China and Russia: Very Far, Very Close

Hossein Asgarian
November 2018

The biggest military drills in history of Russia, dubbed Vostok 2018, kicked off in Eastern Siberia concurrent with a meeting between the presidents of China and Russia on September 11 and continued until September 17. These maneuvers, which were also attended by military forces from China and Mongolia, saw participation of about 300,000 Russian military forces along with modern equipment and weapons. The important point, however, was the participation of China’s military with 3,200 soldiers and a great number of armored personnel carriers and aircraft.
It is noteworthy that concurrent with holding the biggest military drills in history of Russia, a 600-member delegation consisting of China’s officials and economic directors, led by the country’s President Xi Jinping, took part in the fourth annual meeting of the Eastern Economic Forum. On the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin met and conferred with his Chinese counterpart, Jinping, and both presidents promised to boost bilateral cooperation between the two countries in all areas.
At any rate, Vostok 2018 military exercise and the meeting of the Eastern Economic Forum in the Russian port city of Vladivostok were held at a time that these two eastern powers are ready more than any time before to cooperate as a result of the United States’ threats and sanctions. The meeting between the two presidents, which was held in the context of recent developments, including the escalating trade war between China and the United States, gave rise to new questions. Is this a new phase in relations between China and Russia? What role the United States has played in promotion of relations between China and Russia?
The US relations with China and Russia
The United States has been posing increasing security and economic threats to both China and Russia. On May 29, the administration of US President Donald Trump announced imposition of a 25% tariff on 50 billion dollars worth of imported Chinese goods, which angered Beijing. In the latest instance, the US government announced on Thursday, September 20, that it had imposed sanctions on the Chinese army over purchase of Russian warplanes and air defense systems. These sanctions were imposed on the Chinese army’s department in charge of developing military hardware due to what Washington described as breaching US sanctions against Russia through buying missile defense systems and warplanes from Moscow.
In the meantime, Moscow sees its relations with Washington in jeopardy over issues related to Ukraine and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula to Russia in 2014. Led by the United States, Western countries have already imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions against Russia. Those sanctions include, inter alia, suspending Russia's membership in D-8 Organization for Economic Cooperation. Washington’s sanctions have also targeted a large number of companies and businesspeople while imposing severe restrictions against Russia's financial, defense and energy sectors. As a result of these sanctions, Russian banks’ activities have been greatly restricted in Western markets.
The faceoff between these two countries and the United States reached its peak during the United Nations Security Council meetings as well as their presidents’ speeches at the United Nations General Assembly session in September. China and Russia adopted a single position, criticizing the United States for withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), while noting that the United States must not use the pressure of sanctions in order to bring North Korea to its knees. Both countries rejected US accusations about intervention in the United States’ midterm elections and sharply slammed the trade war waged by the US against China and Russia and some other countries.
Therefore, it seems only natural that the more pressure the United States puts on these two countries, the stronger will be their alliance to counter Washington.
Bilateral relations between China and Russia
In view of the recent developments, Beijing sees increasing convergence between its interests and those of Russia. After the rise of Xi Jinping to power as China’s president in 2013, the strategic partnership between China and Russia entered a new phase. To maintain these close relations, the office of the central committee of China’s Communist Party and the presidential office in Russia took steps in 2014 and came up with a new mechanism to regulate working meetings between the two sides. In this way, new channels were opened between the two countries to facilitate interaction between them in a variety of fields.
In addition, regular meetings between the two countries’ senior officials at high levels were put on the agenda. In the meantime, economic relations between the two countries have been growing. Competitiveness and the complementary nature of the two countries’ economies are other factors that have further cemented relations between Moscow and Beijing. From the viewpoint of Russia, China is an important market and a source of capital, especially at the current time that the West is imposing sanctions on Moscow. From the viewpoint of China, on the other hand, Russia is a major supplier of energy, which is sorely needed for the country’s economic growth.
Within this context, it seems that the two sides have managed to create a friendly atmosphere in order to settle some international concerns about the change in the international balance of power. Russia has become a partner to China’s “One Belt, One Road Initiative,” and has tied this initiative to the strategy that is currently followed by the Eurasian Economic Union. The two countries have also reached agreements in other fields, including with regard to the crises in Syria and North Korea, making economic and monetary relations more profound, taking joint positions on the United States’ global hegemony, and agreement on the settlement of many global problems through diplomacy.
The role played by the US in China’s relations with Russia
For many decades, one of the main goals of Russia’s foreign policy has been to create gaps in the United States’ relations with its allies. At the present time, due to policies adopted by the incumbent US President Donald Trump, regardless of whether those policies are haphazard or planned, Russia is close to achieving this goal. Launching a trade war with other countries as well as the United States’ decision to withdraw from a plethora of international institutions and treaties such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the JCPOA, are examples of such policies. They prove that Trump is taking an anti-institutional and unilateral approach to these issues, which is sure to have consequences for his country.
However, although the policies adopted by the Trump administration can bring about changes in relations between China and Russia, there are also a raft of other factors, which will prevent establishment of strong strategic ties between Moscow and Beijing.
For example, Xi Jinping, the president of China, made a speech in April 2018, and while putting stress on the need to observe five peaceful principles in China’s foreign policy approach, talked about partnership – not alliance – with Russia. China officially talks about partnership, and not alliance, as the main pivot for the development of its foreign policy, because its ancient tradition is based on independent diplomacy and the highest priority is given to social and political reforms and development. At the same time, there is no sign that China feels any imminent security threat from the United States, which may cause this country to seek an anti-American bloc.
The history has also shown China that forming alliances can be dangerous. The experience that this country has had about getting close to the former Soviet Union – which finally led to the two countries drifting away from each other – has taught the Chinese leaders to follow an independent and nonaligned foreign policy. In addition, China has close economic relations with the United States. China and the United States are complementary and very close economic partners.
The two countries have a lot of common interests in economic fields. In other words, both countries need each other and even in the case of a trade war in the near future, they will be still attached to each other in the long run. China needs the modern markets and technology of the Western world – including Europe and North American – and the Far East. Therefore, despite being a competitor for those countries, it also seeks full-fledged economic and industrial development through the Western world.
This is why during the economic and financial crisis in 2008, the Chinese injected a lot of money from their foreign exchange reserves to help the West, especially the United States, out of the crisis. China has vital need to continue trade and especially technological interaction with the West, and without such huge consumption markets, Chinese products will get nowhere.
As said before, nobody should expect China and Russia to move toward strategic cooperation in the near future and they may not be able to overcome some of the existing challenges in their relations, including the rivalry over gaining influence in Central Asia and East Asia. However, the fact that China does not consider itself as an official ally to Russia does not mean that it will not move to promote strategic relations with that country. In fact, promotion of strategic relations with Russia will be useful as a strategic recourse to be used for balancing the pressure that is currently being exerted by the United States.
In the face of pressures from the United States, the two countries support each other with regard to important issues, which are also their key interests, including their sovereignty, territorial integrity and security. In the meantime, any measure by the United States, which may lead to the formation of a Chinese-Russian axis, would be politically unwise. A glance at the past will show that one reason for the victory of the United States in the Cold War was development of cordial relations with China in the face of the former Soviet Union from the early years of the 1970s.