Russia and China: A pragmatic partnership

Russia and China: A pragmatic partnership

As sanctions continue, Sino-Russian relations – in many ways a pragmatic response to Western reproach – have been steadily developing. Russia’s eastward leaning strategy, or its ‘pivot to Asia,’ is largely coming in the form of energy relations and military cooperation with China.

Russian sanctions

US and EU sanctions, an economic reality for the Kremlin since it illegally annexed Crimea, have necessitated government officials to develop ways of bypassing Western financial systems. In doing so, Russia has committed to various financial activities, such as dumping 84% of its US debt (and subsequently tripling its gold reserves), increasing international weapon sales, and initiating contracts with sovereign wealth funds throughout the Middle East. What has Western analysts most worried, however, are the strengthening ties between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Some defence planners and policy analysts insist underlying issues – such as growing Chinese influence in post-Soviet states, the Russian Far East, and the Arctic – will prevent meaningful cooperation between Russia and China. Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis has waved off concerns about the developing Sino-Russian relations given a “natural non-convergence of interest.” While it is true that Beijing and Moscow may hold different worldviews, and opinions about global affairs, pragmatic cooperation in the near-term is likely to continue.

Growing relations, despite questions regarding their longevity, has prompted one Chinese Academic, Su Xiaohui from the Institute of International Studies, to describe Sino-Russian relations as an example for “New Type International Relations.” Built upon shared characteristics of illiberalism, moral latitude, and realpolitik, areas of collaboration to note will include the energy sector and military cooperation.

Energy security

A decade ago, all of Russia’s gas pipelines flowed West. Fast forward to the present and vast oil and gas infrastructure sprawls out toward its neighbour to the East. As a top buyer of Russian energy, joint projects to note include the China National Petroleum Corporation helping to fund the Yamal Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plant and plans for a pipeline to begin transporting 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas from China’s northeastern province, Heilongjiang, south to Shanghai in 2020.

The US Department of Energy estimates that China will import upwards of 76% of its energy needs by 2025, therefore cooperation is likely to only intensify.

Military cooperation

As the United States and its allies continue to challenge Russia in Eastern Europe, and China in the Asia-Pacific – their strategic partnership may only strengthen. As one former senior Russian national security official described it, a “functional military alliance” is in the making.

In the past, Russia has cautiously withheld its latest warfare technology from its Pacific counterpart. However, in recent years the Kremlin has begun authorizing the sale of UAVs and its most advanced air defense system, the S-400, in addition to beginning joint research and development on a new rocket engine.

Beyond the selling of armaments, China took part in Russia’s most recent wargaming exercise – Vostok 2018. Sending 3,200 troops from its Northern Theater Command, PRC soldiers conducted realistic combat training and counter-attack drills – a qualitative improvement from the counter-terrorism, anti-piracy, and disaster relief operations which have defined Sino-Russian military drills in the past.

In addition to land warfare, Russian and Chinese naval forces have participated in joint exercises in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, the South China Sea in 2016, and more recently in the Baltic Sea in 2017. These naval exercises have had potentially the greatest impact on their respective militaries, further developing sailors’ maritime acumen and tactical competence.

For China’s fleet, it has been invaluable to conduct operations far from its coast. It is currently putting this experience to use in the South and East China Seas. As for Russia, good seamanship is clearly a growing priority – considering its recent aggression in the Sea of Azov and general military posturing in the Black and Caspian Seas.

An uncertain future

As one of America’s leading strategic thinkers, Zbigniew Brzezinski stated, “the most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China and Russia…united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.” It is unclear whether such a grand coalition has formed – or ever will – however, it is not yet possible to discount the possibility. Doubt-filled analyses regarding the inability of Russia and China to build a long-lasting and effective strategic partnership may well be correct. Nevertheless, the present reality, the one which we all must face, has highlighted the efforts of a resurgent, modern Eastern Bloc which neither necessitates a shared ideology nor is short on grievances.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Jonathan Hall

Jonathan Hall is a security and political risk analyst with a focus on Eurasian geopolitics, military affairs, and emerging technologies. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from Central European University and has experience living and working in Eastern Europe. He can be found on Twitter @_JonathanPHall