Superpower Symbiosis: The Russia-China Axis

Article excerpt

At the recent Russo-Chinese summit in Beijing, both governments again hailed their close ties, signed seventeen agreements on economic and other issues, and vowed to expand their joint military engagements. China pledged to invest more in the Russian Far East and buy more Russian nuclear energy technology. The two countries also declared their identity of views regarding Asia-Pacific security, Iran's nuclear program, Syria, and other global hot spots. It is hard to contest the regular assertions of Russian and Chinese leaders that relations between Beijing and Moscow are the best they have ever been.

Although sunny assessments about current Sino-Russian ties are correct, such alignments are vulnerable to shifts in the underlying conditions that support them. In the case of Russia and China, these shifting variables include China's increasing military power, its growing economic penetration of Central Asia, and its impending leadership changes, along with Russia's political disorders, dependence on a mono-economy of energy, and gloomy demographic prospects. These and other plausible changes could at some point undermine the foundations of their current entente. Interested third parties may or may not be able to shape these variables, but at least other governments need to understand the evolving dynamic of this important relationship and prepare for its future evolution.

Since the Soviet Union's disintegration in the early 1990s, the two countries have for the most part acted on the basis of shared interests--particularly in maintaining stability in Central Asia, whose energy supplies are vital for both countries' economic development. China consumes the resources directly, whereas Russian companies earn valuable revenue by reselling Central Asian hydrocarbons in third-party markets, especially in Europe. Both countries know that certain regional events such as further political revolutions or civil wars could adversely affect core security interests. Both governments especially fear ethnic separatism in their border territories supported by Islamic fundamentalist movements in Central Asia.

The shared regional security interests between Beijing and Moscow have meant that the newly independent states of Central Asia--Kazakhstart, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan--have become a generally unifying element in Chinese-Russian relations. Their overlapping security interests in Central Asia are visible in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Since its founding in 2001, the SCO has essentially functioned as a Chinese-Russian condominium, providing Beijing and Moscow with a convenient multilateral framework to manage their interests in Central Asia.

Chinese diplomatic rhetoric also seeks to put Russians at ease about the growing Chinese commercial presence in the former Soviet space by stressing Beijing's deference to Moscow on regional security issues. The bilateral defense relationship has evolved in recent years to become more institutionalized and better integrated. As befits two large and powerful neighbors, the senior military leaders of China and Russia now meet frequently in various formats. In addition, the two armed forces engage in many small and several large joint exercises, sometimes along with their Central Asian partners. China and Russia conducted their first official bilateral naval exercise, "Maritime Cooperation 2012," from April 22 to 27, 2012, in the Yellow Sea near Qingdao.

The two governments coordinate their foreign policies in the United Nations, where they regularly block Western-backed efforts to impose sanctions on anti-Western regimes. Most recently, China and Russia have established a common front in the UN Security Council against Western involvement in Syria. Their leaders share a commitment to a philosophy of state sovereignty (non-interference) and territorial integrity (against separatism). Although they defend national sovereignty by appealing to international law, their opposition also reflects more pragmatic considerations--a shared desire to shield their human rights and civil liberties abuses, and those of their allies, from Western criticism. …