Over the past decade, Russia and China have come into closer alignment and their bilateral collaboration has grown. At the same time, both Beijing and Moscow have taken steps to alter the status quo in their respective peripheries. Warmer Sino-Russian relations elicit the question whether the closer alignment of these two neighbours is somehow changing international politics to the disadvantage of the United States and its friends in Europe and Asia. The Chinese believe that the relations of China and Russia cannot be affected by foreign factors and their development will be sound as they meet the mutual interests of both nations.
Many observers of the Russo-Chinese relationship continue to believe that it is merely a marriage or an axis of convenience, which will only last as long as it does not damage its two players’ other interests. This attitude clearly embodies the distinctive belief, particularly prevalent in the United States, that all governments — Moscow and Beijing included — are merely calculating Realists with no other motive. However, mounting evidence shows that this view fails to capture the growing closeness of Russian and Chinese positions on many global issues. Moreover, proponents of this perspective fail to see that China continues to make material concessions to Russia to keep it on China’s side, whereas Russia is also willing to take steps damaging to its relations with third parties in order to please China.
Notably, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently urged both governments to strengthen communication and coordination in international security and on regional issues (presumably Korea, Southeast Asia, Japan, the Middle East and Ukraine) to achieve political solutions. He also reiterated that bilateral Sino-Russian cooperation plays a key role in safeguarding peace and stability in Asia and in the world more generally. Beyond that, China’s Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli recently met with Gazprom head Alexander Miller and vowed to improve bilateral energy cooperation. To mollify Russia, China recently lent Gazprom $2.17 billion; and it appears that further loans to Russian energy companies as well as further Chinese investment in them will be forthcoming, thus representing a tangible manifestation of Chinese support for Russia against the West. Indeed, China has already become the largest consumer of Russian crude oil.
This cooperation is not only occurring in the energy sphere. China has now made advance payments for Russia’s high-tech S-400 surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile system, which it should begin receiving in 2017. While the specific missile that will be sold as part of the S-400 system has not yet been conclusively revealed, if it is the 40N6 model, it will provide China with the capability to cover a range of up to 400 kilometres. That will allow China to strike over all of Taiwan as well as reach targets as far as New Delhi, Calcutta, Hanoi, Seoul and all of North Korea. Armed with 40N6 missiles, Beijing’s S-400 launchers would also be able to fully protect the Yellow Sea and China’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. But even a shorter-range missile would represent a significant upgrading of China’s capability for anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) operations. This will certainly upset the military balance in the region, which is not necessarily in Moscow’s interest. Yet, Russian defence expert Vasily Kashin, of the Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technology, a think tank closely tied to the defence industrial complex, has simultaneously advocated for still more enhanced military cooperation with China. Furthermore, Kashin has advocated for strong Russo-Chinese industrial cooperation in electronics and mining.
On a different note, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced plans to continue its major military buildup on the Kurile Islands, the southernmost of which are claimed by Japan. In particular, Moscow is looking to deploy Bal-E and Bastion-P mobile coastal defence missile systems, anti-ship missiles as well as Eleron-3 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). Russia is also considering setting up a naval base on those islands.
It should be clear to any observer that this announcement regarding the further militarization of the Kuriles is a direct insult to Japan and its leader, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The timing of the announcement is particularly damaging to Moscow-Tokyo ties, as Abe is planning to travel to Russia to try and bring about a normalization of bilateral relations based on a transfer of at least two of the Kuriles back to Japan. Evidently, Russia is not prepared to make any meaningful concessions to Japan at the expense of Moscow’s ties to Beijing —Tokyo’s arch-rival in East Asia. And this decision, represents a practical response by Russia to the closer coordination on regional security that Xi has called for. China and Russia’s joint opposition to the US decision to deploy the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea against a North Korean threat provides another notable example. Similarly, with regard to competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, while Russia says it would like to see these issues resolved peacefully and is unlikely to be enthusiastic about Chinese dominance there, its officials have now moved to follow China’s line by calling for the United States to stay out of the region. Indeed, Russian authorities have even declared that US presence in the South China Sea could constitute a threat to Moscow.
Given all these signs of ever-closer rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing, even at the expense of their other interests, is it really possible — let alone useful — to continue to cling to the belief that the Sino-Russian relationship is merely a temporary marriage of convenience?