China-Russia Security Relations: Strategic Parallelism without Partnership or Passion?
Authored by Dr. Richard Weitz.
This report argues that, although Chinese-Russian relations have improved along several important dimensions, security cooperation between Beijing and Moscow has remained limited, episodic, and tenuous. The two governments support each other on select issues but differ on others. Since these interests conflict as well as coincide, the relationship is not necessarily moving in an anti-American direction. Although no action undertaken by these two great powers is insignificant and Washington must continue to monitor carefully developments in Beijing and Moscow, thus far their fitfully improving ties have not presented a major security challenge to the United States or its allies. Nevertheless, the radical changes in great power relations during the past century—-which also witnessed major transformations in ties between Beijing and Moscow, from allies in the 1950s to armed adversaries in the 1960s—-behooves U.S. Army and other national security planners to anticipate the potential for major discontinuities in Sino-Russian relations. Above all, American officials need to pursue a mixture of “shaping and hedging” policies that aim to avert a hostile Chinese-Russian alignment while concurrently preparing the United States to better counter such a development should it nevertheless arise despite American efforts.
Since the end of the Cold War, the improved political and economic relationship between Beijing and Moscow has affected a range of international security issues. China and Russia have expanded their bilateral economic and security cooperation. In addition, Beijing and Moscow have pursued distinct, yet parallel, policies regarding many global and regional issues. Yet, Chinese and Russian approaches to a range of significant subjects are still largely uncoordinated and at times conflict. Economic exchanges between China and Russia remain minimal compared to those found between most friendly countries, let alone allies. Although stronger Chinese-Russian ties could present greater challenges to other states (e.g., the establishment of a Beijing-Moscow condominium over Central Asia), several factors make it unlikely that the two countries will form such a bloc.
Unlike during the Cold War, China and Russia no longer fear engaging in a shooting war. For example, the two countries have largely accepted their common border. Yet, tensions persist due to illegal Chinese immigration into Russia, as well the inability of Chinese authorities to halt the spillover of pollution from China into Russia. In particular, Russians worry about the long-term implications of China’s exploding population for Russia’s demographically and economically stagnant eastern regions, a situation some Russian leaders already consider to be a major security threat.
In some respects, China and Russia should be natural energy partners. Chinese energy demand is soaring, and Russia’s oil and gas deposits lie much closer to China than the more distant energy sources Africa and the Persian Gulf. Nonetheless, economic and political differences relating to their energy security have continually divided the two countries, reducing the prospects for creating an exclusive energy bloc in Eurasia.
For over a decade, Russian military exports to China have constituted the most important dimension of the two countries’ security relationship. Russian firms have derived substantial revenue from the sales, which also helped sustain Russia’s military industrial complex during the lean years of the 1990s. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was able to acquire advanced conventional weapons that Chinese firms could not yet manufacture. This situation is changing. The Chinese defense industry has become capable of producing much more sophisticated armaments. Moscow confronts the choice of either seeing its Chinese market decrease dramatically or agreeing to sell even more advanced weapons to Beijing with the risk of destabilizing military force balances in East Asia.
In their public rhetoric, Chinese and Russian leaders appear the best of friends. They speak as if they share a comprehensive vision of the direction in which they want the world to evolve over the next few years. Their joint statements call for a multipolar international system in which the United Nations and international law determine decisions regarding the possible use of force. Chinese and Russian government representatives also stress traditional interpretations of national sovereignty rather than the promotion of universal democratic values or other ideologies. Yet, Beijing and Moscow continue to differ on important global issues, including ballistic missile defense (BMD) and military operations in space.
The Chinese and Russian governments have expressed concern about efforts by the United States and its allies to strengthen BMD capabilities. Their professed fear is that these strategic defense systems, in combination with strong American offensive nuclear capabilities, might enable the United States to obtain nuclear superiority over China and Russia. Despite their mutual concerns, Beijing and Moscow have never collaborated extensively in this area. For example, they have not pooled their military resources or expertise to overcome U.S. BMD technologies. Nor have they pressed in coordinated fashion other European or Asian countries to abstain from allowing U.S. BMD systems to be deployed on their soil.
As in other spheres, China and Russia have both parallel and conflicting interests in outer space. The two governments have long been concerned over U.S. military programs in this realm. In response, Chinese and Russian delegations to various UN disarmament meetings have submitted joint working papers and other proposals to begin multilateral disarmament negotiations to avert the militarization of space. In addition, Beijing and Moscow have independently issued broad threats intended to dissuade the United States from actually deploying space-based weapons. Despite their overlapping interests in countering U.S. military activities in space, Russia has been very circumspect in cooperating with China’s space program. The Russian position likely reflects recognition that many aerospace technologies have direct military applications.
Central Asia perhaps represents the geographic region where the security interests of China and Russia most intersect. Their overlapping security interests have manifested themselves most visibly in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Yet, this harmony of interests arises primarily because Beijing deems the region a lower strategic priority than does Moscow, which still views Central Asia as an area of special Russian influence. China’s growing interest in securing Central Asian oil and gas could lead Beijing to reconsider its policy of regional deference.
In East Asia, China and Russia are mutually concerned with the evolving political, military, and economic situation on the Korean peninsula, which borders both countries. In all three dimensions, the two governments have thus far pursued largely independent but parallel approaches toward both North and South Korea. In terms of influence, however, Beijing enjoys a clearly dominant role, while Moscow often struggles to maintain even a supporting position. Their policies towards Japan and Taiwan also are not well integrated. Beijing considers its ties with Tokyo and Taipei as among its most important bilateral relationships, whereas Moscow manages its relations with both states almost as an afterthought.
The limits of foreign policy harmonization between China and Russia are also visible in South Asia, where the two governments have adopted sharply divergent positions on critical issues. For instance, despite recent improvement in Chinese-Indian relations, Russia’s ties with New Delhi still remain much stronger than those between China and India. Persistent border disputes, differences over India’s growing security ties with the United States, competition over energy supplies, and other sources of Sino-Indian tensions have consistently impeded the realization of a possible Beijing-Moscow- New Delhi axis.
The Chinese and Russian governments have pursued parallel but typically uncoordinated policies in the Middle East. Both want to sell Iran weapons, nuclear technologies, and other products. In addition, Beijing and Moscow, though defending Tehran in the Security Council, warn against any Iranian ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons. In addition, they both opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, while sharing concerns that an early American military withdrawal from that country could lead to an increase of Islamic militarism throughout the Middle East. Thus far, however, neither country has sought to make issues related to Iran or Iraq major areas for bilateral Sino-Russian cooperation or significant points of confrontation with Washington.
In sum, although Chinese-Russian relations have improved along several important dimensions, security cooperation between Beijing and Moscow has remained limited, episodic, and tenuous. The two governments support each other on select issues but differ on others, as might be expected from their opportunistic relationship. Since some of their interests conflict, the relationship is not necessarily moving in a decidedly anti-American direction. Although no action undertaken by these two great powers is insignificant and Washington must continue to monitor carefully developments in Beijing and Moscow, thus far their fitfully improving ties have not presented a major security challenge to the United States or its allies.
Nevertheless, prudent U.S. national security planners should prepare for possible major discontinuities in Sino-Russian relations. American officials should employ a mixture of “shaping and hedging” policies that aim to avert a hostile Chinese- Russian alignment while concurrently preparing the United States to better counter such a development should it arise.
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