U.s.-china Relations: Does Russia Matter?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 10

Beijing’s speedy socio-economic boom of the last two decades has propelled China to the top of the U.S. list of foreign policy priorities, above the shaky and unstable Russian Federation. The axiom, attributed to Condoleezza Rice following the active phase of the Iraq War that America should “punish France, ignore Germany, forgive Russia and pay special attention to our ties with China” seems now to be a deep-rooted policy approach.

China, in turn, has its eye on the United States. Pursuing a global strategy of economic, political and diplomatic “breakthrough”, Beijing is deeply interested in consensus with the U.S. as a pillar of the world security, economic and financial system. Moreover, Beijing needs the U.S. to resolve the Taiwan knot. From the perspective of the Bush administration, the comments on Taiwan seemed like a necessary move to guarantee that the Taiwan flashpoint did not transform into a hot conflict. Though President Chen was reelected, the message from Washington was taken. The Taiwanese people preferred peace and the status quo to the troubled waters of independence.

Both the U.S. and China see bilateral ties as the backbone of their international and security strategies, even in the aftermath of September 11th. The question of Russia, however, is still pending: while U.S.-China bilateral ties and an independent security agenda is of growing, if not paramount, importance to both sides, does the Russian factor still matter to the White House or Zhongnanhai when they negotiate with each other?

Geopolitics, energy and military technology

In geopolitical terms, China needs a peaceful and stable northern border as it faces possible security risks and uncertainties in other directions – especially at its eastern and southeastern flanks. The possibility of conflict with the U.S. and its allies in Asia Pacific, a possible crisis over Taiwan, the weakness of the Chinese blue water navy and the geostrategic vulnerability of its rich maritime provinces, the inability of a booming trading power to guarantee the stability of its sea lanes of communications and territorial problems with Japan and in South China Sea, all create a complex set of Chinese security problems.

China’s energy vulnerabilities are a special issue. According to estimates, 30 to 60 percent of China’s domestic oil consumption will be satisfied through importation by 2010, mainly from the Middle East. [1] Even the lowest margin is strategically excessive for such a huge and populous country, while a second facet of this vulnerability remains often overlooked by the experts. The notion of China’s energy security should embrace Beijing’s ability to accumulate the necessary resources to pay for imported energy. In the case of China’s export-oriented economy, this means that China will be confident in its energy security only if it has unlimited access to the world market. The interdependence of China’s posture on the world energy and trade markets should not be underestimated. With the current prices of crude, China’s yearly energy bill could approach $25 billion by 2010.

Realizing such challenges, the Chinese are ready to pay the high price for a peaceful Russian flank and cooperation with Moscow. The 2001 Russian-Chinese Treaty on Good Neighborly Relations, Friendship and Cooperation has provisions similar to the notable U.S. formula of “strategic ambiguity”. Article 9 of the treaty says that “if any situation could occur, that, in the view of any Party … could endanger peace or violate its [Party’s] security… both Parties should immediately resort to consultations for the sake of elimination of such danger.” This is the first time in the post-Mao era that China has abided by responsibilities like this with a major world power. Both countries formally announced they used this treaty’s provision after President Bush announced in 2001 that the U.S. would abrogate the 1972 Anti-Missile Defense (AMD) Treaty.

Both sides also have made serious concessions to reach two basic border agreements (in 1991 and 1994), thus eliminating the fuel for future territorial frictions. This progress allowed Russian President Vladimir Putin to state during 1997, that the “territorial problem between the two countries is settled forever.” A compromise on three small islands on the border rivers of Ussuri and Argun was not reached, however. They remain under Russian control, with Beijing and Moscow agreeing that ownership of the islands should “be resolved by future generations.”

Given their closeness and accessibility through pipelines, Siberia’s energy resources started to be one of the major priorities for China in bi-lateral ties with the Russian Federation. A feasibility study signed in 2001 of the 2,400 kilometer-long Angarsk-Daqing pipeline project, with a projected capacity of 400,000 b/d in 2010 and 600,000 b/d in 2030, is one of the cornerstones of Russo-Sino relations and a future energy bridge between the two Asian powers. Also, the Chinese state-owned oil company CNPC aggressively bid for the shares of the Russian “Slavneft” company, trying to gain access to Russia’s oilfields and petrochemical infrastructure. Japanese competition for Siberian oil, Putin’s fight with prominent oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky (whose company, Yukos, was originally named as the operator of the Chinese pipeline project), and Moscow’s feelings of insecurity in letting Chinese capital directly into Russian oilfields have combined to thwart China’s overtures. However, making inroads into the Chinese energy market is an obvious goal of Russian oil companies, who would never forgo this opportunity in the long term. Energy supply to China also has another benefit: it stimulates exploration and development of new oilfields in Eastern Siberia – a promising zone, but as of yet undeveloped.

Russian arms and technology sales to China are another means of Moscow’s indirect influence on Beijing and U.S.-China relations. Russia is selling and co-producing with China critical weaponry such as the Su-27 and Su-30 fighters, Kilo-636 submarines, Sovremeny-class destroyers equipped with cruise missiles, and S300 PMU-2 missiles (SAM). Beijing uses these weapons extensively in its build up in the Taiwan Strait, and is unable to purchase such sophisticated items anywhere else in the world market. Notwithstanding the bottlenecks of the Russian military industry, the limitations of its Research and Development and innovation base, problems of technical service and occasional shortages of spare parts, Beijing and Moscow’s partnership in arms sales has gained momentum, a momentum most probably irreversible in the short run.

For their part, Russian military firms are vehemently striving to secure access to the Chinese market. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates that China imported arms worth a total of $10.78 billion (in 1990 dollars) from 1991 to 2001; more than 90% of those weapons from Russia. SIPRI figures showed that the value of imports from Russia sharply accelerated after 1999. By 2000, China had become the world’s biggest arms importer and retained that position for the next two years, ahead of India, Turkey, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia.

Since the U.S. ramped up its presence in Central Asia in 2001, developments in the region also increased Russia’s value in Chinese geopolitical calculations. While campaigning for the White House in 2000, George W. Bush called Beijing the main strategic “competitor” of the U.S.A. and promised that this competitor’s moves would be controlled. The Chinese were reasonably concerned that the U.S. bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, besides all other aims, could be the “check points” for such control. Since Russia has been trying to regain a substantial security role in its backyard, cooperation with Moscow in Central Asia is a matter of special interest for the Chinese.

Reacting to U.S. presence in the region, China has noticeably heightened its interest and is now actually taking the lead in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Since 2001, Beijing vigorously supported the antiterrorist and security activities of the SCO, which was originally designed for economic and humanitarian activities. In August 2003, five SCO member states (excluding Uzbekistan) took part in the first military exercise of the joint “anti-terrorist” task force on the territory of Kazakhstan and China’s Xinjiang province.

These priorities are even more pressing, given the growing importance of Eurasia in Chinese strategy. Beijing’s plans for dynamic development in the promising Xinjiang province with its sporadic ethnic unrest, as well as Chinese involvement in vital energy projects and trajectories in Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan, have been propelling this shift.

Americans understand that their international differences with China – on many sensitive issues such as Iraq, Central Asia, or transfer of military technology to countries like Iran – are now complicated by Moscow. Obviously, the Russia factor strengthens China’s position and makes compromise with Beijing more costly to the U.S. However, U.S. military and diplomatic ascendancy, among other things, has allowed Washington to take a variety of approaches in dealing with this assortment of security issues that make the Russian factor impossible to ignore.


1. The Strategic Implications of China’s Energy Needs, Philip Andrews-Speed, Xuanli Liao and Roland Dannreuther. International Institute for Strategic Studies. Adelphi Paper # 346. London, 2002 p.24, 32.