China and Russia in the Era of Great-Power Competition

by Kevin Magee

THE BEIJING–MOSCOW axis is more aligned than at any point in the past sixty years. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia share a border of 4,000 kilometres and a history that has over the past 400 years seen periods of close cooperation and periods of tension and hostility, the latter leading to armed conflict in 1969. In the official Chinese view of history, tsarist Russia was one of the hostile actors in China’s ‘century of humiliation’ and a beneficiary of the series of unequal treaties that stripped sovereign land from the Qing dynasty (1644–1912 CE) and drained its treasury. On the other hand, after the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union renounced Russian unequal treaty claims on China — the only foreign power to do so. The major historical irritant of defining the border was resolved to both countries’ satisfaction in 2008.

The bitter ideological arguments of the era following the Sino-Soviet split (1956–1989) are also long forgotten. Today, China and Russia enjoy an increasingly close and cooperative relationship across the military, economic, and diplomatic spheres, driven by common rejection of the US-led global order. The economic relationship has flourished, with two-way trade reaching US$107.7 billion in 2020.1 In 1992, bilateral trade amounted to US$5.85 billion. In the first eight months of 2021, two-way trade reached US$89 billion — a 29.5 percent growth from the same period in 2020. China predominantly exports electrical and manufactured goods to Russia, while importing mineral fuels, oils, distillates, timber, and other raw materials.2 China’s energy imports from Russia quadrupled between 2008 and 2018 and continue to grow, albeit at a slower rate.

Officially, it is a comprehensive strategic partnership based on mutual interests and not an alliance with formal defence commitments. The joint statement signed by Xi Jinping
习近平 and Vladimir Putin on 4 February 2022 in Beijing emphasised that there were no limits and no forbidden areas of cooperation. While some observers still view the China–Russia partnership as tactical and transient — a ‘marriage of convenience’ — it has developed into a substantial anti-Western quasi-alliance or entente.

At the UN Security Council and other international forums, China and Russia have cooperated closely in direct contradiction of US and Western interests. Between 2011 and 2020, for example, they jointly vetoed ten resolutions on the conflict in Syria sponsored by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. The two countries have also cooperated on the UN Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization, teaming up to thwart Western initiatives on human rights and the COVID-19 investigation.

Multilateral organisations, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (an economic, political and security organisation stretching across Eurasia, the Indian Subcontinent and parts of the Middle East), and BRICS (an association of emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) provide platforms for joint cooperation with other non-Western powers.

In June 2018, Xi awarded Putin China’s first Friendship Medal
Source: President of Russia

Since coming to power in 2012, Xi Jinping has visited Moscow eight times — more than any other world capital (he has visited Washington four times) — and he enjoys a good personal relationship with Vladimir Putin, which has smoothed the way to cooperation and overcoming frictions. Putin has visited Beijing fifteen times — seven of those since Xi has been in charge. All together counting meetings at multilateral events, virtual meetings during COVID as well as face-to-face meetings the two leaders now have met 38 times. In June 2018, Xi awarded Putin China’s first Friendship Medal 友谊勋章, honouring him as ‘my best, most intimate friend’.3 The two countries have established a direct link between the Communisty Party of China’s Central Committee Secretariat and the Russian Presidential Administration and there is extensive bureaucratic contact as well.4 The Chinese and Russian leaders have said on several occasions that relations are the closest and best they have ever been. In June 2021, China and Russia agreed to extend the twenty-year China–Russia Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation 中俄睦邻友好合作条约 or Договор о Добрососедстве Дружбе и Сотрудничестве Между Российской Федерацией и Китайской Народной Республикой first signed by Putin and former president Jiang Zemin 江泽民 in 2001.5

People-to-people relations have also flourished, and trust has developed off a low base. A joint Chicago Council on Global Affairs–Levada Analytical Centre survey in March 2021 found that 74 percent of Russians had positive views of China and 40 percent of Russians saw China as Russia’s best friend; 53 percent of Russians believed the partnership with China had strengthened Russia.6

China and Russia are cooperating on telecommunications (with Russia’s largest mobile operator working with Huawei to activate 5G networks), infrastructure, civil aircraft, space projects, weaponry systems, and high-speed rail. Several major transnational infrastructure projects completed in the past two years promote economic linkages; they include rail and road bridges over the Amur River, ports on the Amur, new cross-border freight railway lines, and a nuclear power plant using transferred Russian technology. Roscosmos and China’s National Space Administration signed an agreement on 9 March 2021 to build a joint research station on or around the Moon, based on their June 2018 bilateral cooperation agreement.7

Beijing provides Moscow with financing, naval diesel engines, and high-tech components for advanced weaponry including aircraft and missiles that it can no longer access in the West because of sanctions.8 Eighty percent of China’s arms imports, meanwhile, come from Russia, including the Su-35 fighter and S-400 missile system, as well as hypersonic technologies, radar, battle integration systems that link different services more effectively, nuclear propulsion for submarines, and night-vision capabilities for troops and armoured vehicles.9 China’s J-11 and J-15 fighters are based on Russian designs and, in 2019, Russia announced it was helping China develop a missile defence early warning system.

Russia and China have conducted joint military exercises since 2005. Thousands of People’s Liberation Army troops took part in the 2018 ‘Vostok’ exercise in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Chinese and Russian troops have since participated in major military exercises each year.10 In 2019 and 2020, Russia and China conducted joint aerial strategic patrols over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea and naval exercises in October 2021 in the Sea of Japan.

Such close military cooperation allows both militaries to learn from the other’s tactics and command and control. However, the level of interoperability remains low; the exercises are more about the political messaging.11 While the two countries do not have mutual defence commitments, their military coordination and common disdain for US geopolitical interests could see them cooperating to distract the United States in a crisis such as over Taiwan or Ukraine.12

The close relationship has delivered real benefits to both countries, especially the resolution of the border differences. This in turn has afforded Russia and China strategic depth and, with it, the ability to focus their defence needs on their respective strategic competitors: the United States and its allies. Cooperation with China also gives Russia, the weaker partner, the extra political, diplomatic. and military heft it needs to compete effectively with the more powerful United States.13

Beijing and Moscow want changes to an international system that has handed both countries a permanently subordinate role, while allowing Washington to build a military alliance system that threatens their interests.14 America is in a state of confrontation with China and Russia; China and Russia are strategic partners; and the US is bolstering the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to oppose Russia and simultaneously expanding and intensifying its relations with Indo-Pacific countries like Australia to check China.15

The US National Security Strategy published on 18 December 2017 designated both the PRC and Russia as strategic competitors and revisionist states. The strategy said the two countries were revisionist because they opposed the international rules-based order championed by the US and its allies and shared the ambition of ‘displacing the US in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as widening its strategic foothold in Europe’.16 US President Joe Biden has maintained and expanded Trump-era policies, such as banning US investments in certain Chinese companies, blacklisting seven Chinese supercomputer entities, and revoking China Telecom America’s service authority.17 A wide range of commentators have described the US as wanting to maintain a unipolar world while the leaders of Russia and China consistently promote a multipolar world.18 This US view was reflected in President Biden’s statement on 25 March 2021: ‘China has an overall goal … to become the leading country in the world … [but] that is not going to happened on my watch.’19

The greater the tensions between the US and either the PRC or Russia, the more closely the latter two countries have cooperated. The Ukraine crisis of 2013–2014 accelerated the Russia–China rapprochement, pushing Moscow to seek economic opportunities in China in the wake of Western sanctions. China’s efforts to develop a high-tech weapons system to counter the US military’s edge has, in turn, seen it seek more Russian assistance.20 China has indicated its support for Russian opposition to the expansion of NATO eastward. China has also refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and abstained in a United Nations Security Council vote demanding that Moscow stop its attack on Ukraine and withdraw all troops.

There are also issues on which the two countries do not see eye to eye. China does not recognise Russia’s seizure of Crimea or its support for the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. Nor does China recognise the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics. China is also neutral regarding the South Kuril Islands, which are owned by Russia and claimed by Japan. Russia is a major arms supplier to India and Vietnam and a traditional ally of both. China has not opposed these arms sales despite at times stressed relations with these countries. Russia does not accept China’s position on the South or East China seas, yet the two sides are consciously working to address historical mutual suspicions, cultural prejudices, geopolitical rivalry, and priorities.21 Many commentators suggested conflict over influence in the Central Asian states, especially those bordering Xinjiang, was inevitable,22 but due to careful management this has not happened. Despite China growing stronger economically and militarily, both sides are conscious of the need to manage the asymmetry in power; Russia would not accept being a junior ally of China; Beijing understands this and acts accordingly.23

The US has on occasion sought to divide Russia and China — such as Henry Kissinger did in 1971 — but without much success.24 In March 2022, the US and its ally Australia called on China to pressure Russia to stop the invasion of Ukraine thereby splitting the partnership. The 2021 RAND Corporation report on China–Russia cooperation found there was little the US could do to change the overall positive trajectory of Sino-Russian relations.25 The notion that the US might successfully entice Moscow to align with Washington overlooks the motivations that cement the Sino-Russian partnership: a shared, deeply adversarial relationship with the United States and a desire to thwart American hegemonic ambitions.26 Russia carefully avoids being drawn into the US–China conflict. Beijing similarly steers clear of the conflict between Moscow and Washington.27 The more pressure the US-led West applies to both China and Russia, the closer their strategic cooperation will become, and with it the imperative to resolve any potential differences. This is a contradiction at the heart of US policy.

China has denounced the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) between the US, India, Japan, and Australia as a ‘Cold War relic’ and Russia has criticised it as part of US-led ‘anti-China games’.28 China and Russia have also both been highly critical of the AUKUS partnership, formed on 15 September 2021. Former Australian ambassador to the US Joe Hockey said the day after the announcement that the new Australian nuclear submarines would be useful in countering both Chinese and Russian naval forces in the Indo-Pacific.29 That same day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian 赵立坚criticised the grouping as a reflection of an ‘outdated Cold War zero-sum mentality’ that ‘intensified’ a regional arms race.30 Russian commentators have categorised the future Australian nuclear submarines as ‘a new potential threat for Russia’s Northern (Pacific) Fleet’.31 Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev described AUKUS as a military bloc directed against Russia and China, and an early version of an Asian NATO.32

The development of AUKUS and the Quad and statements like Hockey’s are symbolic of a US-led challenge to China’s and Russia’s strategic interests that is deepening their cooperation. The China–Russia relationship proceeds largely based on mutual interests, the commonality of their leaders’ world views, the complementarity of the two economies, and geopolitical considerations.33 The Ukraine crisis has put the durability of the China-Russia relationship to the test. Despite extensive pressure from the US and allies for China to distance itself from Russia and oppose the invasion of Ukraine, China has not walked away from the Strategic Partnership with Russia reaffirmed in Beijing on 4 February 2022. The core of the partnership is based in collective coordination and opposition to the US and its allies’ pressure on Beijing and Moscow. As long as the US regards China as a strategic adversary and opposes Beijing’s national interests, the rationale for the Beijing-Moscow partnership will be overwhelming. With Russia growing more dependent on China, political ties intensifying, and little chance of serious bilateral conflicts, Moscow and Beijing’s strategic partnership will demand increasing Western attention in the coming years.34