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Brookings Panel: Improved China – Russia Relationship is a Marriage of Convenience

Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin greet participants of Joint Sea-2014 exercise at Wusong naval port in Shanghai, east China, May 20, 2014. Xinhua Photo

Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin greet participants of Joint Sea-2014 exercise at Wusong naval port in Shanghai, east China, May 20, 2014. Xinhua Photo

Although China and Russia have certainly grown closer in the last several years, their relationship is a marriage of convenience since for both their most important international relationship is not with each other but in dealing with the United States.

Speaking Thursday at a forum at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, Chisako Masuo, an associate professor at Kyushu University in Japan, said, “So far, the Russia-China alignment is strong, but not robust.”

To Moscow, “China is its only reliable friend.” China has also become a huge trading partner. Helping Moscow’s military industrial base, Beijing recently bought advanced missiles and aircraft from Russia to better project power from its own shores.

But signs of fraying in the relationship are particularly evident, she said, in Central Asia where Russia historically has played the dominant security role. Now China is playing an increasingly important economic development role through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in these former Soviet republics.

David Gordon, of the Eurasia Group, added, “More and more Russia finds itself in a junior role” in the relationship with Beijing as China flexes economic strength. It is a time where there are “ample arenas for cooperation and competition” between the two.

Russia and China were brought closer together in 2014 after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and military support of separatists in eastern Ukraine brought tough economic sanctions from the United States and the European Union and a subsequent series of agreements to sell natural gas to Beijing.

“That hedge has not worked out very well,” Gordon said.

While “energy issues continue to influence the relationship,” cooperation between the two “has begun to founder.” Gordon said that Russia never did receive the large Chinese investments in energy production is its far east and northeastern regions or the building of new pipelines through Central Asia that it expected.

As a result, “Russia is coming to terms” with its “continued dependence on European markets” to keep its economy afloat .

In short, “Russia is increasingly wary of becoming a resource appendage of China.”

Akihiro Iwashita, a professor at Hokkaido University in Japan, said Russia and China finally realized after years of border conflict they have few competing interests and “no longer see each other as rivals.” In a slide he used for his presentation, Iwashita said both “accept and manage the realities of the ‘quasi-alliance.'”

He said that Japan’s view of the Russia-China relationship differs from the United States in significant ways. Tokyo sees both countries as neighbors while Washington views Russia as an extension of Europe and China as a rising power in the Asia Pacific.

While China’s land borders with Russia and all its neighbors but India are settled and peaceful, Beijing sees itself as being “surrounded by many countries” on its coast, leading to maritime “border paranoia.” To counter that perceived threat, it has been reclaiming reefs in disputed waters of the South China Sea to install military installations.

The Chinese “want some greater say in their region,” Thomas Wright, of Brookings, said. Beijing believes “the environment changed with the financial crisis” of 2008 and it no longer need acquiesce to United States leadership or power, as it did during the Taiwan crisis of the 1990s.

Russia and China have different ways of asserting themselves in light of what both see as different circumstances.

Russia under President Vladimir Putin is “determined to take great risks to weaken” the European Union and the Western security alliance. China, while asserting its claims aggressively to the South China Sea, has “a lot of means at its disposal” to expand its influence — especially economically.

“Chinese strategy only works if there is no war,” he added as it “takes incremental steps to gradually remake” the world order in Beijing’s favor.

  • Blargh

    Interesting that European news outlets call rebels in western China “islamic radicals”, but American news outlets call them freedom fighters. Oh, but take radical Islam in Europe, and they’re no longer called freedom fighters. Then take radical Islam in their own countries where they are fighting against American oppression, and they are called rebels, not freedom fighters. Anyone who believes that propaganda doesn’t exist in the US is a fool.

    • Zephon

      We help and support the Islamic terrorists in Western China – as for many years they were part of a wall around China as part of our outdated Cold War policies. Like the CIA backed NGO NED. The National Endowment of Democracy funded by our tax dollars has a list of nearly a dozen organizations they promote that support the Muslim terrorists that are in Western China that have made attacks on civilians throughout Asia – not just China. And they have been caught several times in operations with ISIS aligned terrorists. Most recently a few weeks ago in a gun battle with government police in Indonesia.

      P.S. – the CIA loves NGO’s as they do not have the oversight of our Congress and citizens like the CIA does (which is minimal as it is).

    • Bob

      Could you be so kind as to provide an example of U.S. news outlets calling them freedom fighters?

  • Banlas

    It doesn’t matter really whether it’s called a Marriage of Convenience, Marriage of Interests or whatever terms. What it matters is that both Russia and China are here to stay to prevent the evil hegemony domination of United Snake empire. As for U.S relationship with Japan, it’s definitely a marriage of the f evil murderers.

  • David Morris

    Funny. The people write about this issue often. Well, if we didn’t push Russia towards China it wouldn’t be an issue. Maybe its time we started caring about American geostrategic interests. Forgot about Ukraine and Syria. Russia would be a great ally against China.

  • Jim Valle

    Back in the late ’60’s Nixon and Kissinger predicted a multi polar World Order with five significant power centers. They were North America, Russia, China, Japan and Western Europe. These centers would be kept in equilibrium by “balance of power” international diplomacy. They didn’t necessarily think that the United States should or would exercise ultimate leadership in such a regime, just work diligently to keep things peaceful and promote trade and commerce to keep all parties entangled in a web of “complex interdependence”. Wars and conflict were too unpredictable and dangerous when the alternative was to fulfill economic prosperity needs through a World wide free trade system. Apparently this was all just a bit too sensible and rational and the temptation to revert to something more traditional is very strong.

  • Aussie Andrew

    Pessimistic forecast or Positive??
    Putin will be ‘boss’ of Russia for the next 20 years.
    Xi will still have strong influence then as well and will have chosen his successor.
    Russia and China (and some central Asian and possibly one or two other East and South Asian countries) will eventually form a military defense agreement similar to NATO in the future.
    China will leave the ADB.
    30% of world trade will be in RMB.
    European Union will break down.
    KSA will undergo democratic change; Saud family exiled to USA.
    Islamic terrorism will be under control.
    Hispanics in Florida demand independence.

  • Zhuubaajie

    Marriage it is that points the way. Cross border marriages, that is.

    Project “To Russia With Love”.

    Facts are:

    1. Russia has more women than man (100 to 86);

    2. Russian men on the average get drunk and beat their wives;

    3. Siberia has a dearth of either men or women of any race, and desperately needs investments;

    4. China has many unmarried males (such as the 300,000 veterans sent home from the recent military force reduction);

    5. Eurasian kids are good looking and likely smart from the gene-mixing, and would have great opportunities beyond those available to the average Chinese, e.g., in entertainment; and

    6. The mixed couples can set up shop in both China and Russia, especially Siberia and Russian Far East.

    The benefit would be to both take advantage of the excess capacities in Chinese industry, and to develop the desolate Russian Far East and Siberia.