BY NICHOLAS FLETCHER
Russia and China have had a stable working relationship for some time now, based on mutual economic needs and a “don’t attack me, I won’t attack you” mindset. However, China has increasingly expanded its influence into predominately Russian-controlled spheres, such as the Arctic, Central Asia, and the Russian Far East (RFE). Although Russia has mostly treated Chinese presence as an economic opportunity, relations between the two countries are not as warm as they may appear. Russia maintains a rigid position on its Arctic territorial stakes, is witnessing its replacement by China in Central Asia, and holds a long-time fear of Chinese invasion into the Far East due to their shared border and the Far East’s rich natural resources. Coupled with the chatter of NATO offering talks with China, and Russia’s desire not to become economically dependent on Beijing, these relations could potentially sour down the road.
A positive Sino-Russian cooperation has the potential to erode the power and influence of the Western nations on the international stage. Russia has already used its relatively stable relations with China to alleviate damage dealt by Western sanctions. In addition, the two nations are united by a couple common strategic objectives. One is to maintain their rights as veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), while the other is a shared grievance against the West for the current U.S.-dominated world order and the expansion of U.S.-led military alliances. However, there is a break in commonality here. Whereas China has started to become more receptive to potential NATO partnership, Russia has made it abundantly clear that it has no issue taking countermeasures against NATO expansion and pressure against the homeland. These countermeasures include deployment of S-400 air missile defense systems and Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, all of which are part of Moscow’s anti-access and area denial strategy aimed at keeping NATO forces at bay from the Russian frontiers. This budding policy divide between Russia and China could signal a future weakening in relations between Russia and China and allow for Western nations to regain their positions in the global arena.
Russia has relied on China’s growing economic and military presence as an ally against encirclement, but NATO has plans that may peel away this protective layer. NATO recognizes the issues with this potential alliance, and in adapting for futuristic warfare is seeking partnerships with emerging powers, of which China is one. A NATO-China alliance, which could be possible given China’s thawing attitudes towards the organization and increased cooperation in the anti-terrorism activities, is something that could make Russia feel even more pressured and lash out economically. This potential NATO-China alliance could provide NATO with more leverage against Russia, as well as fracture the Sino-Russian partnership.
Another potential area of friction is in the Arctic. Despite the strategic alignment between Russia and China and the emerging prospects for cooperation in the Arctic, relations are not entirely positive in the face of China’s increased attempts to establish a presence in a rigidly protected and Russia-dominated sphere. From China’s perspective, Russia—the largest Arctic state—stands as an important gatekeeper for non-Arctic states. China knows that in many ways it depends on Russia if it is to increase its activities and establish itself as a legitimate stakeholder in the region. However, China also looks to take advantage of current Russian economic vulnerabilities brought about by Western sanctions, and of Russia’s need for China as an energy and infrastructure partner. In particular, Russia is looking to invest in China’s natural gas projects and aid in construction of the Belkomur railway line and the Arkhangelsk deep-water sea port. The sanctions against Russia have limited its choice of Arctic partners, and as such, moved to partner with India in order to reduce reliance on just one trade partner.
Chinese scholars of the Arctic also emphasize the importance of avoiding an intensification of U.S.–Russian tensions, which could start to seriously affect Beijing’s aspirations for Arctic access. Russia has also sought to avoid the development of alternative and competitive Arctic governance forums that allow for more influence by non-Arctic states, something China has been pushing for. This has the potential for friction between the two, as Russia has already maintained a cautious stance on allowing China to hold observer status on the Arctic Council, and Chinese officials have essentially brushed off Russia’s territorial claims with public statements such as one from Chinese Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, who stated that “the Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it.”
The third potential area of conflict is in the economic sphere. China, through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is pursuing aggressive expansion into Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and RFE. The U.S. views Russia as the junior economic member in its partnership with China, with an economy roughly the size of Italy’s, but a larger territory and defense budget. Russia’s slow economic growth is the result of damage caused by sanctions and lower energy prices, which is important as energy is Russia’s top export product, ranging from petroleum to natural gas and coal. As such, Moscow has resorted to selling top missile defense systems to China that previously it was hesitant to. In Central Asia, Russian energy cooperation with Turkmenistan is now largely nonexistent, its role in the Kazakhstan’s energy sector may continue to decrease, and Uzbekistan, while still relatively entrenched in the Russian energy sphere, has cooperated with China on its segment of the Turkmenistan-China pipeline.
Russia holds no desire to play a secondary role in its own sphere of influence, but they may not have a choice given their weaker standing and lack of alternative economic partners (India notwithstanding). RFE has a rich trove of natural treasures — oil, natural gas, iron, copper, diamonds, gold, fresh water, timber, and fish stocks— and Russia has had recurring concerns that the isolation of the RFE puts it at risk of being lost to external aggression or foreign encroachment. China’s ever-increasing need for resources, coupled with its looming shadow over the RFE’s border, have stirred up concerns that China may attempt to claim the region. Moscow, no doubt, realizes the cost and risks of allowing China too much access.
There are also lingering Chinese sentiments that the 19th century border treaty with Russia was unfair and part of China’s “century of humiliation.” In 2015, the village where this treaty was signed reestablished its historical name of “Aigun,” which had been changed as part of the growing friendship between Russia and China during the Cold War. This recent restoration is seen by certain Russian experts as China reasserting bottled up grievances, fueling ultra-nationalist sentiments. Wang Zhanyang, a professor at the Central Institute of Socialism, commended the government on his Weibo account for finally speaking out about the “aggression of Tsarist Russia against China.” He hailed what he said was a “clear signal” that a “correction” in foreign policy was underway.
China’s BRI is also a potential economic roadblock for a Sino-Russian alliance, as it extends through Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia and Eastern Europe and clashes with pre-established Russian economic initiatives in the region such as the Eurasian Economic Union, and displaces Russia as an infrastructure facilitator. All of these can feed into a common fear of Beijing attempting to usurp Moscow in its traditional sphere of influence.
Image source: kremlin.ru
About the Author
Nicholas Fletcher is an intern with the ERA Institute’s Eurasian Conflicts Studies Project (ECSP).
This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).