On March 30th, 2015, the Chairman of Russia’s Council for Foreign and Defense Policy (an equivalent of the US’s Council on Foreign Relations) Fyodor Lukyanov took the unusual step to publish a political “fantasy,” as he himself called it, about the year 2025. In his article “If the Russians and Chinese March Together” for the German daily Die Welt (The World), Lukyanov paints the picture of a close economic, political and military alliance between Moscow and Beijing that could emerge over the next 10 years. Lukyanov portrays the emergence of a Sino-Russian alliance as a choice forced upon Russia by the West’s disrespect for Russia, and especially the West’s unwillingness to honor the Russians’ crucial contribution to the victory over Hitler in World War II. Without going into these and other debatable axioms of Lukyanov’s “fantasy,” one can empathize with his motivations for his uncommon foray into the German media landscape. Russia is today indeed in a situation where an alliance with China, from the Kremlin’s perspective, might be Moscow’s only opportunity to prevent its geopolitical isolation, and way out of the various strategic deadlocks resulting from its hardening confrontation with the West.
Possible Foundations of an Alliance of Russia and China
Superficially, it looks as if Lukyanov and other authors with similar thoughts, like Carnegie Moscow’s Dmitry Trenin, are painting a realistic alternative future scenario for a fundamental international re-positioning of Russia. Such a development would seem to continue the already several years lasting rapprochement between China and Russia, and would build on earlier Chinese foreign policy decisions. For instance, China did not follow its own commitments towards Ukraine from the 1994 “Statement of the Chinese Government on the security assurance to Ukraine issued on 4 December 1994.” China pronounced that it “fully understands the desire of Ukraine for security assurance. […] The Chinese Government has constantly opposed the practice of exerting political, economic or other pressure in international relations. It maintains that disputes and differences should be settled peacefully through consultations on an equal footing. […] China recognizes and respects the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
The Chinese December 1994 statement in reaction to Ukraine’s agreement to dismantle its nuclear arsenal was thus weaker than the simultaneously adopted Budapest Memorandum. It was also not an agreement signed between China and Ukraine, but merely a unilateral Chinese declaration. Nevertheless, China mentions, in this text, the same issues that the Budapest Memorandum tackled: Ukraine’s sovereignty, integrity, security, and protection from pressure. To be sure, the Statement does not imply any obligation of China to actively assist Ukraine. Yet, the declaration can be read to suggest that the Chinese government would think of ways to support Kyiv, in one way or another, if Ukraine becomes the victim of a violation of the principles listed in Beijing’s Statement.
However, China did not do so when, in 2013, Ukraine indeed encountered, from Russia, “the practice of exerting political [and] economic […] pressure,” as stated in the Chinese 1994 Statement. Beijing did also not react when Moscow, in 2014, chose not to settle, with Kyiv, its “disputes and differences […] peacefully through consultations on an equal footing,” but instead violated, by force, “the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” While the Kremlin thus did, to Ukraine, those things of which China had disapproved in its 1994 Statement, the Chinese government remained silent. It provided Ukraine neither with rhetoric and symbolic, nor with diplomatic and political – not to mention economic or military – support.
Not only did China not join the group of nations (among them also Asian) which have, since March 2014, introduced various sanctions against Russia. China was the only permanent UN Security Council member that abstained, in March 2014, from the UN General Assembly’s overwhelming, 100-country condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. That was in spite of the fact that China had, 20 years earlier, deposited its above-cited Statement for Ukraine, with the UN General Assembly. In the same month, March 2014, China instead signed a large gas contract with Gazprom which the Kremlin propaganda has been massively using to counter internal critics who complain that Putin is driving the country into isolation.
China and Russia have also been and are already working within a number of important intergovernmental frameworks together. This concerns, above all, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia-India-China consultations, and the BRICS group – three of the world’s largest international associations – and their various off-shots. Lukyanov mentions in his “fantasy,” moreover China’s much-discussed Silk Road project. Certain fundamental features of both countries, such as Russia’s energy resources and China’s energy needs, too facilitate their cooperation.
Is a close alliance between China and Russia an option, or even already in the making? Given the various dilemmas and gridlocks with which Russian-Western relations will be inflicted for many years to come, one would wish Russia luck in establishing a new sustainable partnership with an economically powerful ally equivalent to the EU. China either has already developed or may soon develop into a true super-power that has or soon will have sufficient economic capacity in order to play the role of a substitute for the West, as a strategic, trade, investment, and modernization partner for Russia.
Yet, how feasible and sustainable is a Sino-Russian alliance that Lukyanov fantasizes about? At least, three “problems” will inflict Moscow’s future relationships with non-Western countries, and especially China. Russia’s repositioning in world politics will be, first, hampered by its weakening economy and growing international isolation. A Sino-Russian alliance is, second, hindered by lacking cultural ties and ideational foundations. Third, China’s growing engagement with and in Russia will encounter a number of specific challenges such as growing Russian xenophobia or the two countries’ increasing rivalry in Central Asia.
Problem 1: Russia’s Declining Political and Economic Weight
Russia’s current economic, foreign affairs and international image problems will not only impact relations with the West, but also her position vis-à-vis China and other important players around the globe. Both, the ongoing economic recession as well as the diminishing general trust towards oral and written assurances by the leadership of Russia will be having effects beyond Russia-EU cooperation. Because of its erratic political behavior, manifest breach of international law and low economic performance, as well as in light of continuing Western sanctions, Russia is becoming a more risky and less solvent partner not only for Western partners, but for everybody. This trend could continue, if not increase during the next years, limit Russian growth prospects, and further diminish Russia’s relative weight.
To be sure, Russia was, in comparison to China, already an underperforming market before the “Ukraine Crisis.” Some of the barriers for a sustainable Sino-Russian alliance listed below have thus been growing before. By 2015, Moscow’s position vis-à-vis Beijing has, however, become not only gradually different from that of a couple of years ago. Russia’s comparative might is now being reduced by the cumulative effect of (a) an imminent jump of China’s general position in the world, and (b) an ever more acutely felt downturn of Russia, at the same time.
When Russia started, with China and the Central Asian republics, the Shanghai cooperation format in the second half of the 1990s, the Chinese economy’s size had, only a few years earlier, overtaken that of Russia. Russia’s greater military potential could, in the 1990s, still be seen as fully substituting its lower economic weight, in its cooperation with China. It is also true that the Russian economy has, since then, been rising for most of the time. At periods, this process was, moreover, so pronounced that it led many observers around the globe to misperceive Russia as a dynamic “emerging market” or “emerging power.”
Whatever the earlier value of the latter classifications, the Chinese economy has risen, in the same period, more constantly, in more diverse ways, and much faster. As a result, the discrepancy between the socio-economic weights and future prospects of the two dominating powers of the original Shanghai format widened already during the last two decades. A, moreover, similar story developed with regard to Russia’s international ties, and with regard to growing Russian isolationism before the Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine. After the honeymoon in Russian-Western relations of the early 1990s, there was already mounting estrangement between Russia and the West, before the showdown of 2014. Yet, now this Russian-Western estrangement is transmuting into a general international seclusion of Russia that effects her relationships to, for instance, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Türkiye and Israel.
While today’s trends are nothing principally new, the changing correlation of forces between China and Russia, in 2015, is different from the one, in 2013. Russia’s industry is now entering a protracted recession while China’s continues to impressively grow (even if at a smaller scale than before). Russia is getting more alienated from its previously crucial Western economic and political partners by the month. China, in contrast, is forging new international relations with a multitude of actors across the globe. These diverging trends are leading not only to a faster widening gap between, but also to a change in world-wide perception about, Eurasia’s two supposedly Great Powers’ comparative weight.
As Russia’s economic problems and international political isolation are concurrently growing, her relative decline will thus become more and more acutely felt. In the next years, Russia will become an ever more obviously junior partner of China, and secondary player, in the SCO (even more so, if India joins). These trends will also lead to a decline of Russia’s impact within the BRICS group where its presence has always been an oddity. Ever since the creation of BRICS, Russia stood out in the group as a petro-state benefitting from growing energy prices. It never was a successfully developing economy with a dynamic industrial or/and progressive service sector as, to one degree or another, all the other BRICS members are.
Now Russia’s always quirk position vis-à-vis both Western modern and non-Western modernizing powers will become more manifest. It will relegate the Kremlin to a second-rate player not only in Europe, but also in the SCO and BRICS – a kind of role to which it is not accustomed. Lukyanov’s “fantasy” about a Sino-Russian alliance of two equals is more fantastic than the author meant to imply. China will surely use Russia’s estrangement from the West to its advantage, and may fill select trade and investment gaps resulting from the decline of Russian-Western economic relations. Yet, Beijing will have less and less grounds to treat Russia as a geopolitical equal and strategic ally.
Problem 2: Asiatic Ad Hoc Alliances ≠ The European Project
The West as a whole, as well as the EU as a part of it, are political composites of socio-economically different, but culturally and historically related states. From as early as 1975 to the very end of 2013, the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation had been slowly and unsteadily, yet still more or less progressively integrating into the West. This process began, already under Leonid Brezhnev, with the creation of the CSCE/OSCE in the mid-1970s. Under Yeltsin’s presidency, Russia entered the Council of Europe and G8. The CSCE transformed into the OSCE. Russia signed a Foundation Act with NATO, and concluded a co-operation agreement with the EU. Under Putin’s first two presidencies and Medvedev’s pseudo-presidency, the Kremlin’s course changed, to be sure, in substance. Yet the Kremlin’s official pro-European line formally continued and briefly became President Medvedev’s official doctrine. Under Putin, Russia entered a joint Council with NATO. Moscow identified four Common Spaces of cooperation with the European Union. It announced Strategic and Modernization Partnerships with the EU and its member-states, and started negotiations for a so-called New Agreement. The Russian Federation recently became a member of the WTO. Russian universities participate in the Bologna process. There is other Russian involvement in European structures or projects. The next steps could have been Russia’s entry into the OECD, and, later on, the signing of an enhanced Russia-EU co-operation or even association treaty.
Had this prolonged and contradictory, but still substantive development continued, an EU- and NATO-associated Russia would have, sooner or later, become part and parcel of the Western club. This would have been in congruence with Russian culture’s location within pan-European culture. Russia’s gradual Westernization would, in some ways, have been an East European replay of Germany’s earlier protracted integration into the Western world.
In contrast to Western institutions like the EU or NATO, the BRICS group or SCO are distinctly pragmatic non- or anti-Western alliances. They have considerable geopolitical weight, yet lack distinct ideational foundations, long-term plans or larger visions of their own. China & Co. will react with interest to the new frostiness in Russian-Western relations, as a result the Ukrainian fall-out. Beijing and other non-Western countries may be glad to see Russia getting more engaged within the SCO, BRICS, RIC, Silk Road project, Beijing-dominated development banks, etc. Yet, the Chinese and others will have fewer and fewer reasons to treat an economically weak and politically isolated Russia with the kind of respect and concern that Moscow will continue to expect. Instead, they may, as in the case of China’s spring 2014 gas deal with Russia, take advantage of Russia’s diminishing alternative options and ties.
Given the lack of common identity between, and coherent ideology of, the SCO and BRICS group, these ad hoc alliances will not provide to Russia a maintainable long-term geopolitical home, or a sustainable alternative path of development. They cannot offer Moscow something equivalent to the previous course and expected results of Russia’s earlier gradual integration into Western structures. In view of the Russian economy’s current acute and general structural issues, an even less likely scenario is Russia’s turning into a geopolitical “Eurasian” center of its own, as illustrated by the many problems of the Eurasian Economic Union that came into being in 2015. Therefore, the belief in the latter scenario is, even in Russia, limited to marginal and pseudo-experts such as notorious Aleksandr Dugin as well as similarly unserious Russian imperial nationalists.
Unlike the latter, Lukyanov and others like him are aware of Russia’s structural weakness and lack of sufficient geopolitical might of its own – which is why they are pushing the idea of Moscow allying with Beijing. Yet, Germany-expert Lukyanov too is unrealistic when speculating about a multidimensional Sino-Russian partnership that could resemble and replace the one that a Germany-dominated EU has been trying to forge with Russia, over the last twenty years. The idea that China would be interested in forming such a close, deep and sustainable alliance with Russia is indeed, as Lukyanov writes, a mere “fantasy.” The cultural-ideological drive behind European integration would, apart from economic and security interests, have secured a constant Western concern for Russia – whether it is weak or not. As there are only few cultural links between China and Russia, the same kind of attentiveness cannot be expected from Beijing. Whereas many European intellectuals, politicians and even ordinary citizens have an emotionally driven interest or even sympathy for Russian culture and traditions, such sentimentality towards the Eastern Slavic world is less widespread in Asia. In more general terms, Dmitry Trenin’s idea of a “Greater Asia” that could, for Russia, substitute “Greater Europe” lacks equivalence and is thus a distraction. While there is intense economic and political cooperation between various Asian states, there is no larger trans-Asian project for a “Greater Asia” and especially none which Russia would be able to join instead of being part of a “Greater Europe.”
Problem 3: Cultural Distance and Geopolitical Conflicts of Interest
Apart from general economic and cultural hindrances of Moscow’s teaming up with Beijing, there are additional, specific, potentially problematic issues between the two countries. Above all, in order to be acceptable for Russia’s elite and ordinary people, the currently growing Chinese economic engagement in Russia would have to be large enough to compensate for the increasing losses in investment from, and trade with, the West. Before the “Ukraine Crisis,” about 75% of foreign direct investment into Russia came from, and almost 50% for Russian foreign trade was with, the countries of the EU. Thus, the West contributed significantly to Russia’s earlier economic successes – an input that, especially in Germany, was seen as furthering Russia’s modernization. Europe’s economic engagement with Russia will, to be sure, continue. Yet, the volume of Western FDI, trade and other interaction has been markedly shrinking over the last months, and will continue to do so. In Lukyanov’s and others’ view, more intense economic relations with Asia should make up for these losses in the Russian-Western exchanges. That prediction can be only hoped to materialize.
What happens, however, if growing Chinese and other non-Western investment into, and trade with, Russia does not sufficiently compensate for the losses in the west, and for the structural defects of Russia’s economy? Without widely tangible and fully positive effects on Russia’s economy, Russian public opinion may turn against Moscow’s closer ties to Beijing. A resulting skeptical or even adversarial Russian public view on Sino-Russian cooperation could undermine the entire rationale behind Moscow’s turn to the East. An increasing Chinese presence in Russia may be welcomed by many, if the Russian economy starts to grow again. In such a case, Chinese investments, Asian partnerships and Russia’s integration into the Eastern world could be perceived as part of a successful anti-Western redefinition of Russia. But what happens, if the Russian economy continues to decline while Asian conglomerates are taking over Russian assets, enterprises and markets, and growing Chinese immigrant communities become factors in Russia’s urban and regional life?
If these changes are not accompanied by a Russian socio-economic rebirth, the Kremlin’s pivot to the East may become a flop. That would especially be the case if Sino-Russian economic relations develop in a “semi-colonial” manner, i.e. if Chinese investment in Siberia and Far East would largely serve to secure raw materials extraction and delivery to China. In the worst case, Beijing’s engagement in Russia could merely mean exploiting Russia’s natural resources to further accelerate Chinese growth, without noticeable gains for Russia. A Sino-Russian alliance leading to an, in comparison to China, relatively weaker Russia would lead many Russians to question the usefulness of such cooperation.
In such a case, even as vicious a disinformation campaign, as the Kremlin is now waging against Ukraine and the West, may not be able to change a perception that Russia was, after all, better off during its earlier partnership with the EU. An ever closer Sino-Russian alliance and growing Chinese presence in Russia would be a hard sell in times when China’s might grows while Russia’s stagnates or even continues to fall. Increasing ties between Moscow and Beijing may, under such conditions, create anxiety rather than sympathy among many Russians. As long ago as 2001, then Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Kudrin expressed this unease warning that, if Russia failed to become “a worthy economic partner” for Asia, “China and the Southeast Asian countries will steamroll Siberia and the Far East.”
In more general terms, the cultural distance between Chinese and Russians could become a future problem, in view of ongoing larger trends in Russian society. Kremlin-guided mass media and spokespersons have, especially during the last years, been actively fostering nationalistic, ethnocentric, chauvinistic, imperial and similar views, within the Russian population. For instance, the Russian book-market is full of pamphlets that explain world history in terms of the rise and fall of antagonistic civilizations, cultures and nations whose stereotypical traits are presented as having almost biological qualities. Jingoist Kremlin propagandists posing as “journalists,” “professors” and “experts” present international relations frequently in dualistic, if not conspirological and Manichean terms. Interactions between states and alliances are, in Russian media, more often than not portrayed as more or less unfriendly zero-sum games in which one actor only wins to the degree that another loses.
To be sure, Kremlin-controlled mass media managed, at the same time, to improve China’s image among Russians, as documented in growing sympathy towards Beijing in opinion polls. Yet, this positive popular trend emerged in a period of relative economic success and low Chinese presence in Russia’s daily life. If both of these conditions concurrently change, the general rise in Russian racism may turn also, if not in particular, against a possibly growing number of Chinese businesspeople, tourists, students, guest workers, immigrants etc. in Russia. This speculation is no compliment to the Russian nation, but it is not far-fetched. The aversion of many ordinary (and not only ordinary) Russians against Chechens, Tadzhiks, Azeris and other minorities in Russia’s cities is not a secret. The already problematic relationship of many Russians to non-Slavic and especially Asian migrants does not bode well for people-to-people relations, in times of deepening socio-economic crises, with other non-Europeans, not the least Chinese.
Finally, as frequently mentioned in expert analyses, Russia and China are geopolitical competitors in Central Asia for obvious geographic reasons. In terms of economic engagement, a somewhat similar argument can be made for Siberia and Russia’s Far East. So far, the warnings about the risks of this rivalry have, however, turned out to be self-defeating prophecies. All three sides, Russia, China and the Central Asian countries have been at pains to avoid a geopolitical conflict, and been successful in diffusing political and economic tensions. Yet, it is noteworthy that China has, for instance in its energy relations with Turkmenistan, already repeatedly contradicted Moscow’s interests and policies in the region. Until now, the Kremlin has shown remarkable restraint in its reactions towards Beijing’s growing involvement in Central Asia, and Chinese immigration in Siberia as well as the Far East. A sort of condominium has developed that so far has secured a mutually acceptable modus vivendi.
While that is an encouraging trend, its political costs for the Kremlin could assume a dimension that may be difficult to handle. As a result of growing economic disparity, China’s pull in Central Asia will rapidly increase even without new ambitiousness towards the region in Beijing. As Moscow will have fewer resources and arguments for making its influence felt in Central Asia, the post-Soviet republics’ turn away from Russia may become a strange corollary of the Kremlin’s turn to the East. Should China use its growing relative might in Central Asia more aggressively than the Kremlin can swallow, Moscow and Beijing may become at loggerheads, in their common neighborhood, with dire consequences for Russia’s general foreign affairs. Moreover, there are other possible contradictions between Russia’s and China’s interests in Asia including those that the two countries have with regard to India, Vietnam, and North Korea. In a worst-case scenario, disagreements over intense Chinese engagement in Siberia and the Far East could turn the world’s largest land-border into a line of conflict, rather than economic opportunity zone.
In view of its economic calamities and growing unpopularity in the West, one would wish Russia success in developing alternative foreign partnerships. Russia needs to find a way to prevent further political seclusion and secure substantive direct investment. However, Beijing is a problematic candidate for a close and sustainable association with Moscow. For reasons outlined above, China may be, especially for Russia, too challenging an ally. Neither in cultural, nor in economic terms, can China constitute an adequate replacement of the West as Russia’s prime partner. Instead, the risks stemming from conflicting interests and the geographical proximity of the two large countries outweigh the opportunities for a close alliance.