A Calculated Relationship

By Yun Sun
in Program

The Western perceptions of China-Russia relations tend to be polarized. In the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, the pessimists see another Sino-Russia alliance emerging with strategic and political ambitions in Eurasia against the democratic free world.  The optimists are suspicious of any genuine friendship between two assertive powers with too much geographical proximity and historical agony. Neither accurately captures China’s view of the relationship today. China follows a highly pragmatic and calculated approach toward Russia and their alignment on specific policy issues is based on a shared threat perception about the West.

When China and Russia look at the world politics and the power equilibrium today, they have many similar views and concerns. Both proud nations feel a strategic pressure from the West, especially the United States, on their national security, spheres of influence, and their domestic politics. Especially on the spheres of influence, the expansion of NATO and U.S. rebalancing to Asia are perceived to be threatening in Eastern Europe for Russia and in the West Pacific for China.

In this context, certain political alignments, especially on foreign policy issues, becomes a logical choice for Beijing and Moscow. From Beijing’s perspective, issues such as the Ukraine crisis greatly enhanced the value of Chinese political and economic support for Russia, boosting its leverage in the bilateral relations. Although China does not necessarily support Russia’s annexation of Crimea, staying away from Western sanctions enables China to acquire better deals on issues, such as Russian arms sales to China and Russian economic cooperation, especially in the energy sectors.

More importantly, for China, Moscow’s “belligerence” offers a strategic distraction for the United States in its endeavor to counter China’s rise in Asia.  The hope is that if Washington has to devote more attention and resources to deal with Russian ambitions and actions in Europe, both its ability and willingness to focus on China will be substantially mitigated. China longs for such a “strategic window of opportunity” to build its national power and strategic presence without generating strong reactions from the United States. The last such window it had occurred 15 years ago after 9/11.

Problems certainly exist: Many Chinese still hold a grudge over Russian annexation of Chinese territory since the Qing dynasty, while Russia remains highly suspicious about China’s potential territorial ambitions in its Far East. There are discomforts and a potential clash between them in Central Asia due to China’s expanding influence in Russia’s backyard. Beijing is constantly frustrated with Moscow’s reluctance to pursue deeper and broader economic cooperation for fear of the growing Chinese influence in its country.  Last but not least, Russia’s military relations with some of China’s neighbors, such as India and Vietnam, raise the questions in China about Moscow’s strategic intention.

The geopolitical landscape and convergent interests of China and Russia determines their alignment of positions on important security and economic issues. However, China has no intention to rebuild the kind of alliance relationship like the one they had during the Cold War.  China felt victimized, exploited, and suppressed in the former formal alliance. With the changed balance of power between the two, a stronger, more assertive Beijing is unlikely to pursue such a path again. In fact, any kind of alliance relations will likely reignite and heighten the Sino-Russia competition for the leadership role.

However, this does not mean China and Russia will not align positions on issues of common interest, including Iran, North Korea, and the role of the United States in the region. Such an alignment will enhance the security and economic interests of both countries, and they believe it helps maintain a balance in the world order. China will continue to align its positions with Russia on important political issues while maintaining a safe distance from Moscow. This approach is believed to be the most effective in today’s world.

This article originally appeared in The Cipher Brief on March 22, 2016. 

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