Under Western pressure, the two states are aligning with each other at a level unseen for decades.
China and Russia are moving into a political alliance as increasing Western pressure brings them closer.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping met this week in an online forum to discuss bilateral relations and global issues. After the meeting, both leaders appeared to praise the other and emphasised their growing partnership against Western threats. They will also meet in person in Beijing in early 2022.
Both states’ connections go back to the Cold War but have fluctuated, unlike US ties with Western Europe, which have been consistent and solid since World War II.
While the US-Western Europe relationship produced NATO, the world’s most powerful alliance and probably one of the most enduring military pacts of all time, Moscow and Beijing have long been suspicious of each other.
Even when the two states had communist leadership during the Cold War, unlike the Western alliance, they could not enjoy a stable relationship, breaking up in 1961. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, both states have taken a capitalist turn.
“Until now, the general assumption has been what we see Russia and China are a pair of countries that are essentially working together but they don’t like each other. They work together because they feel obligated to work together,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think-tank.
But that assumption might not be valid anymore, according to Pantucci.
“I think what changed is that both countries have come to some sort of a realisation that actually the world restructured in such a way in their perspective that they are on one side and the West is on the other,” Pantucci tells TRT World.
From North Stream to AUKUS
Putin calls the new phase of the relationship “a new model of cooperation”.
“It’s interesting to see some of the things they are talking about. So we have recently seen the Russians talking about AUKUS,” says Pantucci. AUKUS is formed between Australia, the UK and the US to sell nuclear submarines to Sydney and many experts see it as a Western political leveraging against China.
“This is a deal that has nothing to do with the Russians and it’s not an area of strategic interest for Russians at all. Yet, we have a number of quite senior Russian officials who say that this is a bad thing for the world,” Pantucci says.
Like Russia’s backing of China on AUKUS, Beijing has shown its support to Moscow in the North Stream Pipeline dispute, according to Pantucci.
“At the same time, we had the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs talking about the North Stream II Pipeline that goes from Germany to Russia,” Pantucci says.
The North Stream Pipeline 2 project is a great concern in Europe because it bypasses Ukraine, a Western ally and an enemy of Moscow, weakening Kiev’s hand against the Russians. On the other hand, the project strengthens Russia in terms of supplying gas to Europe.
“So it is something China has nothing to do with and it’s not relevant to China. And yet the Chinese foreign ministry has still felt the need to express a view on this,” Pantucci points out.
A challenge to the West?
Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasia analyst, says the China-Russia “tactical alliance” in the post Cold War period can get stronger and might even turn into a strategic partnership despite some fears in Moscow’s political establishment regarding Chinese domination.
“The West is losing its economic edge against China’s growing economy while NATO is increasingly forced to face a more assertive Russian military in places like Ukraine to defend European security against Moscow’s increasing political game,” Yalinkilicli tells TRT World.
Western sanctions targeting both China and Russia also brought the two states closer, he says, pointing out the fact that Moscow’s biggest military exercise after the Cold War was conducted alongside Beijing in 2018.
“With the establishment of Shanghai Five Group, both powers already had a political framework,“ Yalinkilicli argues. Both countries are also part of BRICS, a group of five emerging economies including Brazil, South Africa and India.
Russia and China are already challenging the Western alliance, says Pantucci. “They will clearly challenge the Western alliance, but how they will challenge it will really be in terms of demonstrating their economic strength on the world stage rather than deciding to pick wars in certain places,” he observes.
In a reply to a question regarding a military alliance between Moscow and Beijing, Putin said, “We don’t need such an endeavor now.” - but both states back each other in places like Taiwan and Ukraine.
“Russia will be the most staunch supporter of the Chinese government’s legitimate position on Taiwan-related issues,” said a Chinese foreign ministry statement after the Putin-Xi meeting.
Russians fears on Chinese power
Despite many opportunities for cooperation, some Kremlin operators have problems with China’s economic engine, which triggers not only Western concerns but also Russian fears. The two countries share a land border and China’s increasing economic activity in eastern Russia, particularly in areas close to its border make Kremlin’s elites nervous, according to Yalinkilicli.
“Those areas almost surrendered to China, economically,” he says. China’s Belt and Road Project is not only a threat to the West but also Russia, challenging Moscow’s domination in Central Asia, says Yalinkilicli.
“China is definitely the old Great Game’s new political actor,” he says. The Great Game refers to the 19th century political competition between former Russian and British Empires for control over Central Asia.
In recent years, the trade balance between Russia and China has also grown against Moscow.
“As Russia contemplates making assertive military moves against NATO in Eastern Europe, it might feel that its eastern flank might be threatened by China,” says Yalinkilcli.
Russians always worry about their relations with China and view themselves as “the second partner,” says Pantucci. “But I think Russians bring to the table something Chinese can’t do. Russians are much more willing to use hard power than Chinese are,” he adds.
While no one remembers when was the last time China invaded a country, Russia has done it twice in the past decade. Even though it’s true that the economic relationship heavily favours China, Moscow’s hard power helps the Kremlin mitigate Russian “paranoia” against Beijing, according to Pantucci.
As a result, he thinks both powers will continue to deepen their relationship. “It’s going to get closer and closer. I don’t think there will be a high level of trust. But I think they will get closer,” he says.
“That proximity will be essentially bound together because of hostilities with the West.”