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Dagny Dukach: The Wary Partnership Between China and Russia

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
August 19, 2013

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) exchanges documents with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 22, 2013. Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) exchanges documents with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 22, 2013. (Sergei Karpukhin/Courtesy Reuters)

Dagny Dukach is an intern for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Sino-Russian cooperation has grown considerably over the past few months, with the most notable example of this being China and Russia’s joint naval exercise in July. Against the backdrop of Obama’s pivot to Asia and rhetoric from Russian and Chinese leaders extolling their renewed cooperative spirit, some Western observers have suggested that improved relations between the two powers threaten U.S. interests. Dr. Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian studies and International Energy Policy at the Heritage Foundation, has argued that the United States must do all it can to prevent a growing “anti-American … Beijing-Moscow axis from taking root.” Other prominent American scholars have warned of the “new anti-American tack” of Sino-Russian relations, and suggested that without major U.S. policy change, American fears of a Chinese-Russian axis could be realized. But this attitude does not adequately reflect the motivations driving Moscow and Beijing. Not only do they have significant reasons to pursue improved relations that have nothing to do with the United States, but the extent of their cooperation and mutual trust is also still very limited.

Since President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow just days after his inauguration in March, the two countries have increased their cooperation on several fronts. In early July, China embarked upon its largest ever joint military maneuvers with the Russian-Chinese “Joint-Sea 2013” naval exercises. Moscow and Beijing’s interaction on the Snowden affair led some to speculate about the extent of the countries’ cooperation, and a multi-billion dollar oil agreement was signed in late June that will triple Russian oil flowing into China over the next twenty-five years. And Russia and China have a long history of cooperation in the United Nations, where their Security Council vetoes have blocked many Western attempts at economic sanctions targeting countries such as Syria, Iran, and North Korea.

However, there has been little indication that Russia and China’s joint activities are directly aimed against the United States. The joint naval exercises included a wide range of activities, from search-and-rescue missions and anti-piracy to anti-submarine and surface warfare, and emphasized confidence building and a cooperative spirit more than preparation to target a specific foe. Similarly, while the oil deal may help Russia reduce its dependence on Western buyers, it will also provide more long-term stability for both the Russians and the Chinese, and should not be construed as anything more than defensive (not aggressive or offensive) insurance against a volatile oil market. Even in the Snowden affair, the extent of cooperation is still unclear, but as of yet, there is little indication of collusion by Moscow and Beijing against Washington. Indeed, Russia and China’s position on the Snowden affair appears to reflect their common policy of non-intervention. Finally, in addition to the obvious benefits of maintaining cordial relations between countries that share a border of over 3,600 kilometers, Russia admires China’s economic success, and China depends upon Russian resources to fill its manufacturing plants. China and Russia have their own reasons to cooperate, many of which have nothing to do with threatening the West.

In fact, several recent incidents have betrayed the limitations of this Sino-Russian alliance. First, Moscow has remained silent on the South China Sea dispute, while Beijing has not supported Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Just last year, China took issue with oil deals Russia signed with Vietnam in waters claimed by the Chinese. Beyond these territorial disputes, there are also significant gaps in trust and ideology between the two nations. Many Chinese see Russia as a failure, as a great power that slipped into mediocrity as a result of its political reforms and ideological laxness. Furthermore, in addition to the recent and well-publicized joint naval exercises, both Russia and China have also conducted their own military exercises aimed at defending against potential threats from each another. For example, this year Russia deployed 160,000 troops from July 13 to 20 in a war-game along the PRC border, and China has conducted several military drills in the past few years where troops were advanced distances only possible in a conflict against Russia or Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan.

Thus the burgeoning Sino-Russian alliance need not be perceived as a threat to the United States. Moscow and Beijing are still far from a cohesive axis that might directly threaten Washington, and as such, the United States would be best off keeping a watchful eye, avoiding an antagonistic attitude towards cooperation between China and Russia. Indeed, more concerning than improved relations between China and Russia is Washington’s predisposition to fear that relationship, and to assume that it could not peacefully coexist with a more cooperative Moscow and Beijing.

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