struggles are perfectly familiar for Putin’s court, but the revival of the Maoist slogan of “common prosperity” and exemplary punishment of billionaires are plainly incomprehensible to the Kremlin (Republic.ru, October 1). Many recent developments in China’s domestic policy appear to have left the Russian leadership puzzled. In Beijing there may be a better understanding of (and stronger expertise on) internal affairs in Russia, but what Xi Jinping learns hardly inspires confidence and trust in his partner.
Both Putin’s and Xi’s autocratic regimes are challenged by the US’s recent re-emphasis on bolstering democracy, but their common anti-American stance doesn’t make them natural partners, and it is possible that China-Russia strategic partnership has peaked. Both Moscow and Beijing are eager to argue that malignant US intrigues aimed at splitting their unity are doomed to failure, but the efforts of the Biden administration to impress upon Russia the imperative of “stable and predictable” behavior and to relaunch high-level dialogue with China provide little evidence that Washington harbors such grand intentions.
Strengthening NATO capabilities and tightening sanctions on Russia is unlikely to push Moscow closer to Beijing. The main focus of these policies is Ukraine and Crimea, and China has shown no intention of involving itself in this situation. Similarly, building resolve and capacity to counter China’s pressure on Taiwan is unlikely to prompt Beijing to expand ties with Moscow because the latter prefers to stay clear of the Taiwan issue, and has few means to engage with this escalating contest in East Asia. Despite the rhetoric from Moscow and Beijing, an alliance of autocracies is not in the making, much as proletarians of all countries were never able to unite. Rather, it is the inherent uncertainty of each dictator in the durability of their rule that will largely continue to determine their actions at home and abroad.
Pavel K. Baev is a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO).