China - Russia
The Year of the Rooster ushered in a quite different mold of Chinese-Russian interaction. In sharp contrast to the “oil-politicking” of much of the previous year, strategic gaming topped the agenda of bilateral relations for the first quarter of 2005. Several high-profile visits occurred, including the first China-Russia inter-governmental consultation on security issues and three rounds of talks between top military officers to prepare for the first ever joint military exercise in the fall. All this occurred in the midst of a sudden burst of “orange revolutions” in Russia and China’s western peripheries (Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan). To the East, Washington and Tokyo were hardening their alliance with the “2+2” meeting in Washington D.C. in February, in anticipation of China’s anti-secession law that was adopted in March.
Past, present, and prospect were played out in the second quarter of 2005 when Russian and Chinese leaders commemorated the 60th anniversary of Russia’s victory (May 9, 1945) in World War II, mended fences in Central Asia in the wake of a surge of “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and toyed with the idea of a multilateral world order with a Russia-China-Indian trio in Vladivostok. The quarter ended with President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Russia, which aimed to elevate the strategic partnership to a new height. Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese generals were hammering out details of their first-ever joint exercises in eastern China to be held in the third quarter.
In three “strikes” during the third quarter, Moscow and Beijing pushed their bilateral relations, qualitatively and quantitatively, toward a more proactive and outward-looking posture. It began with the signing of the Sino-Russian Joint Declaration on the International Order in the 21st Century at the Moscow summit July 1. A few days later at the annual Shanghai Cooperative Organization (SCO) summit July 5, a significantly enlarged regional security forum – adding India, Iran, and Pakistan as “observers” – called on the U.S. and its coalition members in Afghanistan to set a deadline for U.S. withdrawal from military bases in the territories of the SCO member states (Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan). In late August, the first-ever Sino-Russian joint exercise, code-named Peace Mission 2005, further elevated the strategic partnership between the two continental powers. In the wake of the exercise, Russian military sales to China, too, apparently entered a new phase with new categories of weaponry being offered as well as technological transfers.
By any measurement, 2005 elevated China-Russian relations to a higher level across various fields: Presidents Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin met four times; they issued a joint declaration on the international order in the 21st century; began strategic dialogues (February and October), held their first-ever military exercises (August), recorded trade of $29 billion (up 33 percent), and coordinated foreign policy (30 consultations between the foreign ministers).
These high-profile and glittering interactions, however, were overshadowed at yearend by a serious pollution accident in the Songhua River, a tributary of the Heilong River (Amur in Russia) dividing Russia and China – a painful reminder that high-profile diplomacy is not the only priority between the two powers that share more than 4,000 kilometers of border. The China-Russian strategic partnership relationship, though far from derailed, was at times tested and strained by the accident.
By any standard, China’s “Year of Russia” is unprecedented. The year-long celebration was officially inaugurated with President Putin’s fourth visit to China in March, with more than 200 cultural, business, science, and political activities unfolding throughout China. Both sides hailed the relationship as being at the “highest level” and as the “strongest ever,” which are both probably true.
Beyond the extravaganza, which will be followed by Russia’s “Year of China” in 2007, Russia’s energy politik continued. Political elites in Beijing and Moscow were faced with the challenging task of bridging misperceptions and dislike between ordinary Chinese and Russians that persist despite a decade of strategic partnership. This is particularly needed when the world, according to Moscow and Beijing, is overshadowed by the gathering “nuclear storm” of Iran and North Korea. Both have friendly relations with Russia and China while continuing to be at odds with the U.S., which is getting increasingly impatient with the nuclear potential, peaceful or not, of the two “rogue” states.
Five years after its inception, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held its sixth summit meeting in Shanghai in mid-June to celebrate its steady growth as a “mature” regional security body. In many respects, the SCO is also at a crossroads at both operational and philosophical levels: achieving internal cohesion without interfering with member states’ internal affairs, and increasing its international profile without appearing intrusive, at least in the eyes of the U.S. While the key for the SCO’s sustainability is a stable Sino-Russian “strategic” partnership, Moscow and Beijing in the second quarter worked hard to coordinate their respective approaches to the Iranian nuclear issue, both inside and outside the SCO framework.
The third quarter was both routine and hectic for Russia and China. While top leaders socialized at summits (G-8 in mid-July and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization prime ministerial meeting in mid-September), Russian and Chinese diplomats were in overdrive to deal with North Korea’s excessiveness (missile tests) and Iran’s sluggishness in responding to outside “offers.” In both cases, the middling position of Beijing and Moscow was eroded because of the stalemate in the two nuclear talks. For Russia and China, it seems that working with friends is as difficult as confronting foes.
By any standard, the last quarter of 2006 was extraordinary for Moscow and Beijing, the first “Russia Year” in China was winding down, trade rose nearly 20 percent to $36 billion, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) strengthened, and their strategic interaction deepened.
The rest of the world was in a state of chaos and crisis, if not catastrophe: North Korea tested nukes; the Six-Party Talks went nowhere; the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Pyongyang and Tehran; Saddam’s execution at yearend has yet to bring stability, let alone peace, to the Middle East. Meanwhile, the world’s sole superpower is seen as weakened by challenges from both outside (Iraq) and inside (midterm elections). Ironically, other major powers, including Russia and China, found themselves both unable and unwilling to manage the mess.
The Russian-China strategic partnership moved to high gear toward the end of the quarter as Russia kicked off its “Year of China.” This coincided with President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Russia on March 26-28, his third trip as president. Beyond the grand opening gala of Russia’s China Year in Moscow, Putin and Hu were facing global dynamics, dilemmas, and growing dangers. Meanwhile, the two Eurasian powers closely coordinated, throughout the quarter, to soft-land the Korean nuclear crisis as well as postponing, and preparing for, the upcoming storm regarding Iran.
There was, however, a rather paradoxical mist in the festival air as Russia launched its first-ever China Year. While a stronger Russia chose the first quarter to severely criticize U.S. unilateralism and its missile defense program in Eastern Europe (Feb. 10), Moscow also proceeded to “Russianize,” despite China’s “inquiries,” its vast retail market: in other words, it decided to expel a million non-Russian “illegal” vendors, about 90 percent of whom were ethnic Chinese. After years of working through the worst economic hardship in the post-Soviet era, those Chinese entrepreneurs found no space in a recovering Russian economy.
Russia’s first-ever “Year of China” was somewhat “routinized” during the second quarter, following an extravagant opening in early 2007. Politicians, artists, journalists, and businessmen continued to flock to each country’s major cities as hundreds of celebration activities took place. Normal balancing and bargaining between interlocking institutions of the two strategic partners, however, provided both progress and problems, particularly in the economic area.
Much of the festivity of Russia’s China Year was in sharp contrast to Moscow’s tension with Washington. It was unclear, toward the end of the quarter, how this Western “civil war” of words would affect Russia’s strategic matrix with China. Moscow and Beijing were working hard to prepare the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for two events: The Peace Mission-2007 military exercise in Russia and a friendship treaty for SCO member states to be signed at the SCO August summit in Kyrgyzstan.
By any standard, the third quarter appeared to be the finest moment for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO): the seventh summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan was the largest summit ever held by the regional organization; the SCO heads of state signed its first multilateral treaty (Treaty among the Member States of Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation, or “The Friendly Treaty”) and it was the first time all member countries participated in a joint antiterrorism military exercise in Russia.
A closer look at the chemistry between Russia and China, however, reveals a far more complex interactive mode of cooperation, competition, and compromise. While security cooperation moved forward culminating in the Peace-Mission 2007 military exercise, the game of petropolitik was heating up in Central Asia with Beijing gaining the upper hand, at least for the time being. The quarter ended, however, with significant progress in energy cooperation as the long-awaited Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline was about to extend a branch line to China’s energy-thirsty northeast region. Thus, in his eight years as Russian president, Putin seems to have set a solid record in dealing with Russia’s southern neighbor: pure geostrategy has outweighed market fundamentals and friendly partnership with Beijing.
Succession politics preoccupied both Moscow and Beijing in the last quarter of 2007. The 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October – which positioned China’s fifth generation of leadership, particularly Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, for the post-Hu Jintao China five years from now – paled in comparison to Putin’s surprising posturing in early December to shape Russian politics beyond 2008. If his “Operation Successor” is implemented, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev would be elected Russian president in March 2008 and Putin would be prime minister for the next four to eight years. Then, Beijing may well live with Putin’s leadership rather than his legacy for the next 16 years as he would be eligible to “succeed” Medvedev as Russian president after Medvedev’s first or second term.
Russia and China, meanwhile, continued to interact at global, regional, and bilateral levels in various issues areas. The third Russia-China-India trilateral foreign ministerial meeting was held in late October in China’s northeastern city of Harbin. This was followed by the sixth annual prime ministerial meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in early November in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. A few days later, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao traveled to Moscow for the 12th Sino-Russian prime ministerial annual meeting. By the end of year, bilateral trade volume reached an unprecedented $47 billion after nine consecutive years of growth from 1999 when Putin began his tenure in the Kremlin. Nevertheless, Putin’s presidency has also kept the long-expected Russian oil pipeline from extending to China.
In both substance and symbolism, the first quarter of 2008 was a transition for Moscow and Beijing in their respective domestic domains. Russia’s Vladimir Putin switched roles with successor Dmitry Medvedev, but did not fade away. China’s Hu Jintao sailed into his second five-year term as the next generation of China’s leaders emerges. The quarter also witnessed political changes in neighboring countries with strong implications for Russia and China. South Korea inaugurated a pro-U.S. president (Lee Myung-bak) on Feb. 25. Pakistani general elections on Feb. 22 led to the victory by the opposition parties. Taiwan voters chose the pro-stability Ma Ying-jeou over pro-independence Frank Hsieh on March 22.
Beyond presidential politicking, Beijing and Moscow were confronted with a “domino” effect for self-rule. On Feb. 17, Kosova declared independence from Serbia. The fate of Taiwan remained uncertain for most of the first quarter as Beijing and Washington worked to rein back efforts by Taiwan’s President Chen and the Democratic Progressive Party to move toward de jure independence. And, riots in Tibet in mid-March cast a long shadow over the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Between domestic preoccupations and external challenges, Sino-Russian bilateral relations switched from hibernation in much of January and February to hyperactivity in March: leaders congratulated each other on elections and reelections; the two defense ministers set up a first-ever military hotline; and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) worked out new areas of cooperation in personnel training and in combating arms smuggling, and stepped up cooperation with Afghanistan while trying to dampen Iran’s bid for SCO membership.
May 2008 was a hectic month for both Russia and China. The inauguration of Dmitry Medvedev as Russian president marked the least eventful, albeit the most speculated about, power transition in the history of the Russian Federation. Medvedev’s visit to China in late May, his first foreign visit outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as president, ran into the devastating earthquake (May 12) in China’s Sichuan Province. Medvedev’s appearance in China and the largest international rescue mission in Russian history were both symbolic and substantial for the Russian-China strategic partnership, regardless of who controls the Kremlin.
The third quarter of 2008 was quite eventful for Russia and China as well as their bilateral relationship. The 29th Summer Olympics in Beijing opened and concluded with extravaganza and a record 51 gold medals for China. Shortly before the opening ceremony on Aug. 8, Georgia’s attacks against South Ossetia – a separatist region of Georgia – led to Russia’s massive military response, a five-day war, and Russia’s recognition of their independence. Thus, the August guns and games brought the two strategic partners back to the world stage. One consequence of the Georgian-Russian war is that China’s “neutrality” is widely seen as a crisis in China’s strategic partnership with Russia.
Beyond the Olympics, Ossetia, and chaos in world financial markets, Moscow and Beijing were able to move their relationship forward: an additional border agreement was signed to end the border disputes of the previous 400 years, bilateral energy talks at the deputy ministerial level were launched, long-stalled military sales started to show some sign of life as the two sides resumed discussions for the 38 Il-76 and Il-78 military cargo planes, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) managed to keep a delicate balance for both internal and external politicking while elevating its observers’ status by creating so-called “Dialogue Partners,” and 1,000 Chinese children from the earthquake-devastated areas – many more than the original proposed number of 50 by Medvedev when he visited China in late May – spent several weeks in Russia’s resort areas.
In contrast to the hectic third quarter of the Beijing Olympics and South Ossetia, the last quarter of 2008 was calmer for Russia and China. Their bilateral relations, nonetheless, seemed to become more substantive. The 13th annual Prime Ministerial Meeting in Moscow in late October and the 13th session of the Russian-Chinese Intergovernmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation in Moscow in early December provided some fresh impetus for the impasse in two important areas of bilateral relations: the long-awaited oil pipeline to China and military relations. Separately, the quarter also witnessed the final, albeit low-key, ceremony for settling the last territorial issue when Russia officially transferred to China control of one and a half islands of the disputed territory near Khabarovsk. However, the world around Russia and China was in turmoil not only because of the financial tsunami that was leaving no nation behind, but also because of regional crises between India and Pakistan as well as Israel and Palestine, and the stagnation in the Korea denuclearization process.
For most of the first quarter, “uneventful” was the best description for bilateral relations between Russia and China. This is especially true when contrasted with the high-profile events in 2009 when bilateral trade declined 31 percent from $56.8 billion to $38.8 billion, Russia sank a Chinese cargo ship in February, the energy “deal of the century” was concluded in April, Moscow’s Cherkizov Market was abruptly closed in June, the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations was celebrated in October, and the China-Central Asian gas line and Russia’s Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline were opened in December. Only in late March, with the five-day visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping to Russia, was there a return from mutual “hibernation” and an “obsession” with the Obama administration’s policies, though for different reasons. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s invitation was also seen as a “back-to-the-future” effort to size up Xi, who is poised to assume the leadership spot in China by 2012. For Putin, 2012 is also the time to retake the Russian presidency, if he desires to do so.
Unlike the relatively uneventful first quarter in China-Russia relations, the second quarter was full of confusion, crises, and even conflicts along the peripheries of Russia and China and within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Following the sinking of the ROK Navy corvette Cheonan on March 26, the Korean Peninsula experienced significant tension. On April 6, riots and violence broke out in Kyrgyzstan, leading to the ousting of the Bakiyev government two days later. Both Russia and China joined the US-sponsored UNSC sanctions against Iran, although with differing degrees of reluctance. In the midst of this activity, Moscow cautiously and conspicuously orchestrated a “reset” of its foreign policy with a clear tilt toward Europe and the US. Russia’s new round of Zapad-Politik (Westpolitik), eliciting quite a few surprises, if not shocks, for its strategic partner in Beijing.
For much of the third quarter, Russia and China were besieged by disasters of various kinds. Leaders sent each other messages to express their sympathy and support while relief materials were delivered. Bilateral relations began to gather momentum at the end of August when Prime Minister Putin attended the opening of the Russian-Chinese oil pipeline. In September, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization kicked off its Peace Mission 2010 exercise in Kazakhstan. This was followed by President Medvedev’s state visit to China in the name of “comprehensively deepening Russian-Chinese strategic partnership relations.” All of this occurred against the backdrop of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula after the sinking of the South Korea Navy ship in March and the rapid deterioration of China-Japan relations after Japan’s seizure of a Chinese fishing boat in early September.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula preoccupied both Russia and China as the two Koreas edged toward war at the end of 2010. Unlike 60 years ago when both Beijing and Moscow backed Pyongyang in the bloody three-year war, their efforts focused on keeping the delicate peace. The worsening security situation in Northeast Asia, however, was not China’s only concern as Russia was dancing closer with NATO while its “reset” with the US appeared to have yielded some substance. Against this backdrop, Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao traveled to Moscow in late November for the 15th Prime Ministers Meeting with his counterpart Vladimir Putin. This was followed by the ninth SCO Prime Ministers Meeting in Dushanbe Tajikistan. By yearend, Russia’s oil finally started flowing to China through the 900-km Daqing-Skovorodino branch pipeline, 15 years after President Yeltsin first raised the idea.
China-Russia economic relations were “reset” on New Year’s Day 2011 when the 1,000-km Skovorodino-Daqing branch pipeline was officially opened. The pipeline, which took some 15 years from conception to completion, will transport 15 million tons of crude annually for the next 20 years. The low-key ceremony marking the launch of the pipeline at the Chinese border city of Mohe was followed by several rounds of bilateral consultations on diplomatic and strategic issues in January. In March and April, Moscow and Beijing sought to invigorate their “joint ventures” – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Brazil, Russia, India, China (BRIC) forum – at a time when both Moscow and Beijing feel the need for more coordination to address several regional and global challenges and crises.
The summer of 2011 marked two anniversaries for China and Russia. In June, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) celebrated its 10th anniversary at the annual SCO Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan. Over the past 10 years, the regional security group has grown fed by its “twin engines” of Russia and China. Immediately following the SCO Summit, President Hu Jintao traveled to Moscow, marking the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Friendship Treaty between Russia and China. There was much to celebrate as Moscow, Beijing, and the SCO have achieved stability, security, and sustained economic development in a world riddled with revolutions, chaos, crises, and another major economic downturn. The two anniversaries were also a time to pause and think about “next steps.” While the SCO is having “growing pains,” China and Russia have elevated their “strategic partnership relations” to a “comprehensive strategic cooperation and partnership.”
The last four months of 2011 were both ordinary and extraordinary for Beijing and Moscow. There was certainly business as usual as top leaders and bureaucrats frequented each other’s countries for scheduled meetings. The world around them, however, was riddled with crises and conflicts. Some (Libya and Syria) had seriously undermined their respective interests; others (Iran and North Korea) were potentially more volatile, and even dangerous, for the region and the world. Regardless, 2011 was a year full of anniversaries with symbolic and substantive implications for not only China and Russia, but also much of the rest of the world.
By any standard, the first four months were a rough start to the year for both Russia and China. While succession politics gripped first Russia and then China, Moscow and Beijing coordinated closely over crises beyond their borders (Syria, Iran, and North Korea) and promoted multilateralism through summitry with the BRICS and the SCO. Toward the end of April, the Russian and Chinese navies held the largest joint bilateral exercise in seven years, codenamed Maritime Cooperation-2012 (海上联合-2012; Morskoye Vzaimodeystviye-2012), in the Yellow Sea. Meanwhile, China’s future premier Li Keqiang traveled to Moscow to meet Russia’s future-and-past President Putin in Moscow.
In early June, Russia’s new, and old, President Putin spent three days in Beijing for his first state visit after returning to the Kremlin for his third-term as president; his hosts (Hu and Wen) were in their last few months in office. Some foreign policy issues such as Syria and Iran required immediate attention and coordination between the two large powers. They also tried to make sure that their respective leadership changes in 2012 and beyond would not affect the long-term stability of the bilateral relationship. Putin’s stay in Beijing also coincided with the annual SCO Summit on June 6-7. As the rotating chair, China worked to elevate the level of cooperation in the regional security group, which is faced with both opportunities and challenges in Central Asia, where strategic fluidity and uncertainty are increasingly affecting the organization’s future.
“Russia can pivot to the Pacific, too,” declared Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, the day the 24th APEC Leaders Meeting opened in Vladivostok, Russia’s outpost city at the Pacific where it spent $21 billion in five years prior to the APEC meeting. To be sure, investment in this symbol of Russia’s eastward “pivot” was initiated in Putin 2.0 (2004-08) and long before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the word “pivot” in her November 2011 piece “America’s Pacific Century” in Foreign Policy. Never mind the “empty chair” for US President Obama at this coming out party for Russia’s plunge into the world’s most dynamic market. It was anybody’s guess if this was Obama’s payback for Putin’s skipping the G20 at Camp David in May, or something else (fighting for reelection).
One less noticeable “pivot,” however, was by China, Russia’s neighbor less than 100 km south of Vladivostok. Russia was where both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao made the last of their 2012 foreign visits, which might well be the last official visits of their 10 years as China’s top leaders. In early September, Hu joined the APEC meeting in Vladivostok. In early December, Wen Jiabao went to Moscow for the prime ministerial meeting. Wen’s subsequent “long talk” with President Putin in Sochi highlighted the important and sensitive relationship. Meanwhile, Putin’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific was not just about China, but part of Russia’s grand strategy with both economic and strategic components to make Russia a truly Eurasian power. As the fourth generation of Chinese leaders was fading away, Russian-Chinese military cooperation gained more traction in the closing months of 2012.
President Xi Jiping kicked off his first round of foreign visits by traveling to Russia and Africa in late March, just five days after he was confirmed as China’s paramount leader by the National People’s Congress. In comparison, it took Hu Jintao two months and Jiang Zemin two years to set foot in Russia after assuming the Chinese presidency. Both sides hailed the Moscow summit as “historical” for the “special nature” of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. Xi also became the first foreign head of state to visit the Russian Defense Ministry. Three days after their summit, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin met again in Durban, South Africa, where they navigated the annual BRICS Summit toward a more integrated economic grouping. Before and after those trips, however, both men had to deal with a host of difficult and dangerous foreign policy challenges in Korea, Afghanistan, and Syria.
The Sino-Russian strategic partnership was in overdrive during the summer months despite the unbearable, record-setting heat in China and Russia. While the Snowden asylum issue dragged on, “Operation Tomahawk” against Syria appeared to be in countdown mode by late August. In between, the Russian and Chinese militaries conducted two large exercises, which were described as “not targeted against any third party,” a term often used by the US and its allies to describe their exercises. Welcome to the age of speaking softly with or without a big stick.
There was a dramatic turn in the Syria crisis and a potential light at the end of the “Iranian tunnel,” thanks to the persistent efforts of Russia, or more precisely, President Putin. Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang devoted themselves to economics by kicking off a new “Silk Road Economic Belt” strategy through the heartland of Asia. This does not mean Russian and Chinese leaders were on divergent paths. In fact, they met frequently in multilateral and bilateral settings: three times for Putin and Xi (G20 in St. Petersburg, SCO summit in Bishkek, and APEC forum in Bali) and twice for the prime ministers (Medvedev’s visit to Beijing and the SCO Prime Ministers Meeting in Tashkent). Despite their largely convergent outlook on many global issues, Russia seemed more guarded about China’s new westward drive through Central Asia, which it still considered special, if not exclusively, for Russia even two decades after the Soviet breakup.
The Sochi Olympics and the Ukraine crisis tested the upper and lower limits of the China-Russia strategic partnership in the early months of 2014. While the Olympics infused new dynamics into the relationship, the turmoil in Ukraine, which British Foreign Secretary William Hague defined as the “biggest crisis” to face Europe in the 21st century, is still escalating. Despite Kiev’s “anti-terror” operations in Ukraine’s east and southeast, pro-Russian militants are now controlling 23 cities – and counting – in Ukraine’s industrial heartland, home to over a third of Ukraine’s GDP. For Russia’s strategic partner in the east (China), there is little space to navigate between Russia, the EU, and Ukraine. Welcome to the brave new world of Beijing’s neutrality with Chinese characteristics.
Against the backdrop of escalating violence in Ukraine, Sino-Russian relations were on the fast track over the past four months in three broad areas: strategic coordination, economics, and mil-mil relations. This was particularly evident during President Putin’s state visit to China in late May when the two countries inked a 30-year, $400 billion gas deal after 20 years of hard negotiation. Meanwhile, the two navies were drilling off the East China Sea coast and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) was being held in Shanghai. Beyond this, Moscow and Beijing were instrumental in pushing the creation of the $50 billion BRICS development bank and a $100 billion reserve fund after years of frustrated waiting for a bigger voice for the developing world in the IMF and World Bank.
For Russia and China, the last four months of 2014 began with the welding of the first joint of the 4,000-km East Siberian-China gas line near Yakutsk, which could deliver 38 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to China for 30 years. At yearend, both countries were relieved by the safe return of a Siberian tiger to Russia after two months of roaming in China. In between, top leaders met several times at multilateral events (SCO, APEC and G-20) against the backdrop of deepening crises in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. Most interactions between Moscow and Beijing were business as usual as the two countries cooperated, competed, and compromised over a range of issues. Increased Western sanctions against Russia, plus a steep drop in oil prices, led to a lively debate in China about how should help Russia. In the end, this public discourse was partly “reset” with Russian Ambassador to Beijing Sergey Razov telling his Chinese audience that Russia needs China’s diplomatic support, not its economic assistance. Stay tuned for more dynamics resulting from China’s growing power and Russia’s pride in the timeless game of the rise and decline of the great powers.
China-Russia relations were quite uneventful in the first four months of 2015. Instead, Moscow and Beijing seemed on divergent paths as the former continued to be plagued by geopolitics (Ukraine, Iran, etc.), while the latter was busy with geoeconomics (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Belt and Road Initiative, etc.). Beneath the surface calm, however, preparations were in high gear for the coming months in both symbolic (70th V-Day anniversary) and substantive areas such as strategic consultation, aerospace cooperation, and military sales.
In contrast to the inactivity in Sino-Russian relations in the first four months of the year, strategic interactions went into high gear in mid-year. It started on May 8 with the largest military parade in post-Soviet Russia for the 70th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War and ended on Sept. 3 when China staged its first-ever Victory Day parade for the 70th anniversary of its war of resistance against Japan’s invasion of China. In between, the Russian and Chinese navies held two exercises: Joint-Sea 2015 (I) in May in the Mediterranean and Joint Sea-2015 (II) in the Sea of Japan in August. In between the two exercises, the Russian city of Ufa hosted the annual summits of the SCO and BRICS, two multilateral forums sponsored and managed by Beijing and Moscow outside Western institutions. For all of these activities, Chinese media described Sino-Russian relations as “For Amity, Not Alliance.”
In the final months of 2015, China-Russia interaction started with President Putin’s state visit to China and ended with the 20th annual prime ministerial meeting in Beijing. While Putin’s visit was full of historical and geopolitical symbolism, the prime ministers meeting was geared for substance, aiming to energize bilateral economic relations against the backdrop of Western sanctions against Russia and China’s economic slowdown. In between, Chinese and Russian leaders met at multilateral forums, and a $2-billion sale of 24 Russian Sukhoi-35 fighter-bombers to China after eight years of negotiations was finalized. Meanwhile, the world witnessed Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, the European refugee crisis, the Paris massacre, and the rise of anti-establishment forces across the West. The apparent warming of Sino-Russian relations led to another round of questions: were they moving toward an anti-West alliance?
The first months of 2016 witnessed a significant escalation of tension in Northeast Asia following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6. The test, coupled with renewed US-ROK interest in deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, presented China and Russia with a “double-layered predicament”: nuclear proliferation on the heavily militarized Korean Peninsula and a direct threat to their nuclear deterrence posture. Meanwhile, talk of a Sino-Russia alliance was back on track in China. In reality, however policies of the two powers seemed to go in different directions. Russia continued to surprise the world, including China, over its involvement in Syria. For China, the “One Belt, One Road” initiative took Xi Jinping to three major Muslim nations (Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt) in January. China also dispatched its own Syrian special envoy and initiated a mini-security alliance with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Kyrgyzstan to the displeasure of Moscow. By the end of April, the two countries announced they would conduct their first-ever joint anti-missile drills in Russia.
The China-Russia relationship was both extraordinary and ordinary. On one hand, both sides were visibly, albeit reluctantly, moving toward more security-strategic coordination to offset growing pressure from the US and its allies. On the other hand, they continued to interact with a mix of cooperation, competition, and compromise for interests and influence in a range of areas including trade, investment, and regional development. Neither trend was definitive, given the complex dynamics between the two, as well as their respective relations with others, which are beyond the control of Moscow or Beijing. The asymmetry between “high” and “low” politics in their bilateral ties may be normal, if not necessarily desirable. Nevertheless, the scope, speed, and sustainability of the emerging Sino-Russian strategic alignment deserve careful scrutiny.
The end of 2016 was a period of extraordinary uncertainty in world affairs. Much of the world was engulfed by waves of refugees, terror attacks, and rising populism, culminating in the election of Donald Trump as president in the US. Against this backdrop, top Chinese and Russian leaders interfaced regularly. Military ties also gained momentum as the two armed forces conducted a joint exercise in the South China Sea and stepped up coordination in missile defense. Twenty years after their “strategic partnership of coordination,” the two countries still resist a formal alliance, but the perceived challenge to their national interests and strategic space by Western alliances seems to have led to more proactive and coordinated actions. Meanwhile, both Moscow and Beijing were anxiously awaiting the Trump presidency. Welcome to the brave new world of the reversed strategic triangle, Trump style.
US relations with Russia and China flip-flopped in the first few months of 2017 as newly-inaugurated President Donald Trump injected fresh dynamics into the Washington-Beijing-Moscow triangle. In just one strike (the missile attack on Syria) with nearly “perfect” timing in early April, the Washington “outsider” surprised the visiting Chinese president, minimized the “Russian factor” in US domestic politics, and assumed the moral high ground while sending a strong signal to a still defiant North Korea. While the long-term effect of Trump’s action has yet to be determined, it did set in motion diplomatic maneuvering and mind games between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Washington, or more precisely Trump, was actively and dramatically pulling the strings of this “not-so-strategic triangle.” However, before anything substantial happened to the triangle, the Korean nuclear crisis deepened and broadened, and Pyongyang assumed the characteristics of China’s “rogue ally.” To defuse this time-bomb in Northeast Asia, the three geostrategic players may need to go beyond the traditional “great games” in the age of WMD.