02.06.23 China Review

Clay Alliance: Russia-China union may only persist long term if Moscow is pliable

The alliance between Russia and China may not be as reliable as it appears in official statements and as Moscow in particular seeks to portray it, experts believe. To test the substantive depth of the Russo-Chinese friendship, they suggest analysing not official statements, but rather the positions and discourse of China's expert community, which advises Beijing on foreign policy matters, on one hand, and the practices of interaction between Russia and China in regions of the world where both countries have significant interests, on the other. Against the backdrop of Russia's political and economic weakening, China will attempt to replace it in areas where Russian has traditionally kept its interests, thus the sustainability of their alliance is only possible if Moscow is to make concessions.

Henry Kissinger, the patriarch of geopolitics, has expressed doubts about the reliability and durability of the Russo-Chinese alliance in a recent interview with The Economist. While anti-Americanism strengthens their bond, Moscow and Beijing have traditionally been defined by mutual suspicion, and their interests collide in many areas.

To assess the depth of their cooperation and its real potential, experts argue that one should look beyond official and ceremonial statements, which carry propagandistic meaning, and focus on the underlying perceptions and practices of cooperation behind them.

For instance, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London published a review titled 'The Art of Tasseography: China-Russia Relations through China's Eyes,' examining the expert discourse shaped by Chinese analytical institutions in order to understand the actual content of the Russo-Chinese alliance. It is within this discourse that Beijing's goals and strategies for Russian policy are formulated.

On one hand, Chinese experts argue that Beijing is interested in maintaining the current Russian regime and preserving the military and political potential of its northern partner. China will not benefit from the excessive weakening of Russia and the collapse of Putin's regime as it would weaken China's position in global competition with the United States. On the other hand, the war in Ukraine has dragged China into an unnecessary conflict and a values confrontation with Europe. Europe is not only one of China's main economic partners but also an independent centre of power that does not always support Washington's policies. Beijing seeks to establish an autonomous system of relations with Europe, while the war in Ukraine has solidified the Euro-American alliance that opposes China.

For many analysts in China, the invasion of Ukraine came as an unpleasant surprise, and they have made no secret of their bewilderment. While China emphasises the consistent reform of the world order and global governance primarily through political and economic methods, experts believe that Russia is undermining these efforts without having the resources or plans to create an alternative. These two strategies may, in certain circumstances, coincide in their tactical goals, but they may also strongly contradict each other in other situations.

In the context of bilateral relations with Russia, Chinese experts pay little attention to existing international institutions, such as BRICS, SCO, and APEC. This may be because China intends to build its own leadership strategies within these institutions, disregarding similar aspirations from Russia. This is one potential source of significant disagreement between Moscow and Beijing.

A deeper understanding of Sino-Russian relations and their potential for partnership can be obtained by observing how the two countries interact in regions where they both have significant interests, suggests an expert from the American Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). Although China and Russia may benefit tactically from strengthening their relations, they are constrained by rivalry in other regions when it comes to their strategic partnership.

The first of these is Central Asia, where Russia has a centuries-long history of dominance. However, it is the war in Ukraine and China's growing influence that threaten to bring this to an end, as Re:Russia has previously noted. Russia has positioned itself as a security guarantor and an important economic partner in the region, but its capabilities in these areas have been significantly undermined. Until recently, China focused on economic cooperation and investments within the framework of its global initiative 'One Belt, One Road.' However, it now intends to take advantage of the sudden opportunity for political strengthening in the region and is already holding meetings with the leadership of Central Asian countries within the framework of 'China-Central Asia' (C+C5), excluding Moscow's involvement.

Experts see a similar scenario as the most likely course of events in Africa. As in Central Asia, Beijing is investing in industrial development and infrastructure projects, while Moscow has focused on supporting friendly governments and positioning itself as a security provider. However, unlike in the Central Asian region, where Russia has primarily used conventional forces, in Africa, it has preferred to expand its presence through hired private military contractors. Against this backdrop, China has begun to establish military bases across the African continent, leading experts to believe that it will not be long before China starts squeezing Russia out.

Another point of contention is Russia's arms exports to East Asia, primarily to India and Vietnam, but also to Malaysia, which is undoubtedly of concern to Beijing.

Moscow will only be able to maintain its friendship with China by making concessions on various fronts, allowing Beijing to replace it in its traditional spheres of influence. However, it is difficult to say how far such concessions can be extended and at what point they will turn into anti-China sentiment in Russian politics.