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Foreign Policy

China and Russia: Alliance or No Alliance?

Jul 29 , 2016
  • Zheng Yu

    Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Since the advent of the century, China and Russia have developed such strong ties that there has been a growing call from the policy and academic circles in both countries for a bilateral military alliance, especially in a time of greater complexity in the international situation and rising security challenges facing both countries. The call was particularly strong in China in the lead up to President Putin’s most recent visit to China on June 25 and afterward. Professor Feng Shaolei from East China Normal University suggested that there should be no “ceiling” in China-Russia relations, or, put simply, the current China-Russia strategic partnership of coordination should be allowed to develop into an alliance. Professor Yan Xuetong from Tsinghua University argues that alliance has its value as a diplomatic tool. If China and Russia do not see a military alliance as appropriate, they may well consider forming a political alliance first. This essay seeks to explore the possibility and necessity of a China-Russia alliance.

To begin with, neither the Chinese nor Russian governments have the intention to form a military alliance. President Putin has repeatedly stated that an alliance with China is not on Russia’s agenda. On China’s part, non-alliance has been a cornerstone of its foreign policy since the 1980s and a key component of the concept of “a harmonious world” and the “Shanghai spirit” of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Both terms have long been advocated by the Chinese government. In this sense, forming alliance is not an ordinary foreign policy decision, but a major shift in China’s fundamental approach and principles of diplomacy.

Second, though it is true that our increasingly complex world presents growing security challenges to both countries, neither China nor Russia face the risk of a massive military invasion. Despite the Ukrainian crisis, Russia’s security situation along its western border has significantly improved since the Cold-War years marked by acute military standoff between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. And according to its latest report on national security released at the end of last year, the Russian government does not see Russia under any threat of large-scale military invasion, though the country does face diplomatic containment imposed by the United States. Though tensions have risen between China and the United States in the South China Sea and the potential for war on the Korean Peninsula casts a long shadow over the region, force is apparently not the Chinese government’s first choice to deal with these problems. In other words, the security threats facing China and Russia, despite their multitude, cannot and should not be tackled through massive use of force. This renders a military alliance unnecessary.

Third, one of the core objectives of the China-Russia strategic partnership of coordination is to develop a new post-Cold War international order that contributes to peace and development. The two countries co-initiated the Shanghai spirit, calling for joint efforts to achieve lasting peace and stability through cooperation, consultation, compromise, dialogue, respect for cultural diversity and pursuit of common development. Unless all options are exhausted, both countries are opposed to the irresponsible use of force in international affairs and security under hegemony or preponderance of power. This is a new concept and model of security different from those of the Cold War era that shares the same basis with the principle of non-alliance.

Fourth, non-alliance is conducive to a partnership based on equality and mutual respect. Either during the Cold War or in the present, any bilateral or multilateral military alliance always has one country as the de facto leader — not just because alliance usually involves the weak begging the strong for security assistance, but also because the hierarchy in any permanent joint military command structure would inevitably result in some kind of inequality between allied countries. As China’s strength rapidly grows, an increasing number of people in Russia are concerned that being closely associated with China could tie Russia to China’s foreign policy and are against forming alliance with China. Therefore, China and Russia are more likely to enjoy stable relations as non-allies.

Fifth, China and Russia face different circumstances domestically and internationally, including in the realm of security. Their choice to establish a strategic partnership of coordination instead of alliance leaves necessary room for both to deal with their respective security and economic issues based on individual national interests. China and Russia do not always share the same view or explicitly support each other, though on certain issues, the two countries support each other by simply taking parallel policies or not publicly criticizing the other side. A strategic partnership gives each other more policy latitude than an alliance.

Last but not least, being allies does not mean direct military support is always in order when wars break out. Strategic analysts calling for China-Russia alliance hope that as allies, Russia will assist China militarily and even join the war if the mainland is compelled to use force against separatists in Taiwan, who could be aided by foreign defense forces. Yet history of and after the Cold War shows that allies are not always reliable when it comes to fulfilling their treaty responsibilities. In February 1979, Chinese troops launched the war of self-defense against Vietnam, only three months after the signing of the Vietnam-Soviet Union defense treaty. The war lasted a whole month, during which the Soviet Union did nothing but carried out several military exercises along the Suifen River in its border area with China. In March 2003, the US-led war on Iraq was firmly opposed by its NATO allies Germany and France.

In conclusion, so far there has been no evidence supporting the possibility or necessity of a China-Russia military alliance.

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