Bilateral relations between Russia and China are far more comprehensive and sophisticated than keeping the U.S. in check.

China and Russia: friends or enemies?

For decades, Russia has been willing to sell China entire weapons systems, including sophisticated warships and air defense missile systems that “typically were optimal for fighting a maritime war in the Pacific rather than a land war in the Russian Far East.” And, in the Middle East, both Russia and China have attempted to sell nations such as Iran sophisticated weaponry. When the U.S. and Israel attempted to block Russia from a lucrative S-300 surface-to-air missiles contract with Iran, China offered to sell the country its own versions of the S-300, but to no avail.

These and other accounts, which are contained in Richard Weitz’s new book China, part of Praeger’s Global Security Watch Series – focusing on its principle foreign and defence policies – cause the reader to ponder the nature of the Russia-China relationship: a tactical alliance or a strategic partnership? The narrative shows that their bilateral relations are based on pragmatism, self-interest and at keeping the global superpower, the U.S. and its “hegemonism” in check.

The book cover depicting a Chinese Navy honour guard waiting for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to review military troops at an arrival ceremony in Beijing symbolizes the central problem confronting both Russia and China: how to deal with U.S. unilateralism. As a result, the embrace of a multi-polar world is a key theme in both countries’ foreign policy. Given China’s ambitious military modernization program, though, the nation may begin to assert itself more forcefully on the world stage, potentially at the expense of Russia.

Most Russian analysts perceive their main security challenges emanating from Western Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East. China is not regarded as a genuine military threat to Russia today. However, an examination of Russia-China relations reveal that mutual support is not always a given. Russia, while selling the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) key defense components, has also failed to back China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

At the same time, the growing U.S. military presence in the Pacific led to the largest Russia-China joint naval exercises in the Pacific in July 2013. Russia’s wariness of China’s growing military power was also manifested in Moscow’s military maneuvers in the Russian Far East last July, the largest of its kind in the post-Soviet era. Some analysts saw this huge exercise as being aimed at China: a reminder that Russia remains powerful.

As Weitz points out, while China’s economy is the second largest in the world with growth accelerating, Russia’s economy is tenth largest with growth slowing down. Yet, Russia still has a more powerful military than China, especially its nuclear forces. Such “equipoise,” the author notes, explains the betterment in bilateral ties. Tellingly, Weitz stresses that relations have not blossomed into a “formal military alliance” or into closely coordinated policies on regional security matters.

How China and Russia found common ground

Weitz reminds readers that, historically, China and Russia have been characterized by “bloody wars, imperial conquests and mutual denunciations.” This deep mistrust continued during the Soviet period. Some readers will recall Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s tension-filled relations with Mao Zedong during the Sino-Russia rapprochement in the fifties portrayed in William Taubman’s Khrushchev. The Man and His Era

The Sino-Soviet split of 1961 was followed by the Sino-Soviet border war of 1969. But times change, as do the asymmetries of power. Since 2001, when Russia and China signed the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty, relations have improved and evolved into what Weitz terms a “harmonious modus vivendi”. By 2008 China and Russia demarcated the last sections of their 4,300 kilometre (2,700 mile) border, the longest land border in the world.

In recent years, both countries’ leaders have characterized their bilateral relations as the best they have ever been. This has included attempts to formulate a “shared vision for global affairs,” one involving a multipolar international system centered on the United Nations in which international law dominates decision-making on all important questions, including the possible use of force. National sovereignty is given priority over the U.S. policy of promoting universal democratic values. As Weitz reminds readers, “In such a framework, Russia and China would occupy key positions and no one great power – that is, the U.S. – would predominate.”

One example is Syria, where both Russia and China have opposed U.S. attempts to depose Assad, Russia by dint of “its concrete strategic and tactical interests” including fear of spillover of Islamic terrorism into Russia itself, China more on the ideological count of defending principles of sovereignty. Both have used their veto at the Security Council to block U.S. resolutions on Syria – once in 2011 and twice in 2012.

Potential economic and political pitfalls in China

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (left) enter a hall as they meet in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, on March 22, 2013. Photo: AFP /East News

Weitz’s analysis of the uncertainties of China’s politics and economics is a compelling read for observers who see China’s economic rise as inexorable. Weitz, like some leading Russian and China experts, sees key structural problems that are economic, political and governance-related. These problems could possibly impede China’s transition from a middle power to a global power. These “contradictions” make China “simultaneously a strong and weak state.”

In this regard, his views coincide with those of Christopher Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong. In his book East and West: China, Power and the Future of Asia, Patten discusses the relationship between political freedom, social order and economic prosperity in Asia.  The absence of rule of law and lack of human respect for human rights in China are potential impediments to economic growth.

In 2013, new Chinese President Xi Jinping’s return to Maoism makes one question whether state capitalism and political authoritarianism are the system needed to modernize China. As Weitz remarks, “The continued growth of China’s power across multiple dimensions could well remain a dominant characteristic of this century, but the PRC’s evolutionary trajectory remains profoundly unpredictable.” The same question pertains to Putin’s Russia today.

Central Asia: a new arena for rivalry

Central Asia remains a sphere of rivalry, although Russia has controlled the region since the nineteenth century and still considers it its "near abroad," albeit one that China is fast integrating into its economic orbit. In 2012, all Central Asian states except for Uzbekistan traded more with Beijing than Moscow. Analysts assert that Putin's efforts to establish a Eurasian Economic Union is largely an attempt to limit Chinese economic dominance of the region.

Central Asian countries see China as a potential engine of economic growth though all infrastructure links are with Russia. Weitz writes, “The legacy of a former integrated Soviet economy in Eurasia also presents a major barrier.” But China is fast gaining ground: Its strategic interests include oil and uranium and it has used Central Asian countries’ quest for greater autonomy from Russia and economic development to leverage influence.

Indeed, in early September, Xi Jinping completed a highly successful visit to the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (whose leadership is shared between Moscow and Beijing) Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and more importantly, to Central Asian countries where several billion dollars worth of joint energy projects were signed and launched.

Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate, Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace , writes, “What Central Asian leaders find most appealing about this approach is that in contrast to Russia, China doesn’t bind them into restrictive trade policies or seek to influence political outcomes from behind the scenes.” And, also to Moscow’s disadvantage, Weitz notes that Russia can no longer effectively counter China’s economic ties with its Central Asian neighbours.

The US, EU, Russia and China

Russia-China relations are also influenced by geo-strategic considerations arising from U.S. and European Union policies with China. The EU arms embargo to China left a window of opportunity for Russia to sell billions of dollars worth of military hardware to China, thereby failing to thwart its military modernization program. Since the U.S. is a “reluctant purchaser” of EU military hardware, the EU has an interest in military sales to China to promote its defense industries and that explains why some EU countries would like to see the ban lifted.

At the end of the day, the Russia-China relationship is also about the U.S. and the extent to which the U.S. government takes into account Russian and Chinese interests in its foreign policy. The more Washington ignores them, the stronger the Russia-China axis. At the same time, Russia never supported China’s claims to territory in the South China Sea, nor did China recognize South Ossetia’s independence.

For its part, the U.S. Department of Defense is alarmed by the “comprehensive and sustained nature of the PLA’s military buildup,” which the Pentagon fears could be a “destabilizing” force in the Asia-Pacific region. Moscow’s apprehension at China’s military build-up has already been noted.

One of the merits of China is that it a useful tool for students, policy-makers and journalists reminding us that realpolitik all too often takes precedence over ideology in foreign affairs and defense matters. The book’s multifaceted account of China’s foreign policy and defense relations enable us to glimpse potential trends in the development of the U.S.-China-Russia triangle.