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Chinese-Russian relations: How to respond?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) released its first ‘strategic concept[↗]’ in 12 years on 29th June 2022. Explicit concern was shown towards the ‘deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China [PRC] and the Russian Federation’, particularly their ‘mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order’. Around 120 years ago, Halford Mackinder shared similar concerns regarding Imperial Germany and Tsarist Russia and their ability to control what he described[↗] as the geographical ‘Heartland’ – a landmass comprising most of Russia, Central Asia and northwest China.

Mackinder theorised that whoever could build enough railways to take control of this geographical ‘Heartland’ would have a geopolitical stronghold so robust that ‘the empire of the world would then be in sight.’ Only Germany had the industrial capacity and geostrategic inclination to do this: he feared a German-Russian condominium would gain the means to challenge British maritime supremacy. 

For a plethora of reasons, neither Germany, nor the Soviet Union which came after it, were able to realise Mackinder’s nightmare. The maritime powers, namely the United Kingdom (UK), Japan, and the United States (US), using alternative powerbases – the British Isles, Japan, India and North America – prevented German and Soviet hegemony in the 20th century. But this does not mean that Mackinder’s approach was entirely mistaken. Today, through the expanding relationship between the PRC and Russia, Chinese industrial muscle may gain access to the vast resources of Siberia. For the free and open countries, the geopolitical consequences would surely be dire.

Chinese-Russian relations have a rocky 400-odd year history, with frequent interactions and border disputes. More recently, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union and PRC were engaged in ideological conflict over Marxist-Leninist principles and their application, and in 1969 the two found themselves in armed conflict over their shared border near Manchuria that nearly brought them to full-scale war. Nonetheless, tensions abated in the late 20th century as mutually reinforcing strategic and economic interests brought the two powers closer together 

Aligning factors

Relations between Russia and the PRC today are now as strong as they have ever been. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees[↗] Russia, as put by Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, as its ‘most important close neighbour and strategic partner’. Officials in Russia echo this belief, and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, believes[↗] that relations between the two ‘are at their strongest level ever’. Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CCP, and Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, have a close personal relationship – Xi has described[↗] Putin as his ‘best friend’ and they share birthday phone calls[↗]. Their joint statement[↗] in February this year lays out their ‘no limits’ partnership for a ‘new era’.

The bedrock of the Chinese-Russia relationship is their disdain for freedom and openness. To protect their own regimes, both want to make the world safe for autocracy, not least where there are many flourishing democracies: in the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific. Consequently, they also seek to do away with the open international order, replacing it with a hierarchical system based on their own spheres of influence. For Russia this includes most of Europe and Central Asia; for the PRC, it may include the entire world.

The economies of the PRC and Russia also complement each other. Russia has vast natural resources that it needs exported for state revenue, and the PRC’s insatiable appetite for energy and infrastructure material leave it as the perfect customer. The PRC was key in aiding[↗] Russia in 2014 as sanctions over its illegal annexation of Crimea began to bite. Russia is also an enthusiastic partner[↗] to the PRC’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI).

They also, in some areas, bolster each other’s strategic aims. The approximately 4,300 kilometre long border that they share can go largely undefended, allowing for the concentration of scarce resources in other areas, such as Ukraine for Russia and the South China Sea for the PRC. They both have an interest in promoting stability in Central Asia, and in ensuring that the region does not become a hot-spot for radical Islamism that could spill over into Russia’s east or the PRC’s northwest. Permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council allows both countries to coordinate their veto powers to best suit their interests, and thwart that of free and open nations. Military exercises have continued apace since they began in 2003, enhancing the interoperability of the Chinese and Russian militaries.

Then there is the war in Ukraine. The CCP’s messaging around the conflict has broadly followed the Kremlin’s narrative: NATO bears primary responsibility for Russia’s actions, which are not an invasion but a defensive reaction. Beijing also has no qualms in snaffling up[↗] cheap Russian oil and gas, capital which undoubtedly funds the Kremlin’s war. 

However, the CCP’s messaging around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates less an alignment of interests and more a marriage of convenience: Beijing will naturally condemn the UK’s, Europe’s and North America’s position and sanctions as it would incur a similar fate if it were to attempt to ‘reunify’ Taiwan with the mainland. Cheap Russian fossil fuels are a cost-effective way to fuel the Chinese economy.

The reality is that the war in Ukraine is not within the PRC’s interests. Food security – a major issue for the CCP in ensuring domestic stability – has come under global threat as a result of Russia’s invasion. The PRC imports[↗] around 30% of its corn and 68% of its sunflower and safflower oil from Ukraine. The war has also fostered unity between the Euro-Atlantic powers and other free and open nations in the Indo-Pacific (Japan and Australia have provided[↗] Ukraine with significant support), weakening the PRC’s geostrategic position, and has exposed contradictions in the CCP’s oft-recited principles regarding the importance of territorial integrity and state sovereignty. BRI projects in Ukraine[↗] and Europe[↗] more broadly have also come under threat.

The war also presents the PRC with potential situations in which it does not want to find itself in; what if the ruling regime in the Kremlin is replaced as a result of the war by an administration which leans more towards the Euro-Atlantic democracies? How is the CCP to respond to the potential use of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons by the Kremlin? And what if Russia were to mobilise the full force of its army and commit even more heinous war crimes; how would the CCP respond? These are tough scenarios for the PRC’s strategic elite.

‘No limits’ partnership has…limits

In fact, in most areas where Russia and the PRC are aligned there are frictions, contradictions, and indeed limits. Although both dislike freedom and openness, Russia adopts an anti-systemic drive compared to the PRC’s counter-systemic approach; Moscow wants to tear the rules-based system down, yet Beijing – which has benefited from it so greatly – wants to see it reconstituted to better suit its interests. Here, Moscow’s approach infringes upon Beijing’s strategic goals.

Their economic relationship is also unequal[↗]. The PRC is Russia’s second largest trading partner behind the European Union (EU), whereas Russia is only the PRC’s 14th. As EU countries, and indeed the bloc, seek new suppliers[↗] for their energy needs, Russia is only going to become increasingly more reliant on the PRC for trade. This is not an eventuality that serves the Kremlin’s strategic ends. To complicate matters further and despite pre-24th February 2022 pledges to the contrary, Chinese companies and investors have shown a degree of hesitancy[↗] in beginning or funding new projects in Russia due to the sanctions free and open countries have slapped on the Kremlin.

Conflicting interests are also evident in Central Asia. Moscow hopes to maintain the hold its imperialist forebears had on the region, whereas the PRC is looking to expand its influence there through business ventures, security cooperation and BRI projects.  

Defence ties are also perhaps not as close as they seem. The advancement of the Chinese military has left Russian weapon sales as obsolete, and military exercises regularly look as if they are rather posturing exercises designed to intimidate free and open nations. The only joint exercise since 24th February 2022 – where six Russian and Chinese bombers flew near Japan’s airspace as a meeting of the Quad was occuring in Tokyo – being a case in point.

But is a new ‘empire of the world’ in sight?

In the early 20th century, Mackinder feared that Germany would harness Russia’s vast resources to create a continental superpower with the means to reign over the world. Today, there is a growing fear that the PRC and Russia, working together, could generate a continental powerbase with similar capability. Are these concerns justified? Partially.

Chinese industrial might and Russia’s resources would certainly make for a formidable combination. Here, the economic relationship between the PRC and Russia will probably only deepen, particularly as free and open countries attempt to diversify their suppliers in terms of energy and manufactures (and as the PRC and Russia seek to move beyond export-led economies). The two authoritarian powers also share similar geostrategic objectives – both seek to make the world safe for autocracy – even if their regional interests often conflict. 

That the PRC is the more powerful of the two may raise fears in Moscow, but the growing quagmire Russia finds itself in as a result of its renewed offensive against Ukraine demands closer relations with Beijing to ensure regime survival. Moreover, unlike Russia (or Imperial Germany), the PRC has the logistical and technological capabilities to weave Mackinder’s ‘Heartland’ together like never before – in just 20 years, Chinese engineers have built the most extensive motorway and high speed railway networks on Earth and, having completed a national system, they look outwards to link Eurasia to the PRC.

Equally, irrespective of the Kremlin’s recklessness, the PRC will continue to support Russia. After all, the PRC lacks allies and Russia is a fellow autocracy allergic to freedom and openness and deeply mistrustful of the open international order. The current arrangement benefits both countries. True, the Chinese-Russian relationship is not yet a full-blown alliance – and it may never be – but this does not downplay its geostrategic significance.

What does this mean for the UK and other free and open nations? This is a complicated question. A logical response would be to attempt to prise the PRC and Russia apart by co-opting the weaker of the two – Russia – similarly to the way the US extended a hand to the PRC in 1971 to break its relationship with the Soviet Union. Yet, the Kremlin’s seething, even visceral, hatred of liberal democracy and the Euro-Atlantic order means this approach would be very unlikely to succeed. Indeed, countries such as Germany have sought to coax Russia closer for years – and have failed, miserably.

Rather, the UK needs to think more about how it can mobilise its allies and partners across the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific theatres, which, as Boris Johnson and Fumio Kishida, the British and Japanese prime ministers, respectively, have concluded, are increasingly ‘indivisible[↗]’. A new coalition underpinned by the geostrategic power of the US, the UK and Japan and flanked by a number of countries in geopolitically pivotal areas – India, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine, and Poland, among others – would generate a liberal network sufficient to constrain Chinese and Russian ambitions and uphold an open international order. Greater cooperation between the PRC and Russia may be certain, but their ability to seize the geopolitical initiative is not preordained.

James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy. Patrick Triglavcanin is a Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy.

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