The recently concluded 24th regular meeting between the Chinese and Russian prime ministers is an important one for the implementation of the two countries’ comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era. With the ongoing China-US trade war, the meeting attracted much attention in the international community because the world still lacks an up-to-date agreement on China-Russia relations in the new era. On the more radical side, Zbigniew Brzezinski once warned the U.S. government of the great threat posed by a strategic alliance between China and Russia, and Rand Corporation analysts believed that closer ties may encourage China and Russia to work harder against American national interests. It is therefore very important to have a rational understanding of China-Russia relations.
The international system in the context of China-Russia relations
The international system usually shifts between multipolarity, bipolarity and unipolarity, and states are the basic units in the shaping of the system. At present, the world remains under a unipolar system, formed after the Cold War, in which the U.S. has an absolute power advantage.
A unipolar system implies an imbalance of power in the international system. To maintain its dominance, the superpower will choose any and all strategic tools to contain potential adversaries. China is a beneficiary of the current international system and the fastest-rising unit in the system. Meanwhile, it inevitably comes under enormous pressure. Since Donald Trump became U.S. president, pressure from the system has been fully felt. The U.S. has engaged China in full competition at strategic levels in politics, economy, trade and military power.
Although Russia is the fastest-declining unit in the international system, its large mineral reserves, veto power in the UN Security Council, 1,600 strategic nuclear warheads and the geographical advantages of territory that spans Eurasia and is adjacent to the Arctic Circle, it is also under system pressure. The pressure reached its peak during the Crimean crisis in 2014 and has continued to this day. In a January 2019 report, “The Future of Global Competition and Conflict,” the Pentagon made it clear that Russian activities “profoundly impact and continue to threaten vital aspects of US national interests and security” and that the U.S. needs a comprehensive and effective plan to counter Moscow’s hegemony.
Strategic significance of an upgraded relationship between China and Russia
Countries in a unipolar system face varying degrees of pressure until balance is restored. To avoid and reduce system pressure, China and Russia have found that their only option is to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership. China-Russia relations in the new era thus are strategically important in the following aspects:
Their respective strategic strengths may now be focused on dealing with system pressure. With an upgraded strategic partnership, rather than an alliance, China and Russia are in a better position to achieve mutual benefits and win-win outcomes on national security. China has resolved security problems from the north and northwest, while Russia has resolved those from its Far East. With less geopolitical burden, the two may focus their strategic strengths on coping with system pressure.
Energy security will be better protected. For Russia, oil and gas production accounts for about 40 percent of its budget. With Western sanctions and a changing energy consumption structure, Russia must look for more markets. Over the past decade, it has shipped more than 300 million tons of oil and 55 million tons of oil products to China. The Power of Siberia pipeline will be operational by the end of this year and allow Russia to deliver 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China annually, which will markedly ease energy security pressure on China.
The digital economy will be further expanded. The cooperation in digital technology is now a highlight in China-Russia relations. In the case of low Earth orbit satellite communications technology, 83 percent of the satellites are now owned by U.S. companies. Cooperation on this technology will not only promote the development of the digital economy in China and Russia but also meet the need for broadband access in remote areas and gain them a greater market share in the global digital economy.
Limitations in China-Russia relations in the new era
Although further development of China-Russia relations is positive for them both to counter the pressure of the unipolar system, the impact will be limited because there are many asymmetries in their relations, including the following:
Asymmetrical views on the existing international system. Russia does not believe that the current international system serves its national interest and therefore wants to build a multipolar world in which Russia is one of poles. China on the other hand argues that surpassing the U.S. is much more difficult than the U.S. maintaining the status quo, and that while the existing international system is not perfect and must be reformed, we’d better not scrap it and start over.
Asymmetric positions in strategic competition. American perceptions of China and Russia in terms of their competitive positions are changing, with hostility toward China apparently on the rise. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said in Washington on Sept. 18, in effect, that while Russia remained the biggest national security challenge for the U.S. in the near term, China would be an even bigger long-term challenge. An American scholar even argued that to prevent Beijing and Moscow from ganging up against it, the U.S. should relax tensions with Moscow and concentrate on hitting China.
Asymmetry in terms of strategic complementarity. The Two Centenary Goals of China must be based on wealth accumulation for both the state and the people. Unlike its trade with the U.S., China runs a trade deficit with Russia. Last year China had a deficit of $56 billion with Russia, while its surplus in trade with the U.S. was $419.53 billion. From January to July this year, China recorded a surplus of $198.82 billion in trade with the U.S. Moreover, Russia has only a 2.5 percent share in China’s huge agricultural market. However, with a level of agricultural automation far lower than in the U.S., it is very difficult for Russia to maintain agricultural production and supply to China at a stable quantity and quality in light of global warming and frequent extreme weather events. Obviously, the benefits of economic cooperation with Russia will not replace those with the U.S.