In recent years, Sino-Russian relations have become a model of great power relations with high degree of mutual trust, high level of collaboration and high strategic value. After the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the assessment of the challenges for China-Russia relations in the external environment, the understanding of the conflict’s role in reshaping China-Russia relations, and the examination of the prospects of China-Russia relations have been critical in the analysis of how the Russia-Ukraine conflict will impact the game of great powers.
A “Stress Test”: Sino-Russian Relations in the Context of Russia-Ukraine Conflict
In the wake of Russia-Ukraine conflict, although the international system is still steps away from the brink of total collapse, it is an inevitable trend that the international system becomes increasingly vulnerable and fragmented. Recently, Russia was suspended from its seat on the UN Human Rights Council, and more are calling for its expulsion from the WTO, and the G20. In addition, the prevailing narrative of “democracy/autocracy” dichotomy and depiction of China and Russia as an “axis of revisionists” indicate that the international order might be divided into two blocs according to security concepts and values. In this context, Russia might have weaker voice in global agenda-setting and multilateral affairs.
Due to the interplay between COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the dividends of inclusive globalization are fading away. Finance, technology and energy are being weaponized. The transformation of international industrial, supply, and value chains attaches more significance to security. Countries are building “firewalls” to protect their own trade and industry. Thus, the Beijing-Moscow consensus—jointly defending the UN-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law, so as to safeguard true multilateralism—is facing unprecedented pressure and institutional costs.
A Complex of Opportunities and Risks
In terms of opportunities, Russia may have no choice but to rely more on Sino-Russian partnership to get out of political isolation, economic sanctions and technological blockade, and become more dependent on China in energy, science and technology, investment and finance. China's market, capital, technology and talents may fill the vacuum caused by the “decoupling” of the US and Europe from Russia.
Meanwhile, the prolonged Russia-Ukraine conflict has given the US, Europe, Japan and other countries more space to impose sanctions, which has severely impacted Russia’s economic development, financial market and investment environment. Western sanctions including the “financial nuclear bomb” such as the exclusion of several Russian banks from the SWIFT system, as well as Russian countermeasures including delisting Russian companies from foreign stock markets and demanding payments in rubles for Russian gas in an attempt to break the hegemony of “petrodollar”, will increase the external risks of deepening practical cooperation between China and Russia.
Chinese enterprises or individuals doing business with Russian counterparts will be at the risk of “secondary sanctions”, such as being added to the US Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List (SDN); they also face obstacles in project contracting, cross-border investment and trade settlement in Russia. China-Europe freight trains, which run through Russia and Belarus, may have to be curtailed. Energy and high-tech cooperation with Russia is under "long-arm jurisdiction".
Strategic Recalibration and Diplomatic Re-Coordination
For Russia, the Ukraine crisis marks a significant ideological and ethical “watershed” between Russia and the EU. As the EU is resolved to terminate EU dependence on Russian fossil fuels by 2030, energy cooperation will have less leverage on Russia-EU relations. The US impulse to "insulate" Russia by taking advantage of the situation will also limit both sides' willingness and space for a conditional compromise. For Russian strategists, the debate over whether Russian civilization is rooted in the East or the West seems less relevant, while the more independent “civilization exceptionalism” is gaining momentum. Russia’s future foreign policy will be steered by its self-positioning as a non-Western country and its “turn to the East”.
In contrast to Russia’s transition in its foreign policy, China continues to facilitate the building of a framework of major-country relations that features overall stability and balanced development. While steadily advancing China-Russian comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era, China interacts with the US according to the three principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation, and regards China and the EU as two major forces, big markets and great civilizations,sharing extensive common interests and a solid foundation for cooperation. In the future great power game between China, Russia, the US, and the EU, Russia's influence and maneuverability will be limited, thus China and Russia will need to re-coordinate their strategic positioning and diplomatic priorities.
Transcending Cold War Mentality and Empiricism: How the Conflict is Reshaping China-Russia Relations
Many experts allege that, under the strategic pressure from the so-called Collective West and the US policy of Dual Containment, Russia is now unprecedentedly sanctioned and isolated over the conflict with Ukraine, hence China and Russia will be forced to embark on the long-discussed path of alliance, strengthen strategic and interest bundling, and forge a so-called "anti-Western" united front.
Not an Alliance or the “anti-Western” United Front
From the historical experience, China and Russia/Soviet Union made three attempts to form an alliance in modern times, including the Li-Lobanov Treaty or the Sino-Russian Secret Treaty signed by Qing China and the Russian Empire in 1896; the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance signed by the Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1945; and the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance signed by the People’s Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1950. Nonetheless, history has proven that all the three attempts at an alliance between the two countries failed to achieve common defense, failed to build an equal and mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries, and failed to resolve differences in ideology or national interests; the two countries even went to war along the way, which marks a failure in the development of bilateral relations. Learning from the above historical lessons, the two countries signed the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, and legalizes the peaceful philosophy of the two countries and peoples that they will “live in lasting friendship and will never be an adversary against one another”.
As a matter of fact, An alliance between China and Russia goes against the historical experience of the development of the bilateral relations and does not accord with the positioning of the two sides towards each other. “Non-alliance, non-confrontation and non-targeting of any third party” is the Golden Rule tested by history and reality of China-Russia relations, which will not be changed by the political and security turbulence brought by the Ukraine crisis. China and Russia will not take the opportunity to form an alliance or forge an “anti-Western” united front.
In addition, China and Russia (especially China) and the “collective West” are highly interdependent in economy, trade, science, technology, and culture. In 2021, the ASEAN, the EU, the US, Japan, and the ROK were China’s top five trading partners, with the EU, the US, Japan and the ROK together accounting for over 38 percent of China’s total foreign trade. The EU is Russia's first trade partner, accounting for over 37 percent of the country’s total trade in goods with the world in 2020. As a result of measures such as EU reducing energy dependence on Russia, Russia-EU trade may shrink but is unlikely to happen overnight. Although some countries are promoting “Techno-nationalism”, the world has not yet split into two incompatible systems of scientific norms and technological standards. Therefore, there is no objective condition for China and Russia to build an “anti-Western” united front.
Even in terms of subjective intention, the seemingly growing proximity between Russia and China under the “anti-Western” consensus actually stems from the US all-round strategic containment and intensifying “democracy–autocracy” ideological confrontation; it is a form of “coordinated defense” against the bullying and unilateral sanctions, rather than a united front with anti-West as the goal.
The Choice of Destiny between Russia and the West?
After the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, relevant discussions of “no limits” for the friendship between China and Russia is under international scrutiny, China is facing a strategic dilemma between the US and Russia, or China and Russia’s military relationship is likely to deepen with the Ukraine crisis have increased significantly. Some countries even threaten China with sanctions if it continues to cooperate with Russia. It is noteworthy that China does not simply “take sides” on the issue according to the Western logic, but decides on its position and policy based on the merits of the matter itself and national interests. While China supports Russia’s legitimate security demands to be taken seriously and properly addressed, it also maintains that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries—including Ukraine—should be respected and protected, and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter abided by in real earnest.
All this indicates that China and Russia have different views on some international and regional issues and have chosen different approaches to address their concerns. However, this does not hinder the overall strategic coordination. Because the mutual trust is built on the common understanding of international fairness and justice, and the coordination of their respective national interests, therefore, the strategic coordination can maintain a high level of internal resilience and external flexibility.
Moreover, since China and Russia do not follow the alliance logic of “enemy/friend”, or the identity logic of “the self/the other”, the strategic coordination between China and Russia will not be obstructed by differences in positions or discord sown by third parties. Meanwhile, in the tripartite interaction among China, the US, and Russia, the parallel development of bilateral relations will not be disrupted, there is no direct linkage between China-Russia relations, China-US relations and US-Russia relations.
The conflict will not lead to a deficit of mutual trust between China and Russia, and the threat of sanctions will not prevent the deepening of strategic coordination. It is not feasible to try to instigate Russia against China from the logic of the Strategic Triangle, nor to coerce China to make Choice of Destiny between China-Russia and China-West relations.
The Endogenous Power and Independent Value
Being each other’s largest neighbors, China and Russia share a common border as long as over 4,300 kilometers. As emerging markets with highly complementary economic and trade structures, the two countries witnessed the increase of bilateral trade from US$8 billion in 2000 to US$ 146.8 billion in 2021. China and Russia have expanded cooperation from trade to such new areas as joint research and development, joint production, and synergizing development strategies. Aside from traditional major and strategic projects, cross-border e-commerce, digital economy, agriculture, tourism and services trade have emerged as a new driving force and new sources of growth in bilateral cooperation. China and Russia are key players in regional and multilateral cooperation, leading the development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS, the G20 and other mechanisms. As President Xi Jinping emphasized, “China-Russia ties boast strong endogenous power and independent value, which will not be affected by changes in the international arena or by any other factors".
The geopolitical environment shared by Russia and China as the largest neighbors, their international responsibilities, comparative advantages, and development complementarities are the endogenous drivers of the rapid development of bilateral relations, and these "constant factors" will not be affected by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. China has no intention or condition to formulate an alliance with Russia, nor is it obliged to cutting off normal trade cooperation with Russia.
In addition, the goal of China and Russia to strengthen all-round strategic coordination is not "power expansion" based on the position of strength, but to fulfill the responsibility of major countries to safeguard the overall interests of the international community. Strengthening of bilateral strategic cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries.
Since there are no constraint of responsibility, exchange of interests, and "leader-follower relations" in traditional alliance politics, China-Russia strategic cooperation does not need to use the Ukraine crisis to fabricate "imaginary enemies" or demarcate "spheres of influence", and does not need to go beyond the boundaries of their respective strategic will and capabilities, let alone beyond reasonable demands and development needs.
Constructive Synergy: Prospect of China-Russia Relations
Undoubtedly, the spillover effect of the Russia-Ukraine conflict will lead to the reconfiguration of global power, the reconstruction of the international order, and the clash and exchange of thought and ideas. In the meantime, turmoil and transformation will continue to spread worldwide. Addressing the new challenges in the international system, world order and global governance in the post-conflict era will become a top priority in the development of China-Russia relations.
Stabilizing Forces at Global and Multilateral Stages
Although China and Russia's strategic cooperation is a bilateral relationship, it has global significance and directly influences the stability of the region and the world. Nowadays, there are debates over the possible regression to "Yalta model" (division of spheres of influence) or "Vienna model" (coordination and balance of power) world order caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the possible return of the “East-West conflict” under the security agenda from the “North-South cooperation” under the development agenda, highlighting the significant gap between countries' views on security, world order and values. Therefore, China and Russia should form “constructive synergy” in safeguarding peace, stability and development of the world, maintaining the smooth operation of the international order, championing the common values of humanity, and reforming the global governance system.
How to strength constructive synergy at the global and multilateral levels, and become key stabilizing forces in the midst of upheavals, remain as an important agenda for Sino-Russian partnership. The two countries will continue to uphold the international system with the UN at its core, the international order underpinned by international law, and the basic norms of international relations based on the purposes of the UN Charter, and guard against any attempts that create division or trumpet a new Cold War.
“No Ceiling” but with “Bottom Line”
Before the Russia-Ukraine conflict, China explicitly backs Russia to oppose NATO’s eastward expansion in the Joint Statement signed in February, 2022, and echoed Russia’s earlier demands for “long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe”. China’s position is not motivated by the “no ceiling” to the mutual trust, but is based on the common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security it advocates. China believes that the security of one country should not come at the expense of the security of other countries, still less should regional security be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs.
Given the US attempts to build an “Indo-Pacific version of NATO” by power up the Quad, the AUKUS, and boost NATO collusion with Asian allies, China’s opposition to NATO’s eastward expansion is a policy choice based on its own assessment of the changes in regional security pattern, rather than simplified acception of Russia’s narrative or arguments. Adhering to the “no ceiling” to the mutual trust while drawing a bottom line for China-Russia relations, has become an important consideration for China.
In other words, the bottom line of China-Russia mutual trust implies a balance between the individual concerns and the consensuses of both sides, between national interests and the overall interests of international community, between the principles of "mutual assistance amid difficulties" and "like-mindedness". China-Russia mutual trust should be a valuable asset for defending basic international norms and justice as well as for safeguarding world peace, security and stability.
“No Forbidden Zone” but with Value Orientation
The outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict demonstrates that China and Russia share common perceptions of the injustice, irrationality and imperfections in the international system and international order, but differ in their choice of solutions. China holds that the current international order can be carefully maintained with reforms and improvement, while Russia chooses to reconstruct or “end” it, even resorts to the classical military conflict. This also indicates that although there is “no forbidden zone” in China-Russia strategic cooperation, it is necessary for the two sides to reconcile the conceptual differences. With the consensus of opposing hegemonism, unilateralism, interventionism and bullying behaviors as the core values, the win-win effect of the bilateral strategic cooperation will be amplified.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict may have placed the existing consensus between China and Russia under pressure, prompting the two countries to re-coordinate strategic positioning and diplomatic priorities. Opportunities and risks coexist in the practical cooperation, but it will not reshape the endogenous logic of the development of bilateral relations, nor will it lead to an “anti-Western” alliance and a deficit of mutual trust between the two sides. More importantly, the endogenous dynamics and independent value of the Sino-Russian relations will be more prominent. The key to taking the bilateral relations to a higher level is to strengthen the constructive synergy at the global and multilateral levels, draw the bottom line while adhering to the “no ceiling” to mutual trust, and advocate “no forbidden zone” for coordination while highlighting value orientation.
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