While the continued upswing in Russian-Chinese relations testifies to a higher quality of bilateral interaction, it also raises questions about the potential challenges Russia might face in developing the partnership.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a meeting in Moscow, June 3, 2015. Photo:  RIA Novosti

With Russia still finding itself alienated from partners in the West, it only makes sense that the nation is taking steps to strengthen and deepen its alliance with China. Tied together by common geopolitical and economic goals, Russian and Chinese policy makers are attempting to ensure a long-standing relationship by developing trade, investment, energy, education and scientific ties.

This was highlighted most recently by the arrival of the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on June 3. The two discussed a number of bilateral and multilateral issues, as well as preparations for the upcoming BRICS and SCO summit in Ufa, Russia.

In addition, experts at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) recently hosted an international conference in Moscow at the end of May to discuss the future of the Russia-China relationship: “Russia and China: A New Partnership in a Changing World.”

At the conference, experts agreed that there are a number of mutually beneficial opportunities available for both Russia and China. However, there are also doubts about what kinds of risks such a rapprochement might lead to: Will this be an alliance of equals or will Russia have to adapt to China's interests? Should the West really treat this partnership as a long-term project that might potentially challenge the U.S. leadership?

Below, Russia Direct interviews several experts from Russia, China and the U.S. to get their take on the current status of the Russia-China partnership.

Robert Legvold, Professor Emeritus, Department of Political Science and the Harriman Institute, Columbia University

For years, China had emerged as a genuinely important factor in Soviet and Russian foreign policy, but never as a critical strategic front. Now, China represents a primary axis of Russian policy — a critical ally, providing a counter-balance and escape from the isolation and punishment the Western powers seek to impose on Russia.

Three factors, however, set boundaries to the partnership.

First, China has no intention of privileging its relationship with Russia over that of the U.S., and that will only change if the Washington and Beijing fail to manage the rising tensions in their relationship and it turns into a full-scale strategic rivalry.

Second, Russia’s equally imperative need to “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region constantly competes with the priority that Russia assigns to its relationship with China and the felt need to avoid offending China on any of the issues where China’s actions worry others in the region. Russia has not, and apparently will not soon, resolve the tension between maintaining close ties with China for global strategic reasons and engaging extensively in the integrative institutions and processes at the heart of Asia-Pacific’s international economic agenda.

And, third, the closer Russia draws to China, the more it relies on China as critical ballast for its foreign policy, the more it will emerge as the junior partner in the relationship. That is simply a function of the discrepancy in the power between the two and China’s greater room for maneuver in a global setting where Russia has narrowed its options.

All that said, even before the current crisis in Russia-West relations, the Sino-Russian relationship, beginning with Gorbachev’s opening in 1989 and then Yeltsin’s shift in 1993, had reached a point better than any other in more than 150 years. Even before the Ukrainian crisis, the parallelism in the two countries’ foreign policy, the growing economic and energy cooperation, and the similarity in their approach to international politics and the challenges it poses created the basis for a genuine partnership.

It would have been in Russia’s interest for that partnership to be matched with a productive partnership with the OECD countries — for that is from where Russia could hope to attract the resources for the modernization of the country. That option having been sacrificed, China becomes all the more crucial to Russia, and Xi Jinping’s recent triumphal visit to Moscow for the World War II anniversary underscores the point.

The symbolism, however, is accompanied by significant practical steps toward cooperation, not only on energy, on cyber security, and, in particular, in reconciling Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union project with at least a significant part of China’s Silk Road Economic Belt project.  Even if all of this ends up being more on China’s terms than Russia’s, in present circumstances Moscow will take it. How China will look to Russia twenty years from now and what the nature of the relationship will be is a distant place — for now far, far away.

Feng Yujun, Professor and Director, Institute of Russian Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

I think there are more opportunities than risks, especially due to the development of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road initiative. Russian President Vladimir Putin once said that Russia wants to become a bridge between Europe and Eastern Asia. If we can cooperate successfully within these projects, then we will see positive results in joint infrastructure projects, bilateral investment activity and other areas.

Although the crisis in Ukraine has not yet been settled, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that we should develop cooperative links between the EU and the EEU. Over the long term, it is very important.

I disagree with those saying that Russia will have a minor role in the Russia-China alliance. We are equal partners. There never were and won’t be a separation between ‘big’ and ‘little’ partners. This is Cold War thinking that is not suitable to the relationship between Russia and China.

Andrey Kortunov, General Director of Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

The risks for Russia do exist, but they are connected not with Russia-China bilateral interaction, but rather with Russian economic development dynamics. If Russia doesn’t modernize and diversify its economy, increase its innovation potential, the ties with China will remain one-sided: Russia will export raw materials, energy resources, military equipment and, in return, receive consumer goods, car manufacturing products and so on. In order to avoid that and proceed to more complex cooperation projects, we need to restructure our economy.

In some areas, Russia could use China’s help and experience, especially in infrastructure and transport projects, the development of the Asian region of Russia, and the creation of special economic zones that are so actively experimented with in China. There are plenty of things that we could take over from our Chinese partners.

Regarding the implications of the Russia-China partnership for the West, there are two major areas of concern. First is that such a geopolitical alliance will hamper American leadership in Asia as well as globally. To some extent there are signs of that already happening (Russia and China share the same position on Syria). But I wouldn’t overestimate this because on some other issues, for instance on North Korea, Russia and China seem to have the same position as the U.S. Therefore, I don’t think such concerns should be taken too seriously.

Another concern that does not seem significant at the moment, but might be important in the future, is that Russia and China undermine the U.S. economic role on the world stage. If Russia steps up its economic growth and China continues growing at the same rates, and if SCO and BRICS multilateral institutions will develop, the U.S. will have to adapt and lose some of its economic power on the world stage.

Zhao Huasheng, Professor and Director, Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies, Center for SCO Studies, Fudan University

[Russia and China] don’t pose any threat to each other and in the future will only continue to support each other politically. Chinese public opinion and mass media treat Russia very positively, which was never the case before. The further development of our relationship should be made on the basis of the current positive atmosphere. We need to improve and strengthen the spirit of our political cooperation. Indeed, we need to address the gaps and inertia formed in the period from the 1960s to the 1980s. For instance, we are used to thinking in terms of ‘big’ and ‘little’ brother, those who lead and those who follow. We need to get rid of that thinking.

Some say that China is too strong, while Russia is too weak. The truth is that the period when Russia was weakest  in the 1990s — has passed. And even during those times China treated Russia with respect and fairness. As opposed to those thinking that there is a problem with re-orienting our ties from political and security cooperation to the economy, it won’t be an issue. If we strengthen our economic ties while maintaining our interaction in the field of politics and security, it will only make our relations stronger. Of course, the closer our economic ties are, the more difficulties and conflicts we’ll have to endure, but it’s not a problem — this is normal and can be solved through negotiations.