Throughout most of modern history, beginning with Peter the Great's eastward expansion in the seventeenth century, Russia and China in the imperial periods of their history had controversial relations.
The emergence of communism in the early twentieth century led to a brief coexistence between them. After the end of World War II, and a few years after the Chinese Communist Party's victory in the Chinese Civil War, the Stalinist regime in Moscow became the main source of strategic sponsorship, ideological emulation, foreign aid, and technological support for Mao Zedong's emerging regime in Beijing.
From the Korean War (1950) to the first phase of the Vietnam War (1955), the two superpowers together aided their Asian allies against Western forces. Soon after Joseph Stalin's death, the two Eastern powers retreated into a new era of ideological and strategic competition, culminating in violent border clashes as well as proxy wars across India, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Latin American nations.
In the relations of the two countries, there is a bleak page referred to by the expression“the Sino-Soviet split,” insofar as the Chinese leader, Mao Zedong, changed the rules of the game with America, which helped isolate Moscow and, ultimately, turned the global strategic landscape upside down at the end of the twentieth century.
DISPEL ILLUSION OF ALLIANCE
Since Russia began to rebuild its international position during the era of Vladimir Putin and has been searching for a path for this position as part of the possibilities of international relations, Putin was realistic to the extent of declaring his readiness for Russia to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
While America was restructuring its future strategic vision after the demise of the bipolar international system, China was moving at a steady pace towards the status of a "potential competitor" with growing economic capabilities that quickly reflected on the military capabilities and the ambitions it began to raise in the Chinese political imagination.
With every major crisis in Washington's relations with Beijing and Moscow, many expected the emergence of a Sino-Russian alliance that would return the world to a state of bipolarity or establish a new multipolar world order.
One of the paradoxes of this discourse is that it never put "a united Europe" on the list of poles, which means: Either accept that united Europe is already part of a Western alliance led by America, or it will remain a "hostage" for the two conflicting poles to wage their battles on its soil, as was the case during the Cold War years.
Under the title of “The Illusion of the Russian-Chinese Alliance, Geopolitical Futures," the well-known American thinker George Friedman wrote an article that provides an apparently objective assessment of Beijing-Moscow relations and the possibilities for their future development.
Friedman comes to the most important issue in his analysis, saying that on the surface, the participation of Russia and China in the face of a common and strong adversary should be the basis for establishing a strong alliance between them, but appearances may be deceptive.
He added that although the establishment of a Russian-Chinese alliance may seem a logical counterbalance to their common opponent, it remains just an illusion. It is at best an alliance “on paper,” (Al-Ghad Al-Jordan, November 20, 2018).
The idea that the Moscow-Beijing alliance can only confront a “common enemy” means that the alliance is an alliance motivated by fear, not hope, and whose basis is the difference from the common enemy and not the partnership in values and perceptions.
Russia and China have a long history of mutual mistrust and competed for influence in Asia throughout the Cold War. Until 2017, America absorbed 19% of China's exports, and Russia absorbed only 2% of it.
Dr. Sarah Kirchberger, a researcher at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University in Germany, charts a path for the development of the West's vision of the potential of the Russian-Chinese alliance.
Until a few years ago, Western analysts often tended to underestimate the importance of the emergence of a Russian-Chinese alliance, and this perception began to change before the growth of the Russian-Chinese alliance.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, China and Russia strengthened their military cooperation and increased synergies emerged. According to Kirchberger, Russia and China have similar goals and threat perceptions.
One of these areas is military security, where the political rapprochement has reduced the burden of protecting their long-shared land borders, enabling both of them to deploy more forces elsewhere.
This is a great advantage at the present time, and perhaps Russia would not have been able to invade Ukraine without this factor. A systemic dimension in Russian-Chinese cooperation is the shared interests of two authoritarian governments that feel the threat of "color revolutions."
Both reject the leadership of America and its allies in the international system as "imperialism," and reject the universality of the concept of human rights and, in this sense, they stand in the same position of opposition to the system based on Western rules and work towards the so-called "democratization of international relations."
Meanwhile, the Beijing-Moscow relationship has historically been burdened with mutual prejudices and mutual negative stereotypes as a result of a history riddled with conflict.
However, a study by researcher Marcin Kachmarsky notes that Russia has influential groups of stakeholders close to the Kremlin who have developed a “positive view of close rapprochement with China."
It will be interesting to see the impact of the Ukraine war on the changing perception of Russia in China, as “the failed conduct of the military campaign and the strategic miscalculation of the Kremlin may somewhat reduce Russia’s status as a valuable partner in the eyes of the Chinese,” while before the war Russia’s view of China was remarkably positive.
While the risk of simultaneous Chinese aggression against Taiwan (a scenario that could challenge the West's ability) is no longer on the table, it has become less likely in the medium term, as a result of this shock.
WHAT IF IT WAS POSSIBLE?
The Georgetown Journal of International Affairs published an analysis by Boston University Professor of International Relations Min Ye, fellow at Princeton-Harvard and the National Committee on US-China Relations, entitled: “The Rationale behind the Sino-Russia Strategic Alliance-Like Partnership.”
The researcher believes that the strategic partnership of coordination between them reflects the insecurity and weakness of the global order led by America, and their partnership is an explicit commitment of support in the face of common security concerns.
There are discrepancies hidden by the language that only considers the two countries' fears of the "American danger," because Russia, after all, suffers from economic failure and a bad international reputation, especially in its behavior in Europe.
By contrast, China prides itself on its thriving economy, being pragmatic and moderate, and engaging in long-term cooperation with advanced democracies.
For decades, the growth of social and economic relations between China and Russia has been very difficult. Trade statistics show that as of 2022, China's trade with Russia accounted for only 2.7% of the total trade, and it is concentrated in raw materials and energy resources. At the same time the social and cultural differences between them are still profound.
The Russian-Chinese joint statement (February 4, 2022) reflected limited possibilities, most notably synergy in the face of what they consider "American hegemony," and they defend the United Nations system, the absolute sovereignty of the state and non-interference, and the two countries feel that they are "victims" of the behavior of the West.
These are long-term common interests and underline the possibility of deepening Sino-Russian relations since 2001 when the two countries signed an agreement of friendship and cooperation
Before 2019, the relationship of the two countries was a relationship of rapprochement, not an alliance, while now the relationship is described as a "semi-alliance."
Two recent developments, the simultaneous deterioration in China's relations with the countries of the Indo-Pacific region and Europe, have accelerated Beijing's readiness to upgrade Sino-Russian relations, especially with the outcome of the Quartet Security Dialogue between America, Japan, Australia and India, and the integration of economic and technological aspects into this quadripartite cooperation.
Meanwhile, multilateral nuclear submarine development plans of Australia, Britain and the U.S. pose a threat to China. Eventually, the EU developed an openly public semi-hostile official stance toward China and intensified its criticism of China's policies in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang.
In March 2021, the European Union adopted its first sanctions against China in thirty years, prompting more anti-China backlash in Europe.
In September 2021, the European Parliament published the new Strategic Report for Europe and China, including the announcement of a “more confident, comprehensive and coordinated strategy toward China.”
This European alignment exacerbated China’s fear of a strategic blockade. In short, as Min Ye sees it, at the end of 2021, China was besieged, insecure, unable to split NATO and unable to prevent potential barriers to trade with the European Union, threatening its aspirations to modernize its economy and expand its global trade.
As America strengthened its alliances against China, Beijing pursued the so-called: "relationships of a new type with the great powers," stressing sovereignty, cooperation and respect for the United Nations system, describing this type of relationship as "a partnership without an alliance!"
The only "great power" that shares China's political preferences is Russia. In June 2021, Beijing and Moscow jointly announced that some countries are using ideology to interfere in the internal affairs of others.
On February 4, 2022, Xi and Putin declared in the lengthy joint statement on "International Relations in the New Era" that "democracy is a common value of mankind, not the intellectual property of a few countries," and therefore, no country should use democracy to pressure others or interfere with in their internal affairs. The statement noted that Beijing and Moscow formed this special relationship to balance the US-led coalition system.
THE ABSENCE OF THE WILL OF THE ALLIANCE
In June 2022, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published an important assessment by Jude Blanchett, researcher on China, and Hal Brands, Henry Kissinger Professor of Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins School of International Studies, which concluded that the Ukraine war was an ideal opportunity for the emergence of the prospective alliance to last for decades.
The two researchers decided that the Sino-Russian partnership has become one of the features of the contemporary strategic relationship. The Ukraine war created economic and diplomatic dilemmas for China, but it did not change the fundamental alignment of interests and authoritarian values that drive that relationship.
In a form of unorthodox tweeting, analysts assumed that the war would halt the path of deepening Russian-Chinese relations, weakening the two countries' partnership.
In fact, there is support for this hypothesis, as Chinese companies and banks retreated from developing their work in Russia to avoid Western sanctions, and Chinese state media recently gave Ukraine free space to criticize the Kremlin.
Apparently, there are restrictions on what some imagine as a "borderless" partnership.
The Russian-Chinese partnership has only deepened their joint campaign against democracy and the universality of human rights.
Based on the priority of economic criteria, China would take the driving seat in determining the future course of the relationship, which Russia does not want.
While sustainable alliances require broad, consistent consensus on values and interests, the Russian and Chinese leaders have personalized their relationship.
Indeed, their personal relationship has been a major driver of deepening partnership. Since 2012, when Xi took the helm and Putin returned to the presidency, both leaders have made an effort to fend off what they see as US tactics to overthrow "enemy regimes" as a priority.
For both, confronting the so-called “color revolutions” were critical, not only to respond to what they saw as unacceptable by America's unilateral policies, but also to protect what they assumed was the ultimate goal: changing the political systems in Moscow and Beijing.
Accordingly, one of the drivers of the relationship's sustainability for the foreseeable future is that the Chinese leader is likely to seek to prevent Putin, his closest friend and partner, from being deposed.
Indeed, Xi will view the potential collapse of Putin's regime as a direct threat to his rule, and "the people of China should not witness the popular overthrow of Putin," China's partner in promoting an alternative vision of democracy through "effective authoritarian rule."
The course of the war in Ukraine will determine the course of the relationship between Russia and China. On the one hand, it provided a historic opportunity for the inauguration of the alliance, but at the same time revealed that the two parties - so far - do not have the "will to build the alliance."