They say that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. This seemingly holds to be true for the Sino-Russian relations within the triangulation of US-China-Russia. Though in reality, the Sino-Russian alliance stems more from the understanding that conflict would just be too destructive for both sides and cooperation is the way to achieve national interests. The US is just one factor behind the informal Sino-Russian alliance. Global politics is changing as we know it, unipolarity is dying while a world with multiple poles is emerging. Though many call the new global political order bipolar, Russia’s recent flexing of muscles regarding Ukraine shows that it would be quite early to designate the system as entirely bipolar, with US and China as superpowers.
Russia may not be a superpower or on the same level as the aforementioned two, but in its own sphere of influence, Russia holds immense power and geopolitical implications for the US and Europe. While USA’s relations with both China and Russia have been deteriorating, the bilateral ties between China and Russia have become more multidimensional, incorporating economy, military cooperation, and political understanding. The joint statement released after the Putin- Xi meeting on the occasion of the Winter Olympics Opening festivities shows the ever-growing ties.
The statement reads
“a trend has emerged towards redistribution of power in the world. Some actors representing but the minority on the international scale continue to advocate unilateral approaches to addressing international issues and resort to force; they interfere in the internal affairs of other states, infringing their legitimate rights and interests, and incite contradictions…” and “Democracy is exercised in all spheres of public life as part of a nation-wide process. There is no one-size-fits-all template to guide countries in establishing democracy.
It is only up to the people of the country to decide whether their State is a democratic one. The sides believe that the advocacy of democracy and human rights must not be used to put pressure on other countries. They oppose the abuse of democratic values and interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of protecting democracy”. With indirect jabs at the US, the statement further reiterates Russia’s support for the One-China principle and expresses concerns over AUKUS, particularly the emanating proliferation risks in the Indo-Pacific.
China, for its part, expressed support for the Russian proposal for legally binding security guarantees in Europe and denounced NATO’s eastward expansion. Both sides also “oppose the return of international relations to the state of confrontation between major powers.” The joint statement covers almost all major bilateral venues as well critical national security issues of the other party, for instance, China’s displeasure over NATO expansion, Russia’s disapproval over AUKUS, and reiteration of the One China principle.
Washington’s policy of advocating for democracy, insisting on its democratic model as the only authentic one as well as taking practical steps to enforce its ideals where it sees fit has been a major source of annoyance for both Russians and Chinese along with USA’s weaponization of human rights to put pressure on certain states. Hence the mention of these points in the joint statement does not come as a surprise. In fact, one of the reasons behind Russia’s adversarial relationship with the West, besides historical baggage and opposing interests in various conflicts, is Kremlin’s fears that Washington could attempt a regime change in Russia.
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The denouncement of Cold War politics is also not surprising as China for all its glitz in the Asia Pacific does not desire a return to the rigid bipolarity and zero-sum game of the Cold War. At least not yet. While there exists no formal alliance between Beijing and Moscow, this joint statement enforces the perception of an informal alliance between both states. US foreign policymakers already fear a joint Sino-Russian project targeted at their country however, many fails to comprehend that Sino Russian alliance will likely remain an informal one for the time being. Forming alliances is a key foreign policy tool of the US, EU and NATO countered the Soviet Union while AUKUS is targeted at rising China. Beijing rather than entering formal alliances prefers informal partnerships or economic cooperation as in the case of BRI.
This Sino-Russian informal alliance is aimed at keeping the US on its toes by leveraging the possibility of its worst nightmare. Both Beijing and Moscow are complicit in creating a perception that both sides could enter into a formal political or military alliance. The fear of even the slightest possibility of actualization of such a scenario is dreaded by the Americans hence making it an effective tool for balancing. Unlike the perception in Washington, the reasons behind Sino Russian understanding- which is perhaps the greatest at this point in time since the time of Stalin and Mao- range from the fact that both sides share a long border, and both are aware of the instability a crack in bilateral ties could bring. Russians particularly desire to carve out their own international role in light of the growing US-China competition.
Moscow is aware that Beijing is a rising power destined to collide with the US and shape the global order. From their point of view, it is only logical to side with neighboring China rather than an extra-regional power like the US. The historical baggage furthermore aggravates the fears of Russian elites whose distrust of the US and its intentions runs quite deep. The 2014 economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the US after the former’s annexation of Crimea and Russia’s resultant economic dependence on China laid the foundation for the current trend of exemplary bilateral relations.
China and Russia’s improved ties
Beijing has become Moscow’s biggest trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching $145 billion last year. The military ties have also been upgraded with an increase in military drills and military cooperation. Though the Sino Russian relationship is not without its fair share of problems, the fact remains that Russia and China are committed to sustaining their relations and projecting a joint front with regard to the US. Beijing and Moscow steer clear of conflict in areas of mutual concern, such as Central Asia. Both sides tend to support each other and avoid taking the opposing side in various geopolitical conflicts such as in Syria, Afghanistan, with regards to Iran as well as North Korea.
Recently Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called Russian concerns with regard to Ukraine “legitimate”. While exercising caution on most issues of bilateral concerns of the other party, China and Russia vehemently support each other on issues involving the US, at least verbally As with the case of Ukraine, Beijing may agree with the Russian position but it has no desire for escalation of ties or a military conflict in Europe fearing a fallout with its European trade partners. Similarly, Russia maintains a neutral position regarding Chinese claims on the South China Sea. Moscow maintains neutrality with regard to Indo-Chinese tensions. Both sides walk on eggshells when it comes to Central Asia. The informal alliance allows both sides to verbalize support for each other regarding various issues, particularly concerning the US, while avoiding any fallout.
Even in case a war breaks out between the US or either of the two, the other can prioritize its own national interest without jumping headlong into the conflict. The Sino Russian alliance is strategic in the sense that it is used to pressure the United States rather than actually form a dual front against a common foe. Considering their history, Moscow and Beijing both understand the necessity for cordial and friendly ties. The US factor works as a catalyst in further cementing the Sino-Russian partnership. Politically the informal alliance will continue to thrive and pressure the US.
The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy