Why a Moscow-Beijing Axis is Unlikely

Many experts have claimed that the internationalised crisis which has engulfed Ukraine since late 2013 may have set a number of new benchmarks for the conduct of great power politics, one of the most intriguing of which being the possibility of enhanced links between Beijing and Moscow.[1] Russia’s recent military posture and the subsequent hard-line energy diplomacy used to welcome Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine’s new president has given further credibility to those in the European Union arguing that its member-states must diversify the sources of their energy supplies. These European ambitions represent a long-term project. While a major eastward re-routing of Russian oil and gas supply infrastructure is an equally distant prospect, with negotiations lasting a decade, May’s signing of a $400 billion gas supply agreement between Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation promises delivery commencement by 2018. In the midst of the Ukraine crisis, the deal has been used by Russia as a thinly veiled retaliatory political message to indicate that the Putin administration is not fazed by these European discussions and that Russia has lucrative options elsewhere, with China as the world’s largest emerging market topping the list. While the Kremlin would no doubt like the West to perceive an emerging Beijing-Moscow axis with apprehension, the development of a concerted and coherent Russo-Sino alliance is unlikely given the sharp incompatibility of the international strategies both currently pursue.      

Russia’s Eastern Intrigue

Speculated upon by some since the mid-1990s, much of the already existing hype behind an imminent synchronised Russo-Sino alliance has proved wide of the mark. The logic behind previous predictions has rested on the assumption that, threatened by the West’s forceful promotion of liberal values, Russia and China, as two aspiring authoritarian great powers, will eventually find a pragmatic like-mindedness. While China and Russia have been cooperating sporadically, such logic discounts a number of key factors impeding deeper strategic cooperation between Beijing and Moscow. Russo-Sino relations have long been difficult. Coming to light during the 1960s, the Sino-Soviet spilt initiated by Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Zedong was one of the bitterest episodes of the Cold War. The spilt was exploited by the US with China pragmatically recruited into an anti-Soviet partnership by the Nixon administration. With China and the Soviet Union even squaring up militarily at the disputed Zhenbao Island in 1969, China would proceed as an actor enabling Soviet demise, even providing arms to the Mujahideen fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the 1980s.[2]

Under “New Thinking”, Mikhail Gorbachev’s landmark visit to Beijing in 1989 aimed at repairing bi-lateral relations. Gorbachev’s dialogue with Deng Xiaoping facilitated a Russia-China Border Agreement in 1991. Nonetheless, diplomacy over this issue proved arduous thereafter. Dmitry Medvedev was the Russian president that concluded final demarcation 17 years later in July 2008. Paradoxically, the 1990s also saw the re-emergence of arguments on the possibility of a Russo-Sino alliance aiming to redress the power differential with the West. One vision of the time saw absence from NATO’s enlargement rounds as giving Moscow little option but to form a balancing alliance with Beijing.[3]

Aspects of this perspective were seen in Russian strategy. By 1996, disillusion with Russia’s Westernising course brought the appointment of the cumbersome and pragmatic Yevgeny Primakov as foreign minister in Boris Yeltsin’s administration. Attempting to improve Russia’s power deficit relative to the West, Primakov endeavoured to lay the foundations for a “strategic triangle” between Russia, China and India. Based on the unlikely prerequisite of all three sides prioritising an uncertain fledgling alliance, while simultaneously discarding longstanding regional rivalries, the initiative proved unattractive for all concerned. Moreover, as Harsh Pant outlines, the sheer strength of American hegemony would overwhelm such a prospect from the outset. All three states had far greater vested security and economic interests with the US than they had with each other.[4]

Stability and Recklessness

Nonetheless, a further initiative more focused on regional risk reduction, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), has fared better. Russia and China are both stakeholders in Central Asian security. Misperception of mutual diplomatic involvement in this region risks unnecessary regional rivalry between Beijing and Moscow, if left unchecked. Established in 2001, the SCO, whose membership also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, is largely a regional confidence-building mechanism. Reducing the danger for misunderstandings, it provides Russia and China with a transparent forum to discuss regional security cooperation in matters such as counter-terrorism, anti-narcotics and border security. While facilitating enhanced stability in Russo-Sino relations, the SCO is not to be confused with a politico-military alliance designed to redress the balance-of-power with the West.

In part attempting to legitimise its strategy of “peaceful rise”, China has often shied away from confronting the West over its military interventions. Nonetheless, China has, like Russia, been identified as a “sovereignty hawk”, a term popularised by the US media. Russia and China are both international legal positivists, meaning both, in theory, see sovereign non-violation as a non-negotiable static norm underpinning global order.[5] This contrasts with the contemporary liberal Western interpretation which can see sovereign rights as waived, should the risk of genocide exist within state borders. As was displayed in their opposition to proposed Western intervention in Syria’s civil war during 2013, this shared perspective provides limited opportunity for joint Russo-Sino soft balancing of the West. However, from Beijing’s perspective, Russia’s recent reckless actions may have undermined the development of further collaboration in this area.

China’s “peaceful rise” strategy is not always consistent; this has been the case with its recent confrontational approach towards Japan over the disputed Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands. Nonetheless, the need to reassure its neighbours of its benign intentions has been a mainstream trend for more than a decade. Up until 2005, China had resolved 17 separate territorial disputes with neighbouring states; Beijing’s logic being that a reduction in international pressures would enable a greater domestic focus on regime security and economic development.[6] While its oil diplomacy in Africa has been criticised as exploitative, China has nonetheless emphasised the importance of being perceived as a responsible international actor. Investment in increased support for United Nations peacekeeping has been one tangible down-payment on this ambition.[7] Once deemed internationally credible, “peaceful rise” represents an efficient means to dissuade those seeing the need to counter-balance China’s emerging power.  

China sees increased international stability as crucial for its own regime security, economic development and reputation. Russia’s track record over the past decade deems it a troublesome partner in this respect. On the political side, as well as deeply undermining its credibility as a “sovereignty hawk”, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence in 2008 have set precedents likely seen in Beijing as troubling given its bitter internal sovereignty disputes with Taiwan and Tibet.  On the economic front, the US holds sway as China’s main development partner by some distance. With Russia becoming ever more isolated from the West, Beijing is likely to see enhanced ties with Moscow as unnecessarily risky due the pressure Washington could ultimately exert in this instance. Moreover, the Russo-Georgian war in 2008 and the dispute with Ukraine in 2014 have seen Russia twice jeopardise the stability of commodity markets. China’s developmental state is particularly at risk from higher oil prices; hence it is unlikely that this negative side-effect of Russia’s actions was appreciated in Beijing.

Security in the Far East

Russia’s Far East is an understated source of tension in Russo-Sino relations. In the Primoskii Krai region, when polled, it is commonplace for the local population to fearfully inflate the figure of ethnic Chinese living there. A series of the region’s political elites have publically engaged in threat inflation, framing Chinese migration as a threat to Russian security, a frequent argument being that the gradual influx of ethnic Chinese may inevitability grant Beijing the opportunity to lodge a territorial claim over the region.[8] While his rhetoric is not as extreme, controversial Russian strategist, Sergei Karaganov, argues that China will come to dominate the region by default due to its superior economic prowess, with Beijing seeing the region as prime source of mineral resources and timber as well as a destination for labour export.[9] While at a governmental level, Beijing and Moscow will attempt to keep relations amicable, the evolved Russian state ideology during Vladimir Putin’s third presidential term promoting a more conservative, traditional and partisan society has made Russia an uncertain place for migrants. Responding to the hype about immigration from the east, Russian police have dealt robustly with illegal Chinese immigration in the past.[10] With the Chinese stake in Russia’s Far East unlikely to decline, these sociologically orientated tensions are an unfolding source of Russo-Sino discord rather than cooperation. 

Hedging but not Colluding

There are a number of important issues that bring Russia and China together. These include regional security monitoring through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the regular need to oppose the West’s liberal view of sovereignty when deliberating on crisis management. With energy cooperation, China seems satisfied to let Russia appear as having made political gains, as long as Beijing can reap the economic benefit. However, rather than colluding, China is hedging. Given its deep interdependence with Washington, cooperation with Russia on a relatively narrow portfolio of counter-Western initiatives is a strategy to ensure China is not subsumed by US hegemony. While the aforementioned represent modest points of cooperation, the points of unease and discord are considerable. If found credible by others, “peaceful rise” will enable Beijing to focus on domestic development without much need to divert resources to regional counter-balancing, securing the credibility of the West is crucial for this strategy. Given Russia’s militarised recklessness since 2008, in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, Chinese pursuit of closer ties with Moscow would stand to damage the credibility of “peaceful rise” in the eyes of many Western actors. Beyond this, there are a number of severe incompatibilities in Russo-Sino relations. Russian recklessness that degrades the rigidity of sovereignty, promotes volatility in global commodity markets and cavalierly discriminates against ethnic Chinese in the Far East is unlikely to be welcome in Beijing. 

[1] Neil MacFarquhar and David M. Herszenhorn (2014) ‘Ukraine Crisis Pushing Putin Towards China’ The New York Times, May 19. Available at http://goo.gl/XG6SQ5 (Accessed 28.06.2014).

[2] Leslie Holmes (1989) ‘Afghanistan and Sino-Soviet Relations’ in Amin Saikal and William Maley (Eds.) The Soviet Withdrawal From Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 130.

[3] Bruce Russett and Allan C. Stam (1998) ‘Courting Disaster: An Expanded NATO vs. Russia and China’ Political Science Quarterly, 113 (3): 361-382.

[4] Harsh Pant (2004) ‘The Moscow-Beijing-Delhi “Strategic Triangle”: An Idea Whose Time May Never Come’ Security Dialogue, 35 (3): 311-328.

[5] For discussion of international legal positivism in Russian discourse, see Roy Allison (2013) Russia, the West and Military Intervention (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[6] M. Taylor Fravel (2005) ‘Regime Insecurity and International Cooperation: Explaining China’s Compromises

in Territorial Disputes’ International Security, 30 (2): 46-83.

[7] Miwa Hirono and Marc Lanteigne (2011) ‘China and UN Peacekeeping’ International Peacekeeping, 18 (3): 243-256.

[8] Mikhail A. Alexseev and C. Richard Hofstetter (2006) ‘Russia, China and the Immigration Security Dilemma’ Political Science Quarterly, 121 (1): 1-32.

[9] Sergei Karaganov (2011) ‘Russia’s Asian Strategy’ Russia in Global Affairs, 2 July.

Available at http://goo.gl/ePSeG0 (Accessed 28.06.2014). 

[10] ‘Russia Deports Hundreds of Illegal Chinese Immigrants’ Russia Beyond the Headlines: Asia-Pacific, 13.08.2013. Available at http://goo.gl/WllLWv (Accessed 28.06.2014).

Publicēts 30. jūnijs, 2014

Autors Eoin Micheál Mcnamara