While it may be true, as writes Robert Sutter in the introduction to National Bureau of Asian Research’s excellent report “Russia-China Relations”, that “The United States has a long experience in assessing the twists and turns of the relationship between Russia and China and what it means for US interests”, most casual (Western-oriented) observers are probably more likely to see international relations as a hub-and-spoke system with the US at the center, rather that the mesh network it actually is.
Russia-China relations, operating over areas that are relatively remote and obscure to those in the West, and covered only rarely by Western media, can be often seem something of a black box. The contributors to “Russia-Chinese Relations” helpfully provide clear and commonsensical overviews and analysis.
The consensus is that Russia and China are closer now than they had been, and edging closer. Evan Medeiros and Michael Chase write that
Over the past two decades, the relationship between China and Russia has evolved from a marriage of convenience into one of enduring strategic value for both countries, one that China describes as a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.”
However, the relationship still falls far short of a formal alliance.
One of the key underpinnings of the relationship is common cause against US global leadership (or “hegemony” as some might have it):
Both Beijing and Moscow believe that the United States has preponderant and excessive power in the international system (exercised in various ways) and that this situation needs to be remedied through episodic and continual cooperation on diplomatic, military, and economic issues.
But China and Russia also have overlapping interest in several areas, from military technology to energy, that only obliquely and indirectly have anything to do with the United States.
One of the main areas of overlap is in Central Asia, which is the exclusive subject of a recent “Central Asia’s Silk Road Rivalries” report from the Crisis Group. At first glance, China’s “One Belt One Road” forays into Central Asia—the countries of which were part of the Soviet Union and hence are very much Russia’s “backyard—seem a threat to the Russian sphere of influence.
China’s Silk Road Economic Best (SREB), as the report refers to it, is by now pretty well-known; Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) less so. “The EEU has not had a good start,” say the authors by way of preamble. Indeed, in Central Asia only Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members; Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan seem in no hurry to join, not least due to “China’s allure”.
The two organizations are not a clear fit:
Chinese and Russian regional projects in Central Asia have different goals. The SREB aims to develop ease of transport and freer trade to facilitate Chinese exports and access to energy supplies. The EEU, a customs union that raised external tariffs on imports from non-EEU members, seeks to ensure and legitimise Russia’s influence, including by establishing relations with other blocs like the EU. Nevertheless, geopolitical realities have forced both sides to cooperate.
Nevertheless, Russia wants the EUU to be recognized as an organization along the lines of the EU, regardless of how disparate it is in practice. So, from the Russian perspective:
The SREB provides the EEU with enhanced legitimacy through recognition by a major power.
This is not to say that Russia is entirely sanguine about China and its increasing influence. But J Stapleton Roy argues in his contribution to “Russia-China Relations” that the West has also pushed Russia and China together. For example:
Since the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Moscow has felt it necessary to surmount earlier reservations about China’s rapid rise and move into an even closer relationship with Beijing that masks an underlying level of discomfort.
It might that the consensus of a US in relative decline might weaken the incentives for Sino-Russian cooperation. “On the other hand,” write Medeiros and Chase,
it is equally possible that a different causal logic could be at work. Declining US and Western power could instead add to incentives for closer Sino-Russian cooperation, seeking to promote their interests as US influence recedes. Russia and China could perceive greater opportunities to advance their influence and interests against the United States and the West, while the potential costs of doing so appear to be lower.
Roy scathingly places much of the responsibility on the post-Cold War US:
The collapse of the United States’ main strategic competitor, the Soviet Union, presented an extraordinary opportunity to restructure the global system that had emerged from World War II to better reflect the changes that occurred from 1945 to 1990. The goal should have been the creation of a more just and better balanced international system with agreed-on rules that would constrain the exercise of power by stronger and weaker countries alike. Instead, the United States gloried in its role as the sole superpower and resisted the strengthening of any international system that could constrain the arbitrary use of US power.
There is little, both reports conclude, that the West in general and the US in particular can now do to change Chinese and Russian calculations, that Sino-Russian relations have by now their own dynamic. Both reports point out areas of potential conflict. These include Central Asia, but also Russia’s relations with, especially Russia’s willingness to sell arms to, China’s neighbors with which it has disputes. Yet so far, these potential conflicts have been managed in light of the greater benefits of close relations.
Both reports are clear, concise and to-the-point. “Central Asia’s Silk Road Rivalries” is a single monograph while “Russia-China Relations” originated in a workshop held in January 2017. The latter however displays few of the problems such collections of papers often have such as repetition and lacunae: this is either fortuitous or (one suspects) the result of a strong editorial hand.
Both reports fit usefully in the space between newspaper and journal articles and books.