EastWest Direct: The Russia-China Relationship

Commentary | April 02, 2013

Spurred by Xi Jinping's recent visit to Russia, EWI's Alex Schulman spoke with David Firestein, EWI's vice president for strategic trust-building and track 2 diplomacy, about the recent history of the Russia-China relationship and how it might develop in the future.


Can you give us a brief background on Sino-Russian relations following the dissolution of the Soviet Union?

There was a period of pretty frigid relations between China and the Soviet Union for about three decades that really only thawed with Gorbachev in the mid-to-late 1980s, culminating with his historic visit to Beijing in 1989. I was a student in Beijing during that visit; it was a very interesting thing to see from that angle.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the China-Russia relationship, while thawed relative to the Soviet period, was not a particularly dense one from the standpoint of diplomatic contact or pragmatic collaboration. Russia was dealing with its own enormous upheavals in the 1990s, culminating in the economic crisis in 1998. Meanwhile, China was really gaining momentum as it embarked on its own economic growth strategy. There weren’t particularly serious diplomatic issues or problems in the relationship.

One of the areas that had been a source of some tension and conflict between the Soviet Union and China was over the correct path of Leninism/Marxism. Once the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the ideological differences that had always been a part of the cool relations between the Soviet Union and the PRC dissipated overnight; there was no longer an ideological competition.

The 1990s and early 2000s were periods of a kind of benign neglect. One phrase that I have used to describe this with reference to how China saw Russia – but I think the same could probably be said vis-à-vis how the Russians viewed China –was “a deficit of strategic relevance.” Simply put, neither country was a top-tier priority for the other during this period.

Do you feel that Russia and China are “balancing” against U.S. power and its partners in Asia?

I don’t think there’s a concerted effort on the part of Russia and China to consciously work together to balance the U.S., per se; but the net effect of the positions that both of these countries tend to take for their own national interest puts them on the same side of a lot of issues in the world, particularly issues before the UN.

Both China and Russia are very proud nations. They’re both great nations. It’s very important to the leadership of both countries—if you look back historically in their foreign policy doctrines—to espouse the notion of non-interference in their internal affairs. This notion of protecting sovereignty, protecting territorial integrity and keeping foreigners out of “our business” and out of “our internal affairs” is a very important theme for both countries. That leads them to a convergence of viewpoints on a lot of issues.

That being said, the reason I say that I don’t think it’s a concerted effort is because there still is a lot of mistrust between the two countries. While things are changing, there’s this long legacy of a neglected relationship and, before that, rather deep distrust. To me, this precludes the notion of a true China-Russia partnership that is sort of designed with intentionality to counter the U.S.

Where might Russian and Chinese interests diverge in the coming years?

They share a long land border, but China is fundamentally an East Asian nation surrounded by 14 countries (it has more border countries than any other country in the world), while Russia is both a European and a Eurasian landmass. Russia is in its own category, but it is much more connected geographically and culturally to Europe. It looks at issues like NATO in ways that are different from China because it’s a stakeholder in those issues similar to the way China is a stakeholder vis-à-vis issues like the South China Sea (which doesn’t particularly affect Russia).

As I discussed, there are many issues where, in matters of foreign policy doctrine and foreign policy principle, there are convergences. But there are disagreements. Take the case of Georgia. Russia has recognized two areas of the nation of Georgia that have broken away from Georgia and declared independence. Russia was the first country to recognize the independence of what it regards as states. China disagrees with Russia on this particular issue because it would set a dangerous precedent vis-à-vis potential breakaway provinces in parts of China. Chinese leaders don’t want to be on record supporting this kind of separatist activity; obviously, that would have implications for Taiwan, but also for Tibet, Xinjiang and other parts of China.

What are the geopolitical implications of the past decade’s heightened level of Sino-Russian trade relations?

Even as recently as 2001, China-Russia trade totaled only about $10 billion. Today, looking at the trade figures for 2012, it’s $88 billion. It’s increased almost nine-fold in a period of eleven years, which is a remarkable growth trajectory. There’s a stated goal on the part of the Chinese and Russian leadership to get to the $200 billion two-way trade mark by 2020; that starts to become a very real number in global international trade. To put it in perspective, U.S.-China trade relations amount to about $500 billion.

This signifies a qualitative change in the way the two countries are dealing with each other. It symbolizes a level of engagement and a comfort level that is new. It also represents a very significant trend in terms of global economics. In the case of Russia exporting to China, it’s mostly energy (e.g., oil, natural gas, minerals). In the case of China, it’s electronics and textiles. There is a real growth here that is having a significant impact on both economies.

China has become Russia’s number one export market, surpassing Germany, which is of symbolic significance; I believe this is the first time in Russian history, or at least in modern Russian history, in which its top export market is in Asia, not Europe – that’s a real milestone. Meanwhile, China is looking West to a greater degree. It sees that there is real potential in that direction further to develop its economy and create opportunities for trade and investment.

Does Sino-Russian cooperation in the UN Security Council and growing trade relations reflect a growing shift in the global balance of power?

I think that China and Russia, again, do often tend to see global issues and issues before the U.N. in very similar terms because of rather similar foreign policy doctrines that place an emphasis on multilateralism and the U.N.. They like the U.N. as a forum for dealing with international issues because, as veto-wielding members, they can control the agenda. They have similar views on the notion of interference in internal affairs and the notion of unilateralism. They both have wariness about U.S. motives and strategic intentions. But again, I don’t think that there’s a concerted effort, per se, to counter the United States.

They probably think of themselves as having somewhat similar positions in the world, which is they’re great powers but not yet (or, in Russia’s case, anymore) superpowers. There’s a certain element of what might be called “triangulation” in the relationship, as well. Bear in mind, the U.S.-China opening in 1972 occurred principally on the basis of the idea that the United States and China should come together to counter the Soviet Union – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” That element, that triangular dynamic, is one of the reasons that U.S.-China relations got out of the starting blocks to begin with.

I think that Chinese leaders are mindful of Russian views and vice versa because there is a sense that the world is changing. While the United States remains the world’s sole superpower, it is not as powerful vis-à-vis all the other countries in the world as it was 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. This notion of a growing multi-polarity is a key theme in both Chinese and Russian foreign policy; and indeed, it’s a goal of both countries’ foreign policies.

China and Russia want an increasingly significant voice in international relations commensurate with their growing economic clout. The notion of a U.S. that is, if you will, less omnipotent is one that is welcomed by the leaders of both nations. In this sense, and in others, China’s and Russia’s interests converge to a much greater degree than they diverge.

Both countries’ leaders – who will each be in place for the next decade or so – have publicly characterized the China-Russia bilateral relationship as the strongest it’s ever been. It seems probable that we’re in for a major growth spurt in China-Russia ties. And that’s going to have significant implications for the world. This is going to be an interesting relationship to watch over the coming years.

EastWest Direct is an ongoing series of interviews with EWI experts tied to breaking news stories.