Is China-Russia Re-alignment for Real?

Sub Title : Russia China alignment is a developing axis which may upset the current global equation

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2024

Author : Ravi Srivastava

Page No. : 33

Category : Geostrategy

: January 27, 2024

The China-Russia partnership appears to be evolving into a multifaceted alliance, encompassing economic, military, and diplomatic dimensions. While the motivations behind this collaboration might be driven by geopolitical shifts and challenges from the West, the extent of their strategic alignment suggests a more enduring and comprehensive partnership. It will be intriguing to observe how this alliance continues to shape the global order and influence regional dynamics, particularly in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Global Attention

There has been a seeming spurt in the China-Russia engagements in the past few years. The number of interactions at the leadership level is indicative of the likely drive this mutual relationship is getting. Russia and China already have close geographical proximity, sharing approximately 4,209 Km of land border between them which counts as the sixth longest-running international border. The reason these developments are getting so much attention is because of their incredible size and standing in the global order and the current geostrategic churn in their neighbourhood. Russia and China are among the largest countries by land mass, both permanent members of the Security Council, both acknowledged nuclear power and currently competing against the West-defined global order.

The economic relations have mostly been robust between these two continental neighbours with mutual trade standing at around $190 billion in 2022 it is expected to grow past $200 billion by 2024. Since the Russian special operation began in early 2022 and the subsequent Western-led economic isolation of Russia, their trade has shot up by an annual increment of almost 13%. A July 2023 report carried by The Moscow Times mentioned that Russian crude exports to China doubled in June 2023 as compared to February 2022. Another report by Bloomberg in October 2023 outlined that Chinese auto exports to Russia have swelled five times, and consumption of Chinese phones and payments in Chinese currencies have all multiplied since the Ukraine operations began.

China also is among the few major buyers of Russian high-end military hardware like Su -30 MKI Fighter Jets, surface-to-air missiles, engines for its Stealth Fighter jets and much more. More than 80% of Chinese total arms imports are from Russia. The Military connection between Russia and China is not only of a buyer-seller format but has graduated to collaborative R&D and joint production. The prominent ones are joint aerospace engine development and anti-missile early warning radar systems.

The frequency of Sino-Russia joint military exercises has been worth noting probably to give credence to their stated “no limits” partnership. Data compiled by the US National Defence University indicates that both have held seven joint military exercises in the last two years with six of them held in 2022 itself, the highest frequency ever. Exercise Maritime Cooperation, Exercise Vostok and Exercise Northern/Interaction are prominent among them. To further demonstrate the level of interoperability of forces, the two nations have undertaken seven joint aerial strategic patrols over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea since 2019. However, whether such actions can be construed as anything more than geostrategic signalling to the US-led alliance in the region is up for debate. In military conduct subtle operational posturing makes the adversary keep guessing of the capacity and intent and this is probably what China and Russia would be aiming to achieve.

Russia and China have continued their close interactions with multiple visits to each other by high-level delegations. Accounting for summit-level interactions between both Presidents in international forums and bilateral visits President Putin and his Chinese counterpart have met 43 times, most recent being participation of the Russian President in China’s 3rd BRI forum in October last year. In the diplomatic narrative, interactions at the highest level only take place either when there are very pressing developments backing the momentum or there is a personal need felt by both leaders to push for the momentum.

Intriguing Reality

The history of relations between Russia (then the Soviet Union) and China is highly intriguing. During the German invasion of the USSR in 1949, the Chinese Red Army fought alongside Soviet forces. Soviets extended complete support to Mao’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during China’s civil war which considerably helped the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. USSR further trained and equipped its armed forces. It especially assisted in training Chinese Air Force pilots who eventually flew Western aircraft gifted to CCP’s rival KMT during China’s civil war.

It also received major support from the Soviet Union during the Korean War in 1950. However, the 1960s saw the rivalry for influence between Russia and China magnify manifold. Mao and Stalin both wanted the leadership role among the communist nations and that led to fractured relations. The relations deteriorated when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the non-resolution of border demarcation around Zhenbao island. This led to armed conflict in 1969 which lasted for seven months till diplomatic efforts doused the bloodbath. Both the states suffered large casualties in the confrontation. The event ensured a complete flip by the CCP towards the Western bloc abandoning its long-harnessed communist brotherhood with the Soviets.

The relations between China and the US, the arch-rivals of the Soviets, flourished in the 1970s with mutual visits of their leaders, the establishment of diplomatic relations and the endorsement of the so-called ‘One China Policy’ by the then US administration. The unbounded Western bonhomie with the CCP made them emboldened in their highhanded approach to domestic affairs. It later led the CCP’s authoritarian regime to adopt a very strange growth model of Communist-Capitalism. Strange as it was, the entire narrative of communism was on the social upliftment of the poor and unprivileged in a socialist governance model. While the capitalism professed building of public-private partnerships. During the era it was unfolding, both characteristics were contrary and made for an entirely artificial arrangement benefiting personal goals. China’s attainment of a Capitalist economy was in effect complete by the 1990s, under the garb of Socialism, though it could fool no one outside.

Post-emergence of the Russian Federation in 1991, China’s increasing confrontation with the West on issues of human rights abuse, its political model and the unfolding of dramatic incidents of Tiananmen Square in June 1989 started troubling them. China once again raced to ‘hold Russia, effectively dumping’ the West. It was so similar to the events that unfolded almost three decades back when China did exactly the same with the Soviets, by rushing into the lap of West.  It’s another matter that how China did it, what is of factual interest is China indeed changed colours multiple times. China demonstrated her capacity to swiftly flip their national allegiance at the emergence of an opportunistic juncture and there’s a history to prove it!

Friends For Convenience

The answers may vary, but a very relevant question remains; what made Russia and China be friends again? The most obvious answer would be, that it’s the geopolitical compulsions. These reasonings are mostly accepted in analysis by various think tanks which argue the absence of positives in mutual agenda as compared to the need to address assumed challenges. It is also not very difficult to weigh the factors aiding this apparent close coordination. Russia and China are both under pressure from the West for the ongoing Ukraine war and China’s aggressive forays in its neighbourhood. Both have security concerns due to the shift of US priorities towards Asia and the evolving dynamics of the Indo-Pacific. The announcement of NATO’s liaison office in Japan early last year has further complicated a delicate security situation.

The US is continuously trying to squeeze out the operational space from China’s backyard by stitching multiple security arrangements and upscaling existing bilateral military relations with Japan, South Korea, The Philippines, Australia and Taiwan. These developments have a somewhat unsettling impact on China and Russia making them feel being targeted by a ‘common foe’. The adage of ‘an enemy of the enemy becoming friend’, does appear coming alive in the Sino-Russian context and is undoubtedly a design for survival. It is also a fact that both nations are equally cautious about the other, an indication that their heart and minds are not in sync. Even at the height of their mutual engagements both have many a time acted independently and even at cross-purpose in multilateral forums.

At the recently held Johannesburg BRICS summit, the agenda for inclusion of new members saw both camps vying to have their preferred states included as new members. The leaked information of internal negotiations exposed that the Russians and Chinese were opposing each other on the question of Iranian membership. Similar has been the case with the expansion of SCO when Russia proposed the name of its long-time friend India as its new member. Clearly, the Chinese were not very impressed with that and noticed the Russian plan to boost their internal support within SCO. China relented grudgingly but not before getting Pakistan also approved in the expanded grouping. The membership of Pakistan for an organisation like SCO remains a mystery to date. However, China’s impulse to counter Indian presence later proved enough of the qualifying criteria for it.

New found friendship with China apart, Russia has certain geostrategic red lines. It considers Central Asia and the larger Eurasian region to be part of its undisputed sphere of influence. Another matter of divergence has been China’s handling of the Afghanistan crisis, days after the US withdrawal. Russia was unhappy with the swift engagements announced by China with the Afghanistan dispensation. Russia considers itself to have a larger stake and has ‘historically invested’ much more in Afghanistan. A potent issue that China would understand in its relationship with Russia is the question of India, with which it has fought war and continues with a belligerent approach. Russia being fully sensitive to the geopolitics behind it, endures its relationship with India and keeps it very close to itself. China almost draws a blank from Russia in its most challenging continental competition.

Churning Times

There’s more for China to understand, maybe it is getting comforted with Russian outreach hastened due to the Ukraine war, but an ‘all-out’ support from Russia is still way beyond the scope. There remains an element of caution in the Sino-Russia relationship, thanks to the historical behaviour of China. Contrast this with Indo-Russia relations which both have handled in an extremely mature manner that has stood to the test of times. The credit goes to both nations and is reflective of a very deep trust and mutual respect. This stems from seeing each other in the most difficult moments of their history.

The current global developments, regional aspirations and continued shifting of power centres towards the Global East have warranted re-calibration and re-articulation of the national approach. India has made rapid growth in multiple areas and has rightfully gained a higher pedestal in the global order. While it looks for mutually beneficial relations with countries across the globe, it holds its principle of engagements inviolable. Recent barbs heard from some Western capitals on favouring India’s designated criminals have probably amused it no end. These are the individuals who continue to be exploited by their host countries for domestic politics and in turn, they get to use the hospitality for carrying out conspiracies against India.

India would have surely noted the highly unusual diplomatic gesture of the US President’s refusal of an invite for the country’s National Day event and the reasonings offered. Indian foreign office while maintaining the decorum has effectively articulated India’s perspective which was subsequently amplified by its foreign minister during his recent Moscow visit. The Foreign Minister’s plain-speak and an audience with the Russian President would have not gone unnoticed in the major capitals. India’s decision to quickly extend the prestigious invite to the French President to be the Republic Day’s chief guest was swiftly accepted by Mr Macron. These twin developments are another spectacle for the strong message it carries. India holds its national priorities very dearly and has high respect for its friends and partners. Though Russia and France may not be strategically on the same page, it only amplifies India’s acceptability across the gamut.

The capacity to listen and understand is a cornerstone of India’s foreign policy, these are something China surely can aspire for. While changing dynamics may have brought some converging interest for Russia in China, its long-term scenario doesn’t appear too glorious. China’s ballooning ambitions will eventually engulf a well-intended start. Mutual respect and compassion for others’ challenges are prerequisites for any bilateral relationship to blossom or achieve the true stature of “all-weather allies” or “no-limits friendship”. Such terminologies are more for visual consumption. Smooth sailing on a long voyage will remain a mirage for China-Russia relations as long the factor of an ‘honest trust’ remains missing!