Geopolitical signalling with limits
The China-Russia relationship has global significance. Particularly when united, these two countries could pose a severe challenge to the US and to the broader liberal international order, a sentiment that was clearly articulated in President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy published in December 2017. The two countries have increased and enhanced their political and security cooperation in recent years. The cooperation takes multiple forms; from high-level attendance at each other’s military parades to coordinated foreign policy actions, joint military exercises and even joint development of military equipment. How should we interpret these recent trends? How does this cooperation benefit China, which is a much bigger player economically than Russia and rapidly developing its indigenous defence industry? Let’s find the answers by analyzing Chinese motivations for enhanced collaboration with Russia in the political and security spheres.
Recent developments in Sino-Russian relations are remarkable considering the history of the Sino-Soviet split and the fact that the two countries formed their “strategic partnership of coordination” in 1996, only five years after China established diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation. The war in Kosovo accelerated the process of forming closer bilateral ties as both countries opposed NATO operations as constituting interference in a sovereign state’s internal affairs.
While China has strategic partnerships with a number of countries, the term “coordination” is reserved for describing the China-Russia strategic partnership. At the institutional level, the mechanisms in this strategic relationship are the most comprehensive and effective. The presidents, Prime Ministers and heads of China’s National People’s Congress and Russia’s Duma meet annually. In addition, the two countries have different institutionalized settings for various key sectors, such as the Energy Negotiators’ Meeting and China-Russia Strategic Security Consultation. China and Russia are also founding members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which was established in 2001.
Politically, China and Russia have a common interest in promoting a multipolar world and non-interference in states’ internal affairs. The principle of non-interference is mentioned in their 1997 joint communiqué entitled ‘The Russian-Chinese Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order’. In the context of the United Nations, this preference is manifested in voting behaviour on issues involving military intervention and other forms of interference in states’ internal affairs. Both China and Russia were against placing the human rights situation in North Korea on the UN Security Council’s agenda, for example. Between 2001 and 2012, both countries intensified political cooperation in the UNSC and started to show elements of a typical coalition. The two states have, for example, used the double veto more often than before to block US- and EU-initiated draft resolutions. As only one veto would be enough to block a draft resolution, this kind of behaviour can be interpreted as an act of opposition against the dominant Western coalition.
The Sino-Russian treaty of friendship, which was signed in 2001, lifted the bilateral commitments to a new level in its Article 9 which states: “When a situation arises in which one of the contracting parties deems that peace is being threatened and undermined or its security interests are involved or when it is confronted with the threat of aggression, the contracting parties shall immediately hold contacts and consultations in order to eliminate such threats.” Perhaps the most significant step on the bilateral front occurred in 2008 when the two countries managed to peacefully resolve their border dispute. In the same year, Chinese and Russian defence ministers also established a direct phone hotline. When Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, he chose Russia as the destination for his first state visit, and became the first foreign leader to visit the Russian military command centre in Moscow. The fact that Xi and Vladimir Putin seem to get along well at a personal level helps in enhancing the bilateral cooperation.
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