Sino-Russian cooperation on political, economic, and military matters continues to expand, despite mutual mistrust between Moscow and Beijing, writes Kjell Engelbrekt.

By Kjell Engelbrekt, Dec. 13, 2017

Sino-Russian strategic collaboration has gradually expanded and deepened over the past two decades.

But, if the new US administration imagined it could distract Moscow and Beijing through a novel doctrine of unpredictability, or to “peel off” the former from the latter via overtures about mutually beneficial geopolitical deals, indications are piling up that neither approach is working.

Indeed, a series of joint statements by Chinese and Russian officials in recent months demonstrate that strategic collaboration is edging forward through a combination of broad policies and concrete measures. At the June 9 meeting between president Xi Jinping and his counterpart Vladimir Putin, which took place in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana before this year’s Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) summit, both countries reaffirmed their commitment to high-level strategic coordination. Just prior to the Astana summit a roadmap for Sino-Russian military cooperation, valid until 2020, was adopted.

Also at Astana, Russia firmly endorsed China’s Belt and Road Initiative vastly expanding road, train and shipping infrastructure to Europe, the Middle East, East Africa and virtually all corners of the former Soviet Union, to which Beijing has pledged a minimum of $1 trillion. Moscow appears to have accepted that fresh capital in Central Asia, the Caucasus and its Far East regions may benefit its own economy, and that any associated security risks are manageable – so long as Russia, by way of the SCO, can monitor developments on defence and counterterrorism.

Russia firmly endorsed China’s Belt and Road Initiative vastly expanding road, train and shipping infrastructure to Europe, the Middle East, East Africa.

In East Asia, conversely, the Chinese have tolerated Russian diplomatic gestures aimed at improving political and economic ties to Japan and the Association of South Eastern Nation (ASEAN) countries. Meanwhile, ambitious military exercises by both countries are becoming more frequent and held in distant locations. Notable was the September 2016 eight-day naval exercise in the South China Sea, followed up by a five-day missile drill in Moscow, both reportedly involving the sharing of sensitive technical and operational details at an unprecedented level.

To the surprise of governments in the Baltic Sea region, in July 2017 three Chinese vessels showed up for a Russian-led naval drill outside Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg on the eve of the biannual “Zapad” joint operations exercise, which in recent years has involved tens of thousands of military personnel and hundreds of armed vehicles simulating military conflict with western neighbors.

So far, due to lingering mistrust and a long history of Chinese reverse engineering, Russia has refused to engage in close cooperation regarding high-tech segments of its military industry. But in late May a joint venture was launched to develop a wide-bodied commercial airliner that would eventually compete with US’s Boeing and Europe’s Airbus, with research facilities located in Moscow and assembly lines near Shanghai. This ambitious project links Chinese desires for enhanced technical competence with Russian financial needs in ways that are likely to boost the aerospace industry of both countries. As Sino-Russian strategic collaboration move past the logic of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” to a marriage of convenience, the proverbial spouses are learning to delicately accommodate each other’s interests on a reciprocal basis.

Undoubtedly, the underlying motive for both countries remains the objective of undermining, or at least scaling back, American leadership in the world (and especially in China’s and Russia’s respective “near abroad”). Besides the well-established practice of a “double veto” in the UN Security Council, where Beijing and Moscow seek to thwart Western interventions, dilute criticism from the international community with regard to each other’s human rights record, and counter Western influence in general, Sino-Russian strategic collaboration is primarily aimed at the East Asian neighborhood. Meeting in the Kremlin a few days in advance of the 7-8 July G20 summit in Hamburg (Germany), for example, Xi and Putin jointly repeated criticism of the US THAAD missile system being installed in South Korea, saying it upset the strategic balance in the region.

Sino-Russian strategic collaboration is primarily aimed at the East Asian neighborhood.

From a regional perspective, though, it is difficult to deny an important upside that comes from the close bilateral engagement between China and Russia. A basic sense of mutual trust has apparently accrued over the past two decades. If war has receded as a realistic option for Moscow and Beijing – two of the most capable military powers in the world, also equipped with sophisticated nuclear arms arsenals – that is a positive development with the potential of enhancing long term stability in the heart of Asia.

Nor does Sino-Russian strategic collaboration – at least not so far – constitute an alliance explicitly directed at other countries in the region. China’s complicated relationship to Japan, as mentioned above, has not stopped growing cooperation between Russia and Japan. And, one could add, both Russia and China have in fact bolstered ties to existing multilateral organizations – or even created new ones, such as the SCO, while pursuing bilateral coordination with a recognized strategic peer.

At the same time, Sino-Russian strategic collaboration is ultimately premised on the existence of an adversary (the United States) and its perceived allies and partners. That so-called “enemy” can be seen at times, especially when we assess Russian and Chinese strategic doctrines and actions taken, as constituting the whole array of international institutions associated with the post-1945 order.

So whereas Moscow and Beijing may help mitigate security challenges in Asia, the goal of weakening the United States objectives simultaneously represents an attempt to undercut existing international institutions, help disentangle the US-led system of security arrangements especially in East Asia and Europe, and blunt the technological edge of the arms industry in North America and Europe.

How to navigate this new strategic landscape – where at some point there is no overwhelmingly powerful country or rock-solid alliance and political, economic and military exchanges have replaced all-encompassing accords – is not exclusively a challenge for great powers. Middle powers and small states also matter, in so far as they gravitate toward bilateral or multilateral diplomacy, universal or regional trade arrangements, and lend their express support to a certain type of national, regional and global security architecture, which may already exist or be brought into being in the foreseeable future.

Political leaders do not always realize the long term consequences of individual decisions, trade accords, and defence agreements – and how they contribute to the overall security architecture. But a less cohesive, polycentric global security architecture is, in and of itself, unlikely to be one in which trade-oriented, democratically organized middle powers and small states are likely to thrive. Yet that is precisely what Moscow and Beijing, according to their own actions and even official documents, are aspiring to accomplish.

Particularly important over the next few years will be the response of “second tier” great power, as well as middle powers like Canada and those in Europe. These countries will need to deal with the entangled asymmetric and traditional challenges as they move center stage and threatening turmoil in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. The time has now come for member states of the G20, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and regional institutions across the world, alongside prominent nation-states such as Japan, Germany and India, to take a more active interest in shaping the global security architecture and its regional components.

Part of an active approach would be to encourage the confidence-building dimension of Sino-Russian cooperation. But countries should not shy away from a responsibility to counter, or at least offset, the disruptive impulses of any militarily and economically capable great power whose commitment to universal stability, prosperity, rule of law and democracy remains shallow at best.

Kjell Engelbrekt is a professor in Department of Security, Strategy and Leadership at the Swedish Defence University.