The Limits of China-Russia Cooperation. Beijing-Moscow ties remain more superficial than strategic.
By ALI WYNE
May 22, 2014 12:35 p.m. ET
Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to China this week underscores the two countries' growing ties. He signed a $400 billion energy deal, a decade in the making, whereby Russia will supply China with 38 billion cubic meters of gas annually for three decades. Moscow and Beijing are also conducting a week-long joint naval drill in the East China Sea, and IHS Jane's Defense Weekly reports that Mr. Putin has agreed to transfer to China several S-400 missile-defense systems, among Russia's most sophisticated military assets.
So are we seeing the emergence of a Chinese-Russian axis? Not quite. These developments are consistent with longstanding Sino-Russian relations, which in general remain more superficial than strategic.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin toast to their energy deal on Wednesday. Zuma Press
China and Russia conducted their first joint military exercise in August 2005, when the United States was considerably more concerned that they would try to develop the Shanghai Cooperation Organization into a counterweight to NATO. Last year Russia's Rosneft signed a deal to provide the China National Petroleum Corporation with 365 million tons of oil over 25 years. And Russia has sold arms to China since the Cold War ended, serving as Beijing's top arms source from the early 1990s through 2006.
Both sides talk up ties rhetorically, but China and Russia are unlikely to forge a sustained strategic partnership.
Their dynamic is increasingly characterized by what political scientists Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane call "asymmetric interdependence." Russia is a declining power with regional, perhaps continental, ambitions. China is a rising power with global ambitions.
Russia's quest for great-power status rides partly on the perception that it enjoys a privileged alliance with Beijing. China, meanwhile, regards Russia as one of an ever-growing array of countries eager to furnish it with vital commodities. Russia is important but not indispensable. As Chatham House's Bobo Lo observes, it increasingly serves as "a raw materials appendage to a country [it] felt superior to for the better part of the past 300 years."
In October 2011, Mr. Putin called for a Eurasian Union to function "as an efficient bridge between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region" and to occupy "a prominent place" in the international system. The success of such an undertaking would require Central Asia to be firmly within Russia's economic orbit.
Yet China has eclipsed Russia as the largest trading partner of every Central Asian country except Uzbekistan, and with its "New Silk Road" initiative appears intent on further strengthening its Central Asian presence. Along Russia's western periphery, China has announced its desire to double its Central and Eastern European trade to $100 billion annually by 2015. State Councilor Yang Jiechi recently reaffirmed China's interest in crafting a free-trade agreement with the European Union.
Thus China has little incentive to support a revanchist Russian campaign that most of Europe rejects. Endorsing Russia's annexation of Crimea and potential capture of Eastern Ukraine, moreover, would undercut Beijing's commitment to noninterference in other countries' internal affairs—and risk emboldening the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang to agitate more fervently for independence.
Russia, meanwhile, has adopted a position of neutrality on China's territorial disputes in the Western Pacific. And while China may be the principal focus of Russia's rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific—which is sure to accelerate given Moscow's economic and diplomatic strains with the West—it is hardly the only one.
As China grows in power, Russia won't want to become a Chinese supplicant. As such, explains Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, it is trying to "diversify its portfolio of Asian partners, especially with Japan, South Korea, and, most recently, Vietnam."
Vietnam deserves special attention because its response to Chinese assertiveness could be a bellwether for how China's other neighbors press their maritime claims. In April 2012, Gazprom secured a 49% stake in a joint venture with PetroVietnam to develop two oil and gas blocks that lie within the "nine-dash line," China's self-declared maritime border.
Beijing's state-run Global Times responded with a warning: "Russia should not send mixed signals regarding the South China Sea issue at this time, as its meddling benefits neither China nor itself. Russia's image in the eyes of the Chinese people has already been tarnished by this exploration deal with Vietnam." A month later, Russia and Vietnam declared a "comprehensive strategic partnership," and Moscow reportedly intends to provide Hanoi with six Kilo-class submarines, 10 Molniya fast-attack craft and a third squadron of Sukhoi Su-30MK2 fighter planes.
Sino-Russian strategic strain may not always be obvious. After all, barring unforeseen developments the two countries will continue to conduct joint military exercises and energy business. They will also continue giving each other diplomatic cover in international forums, voicing misgivings about the centrality of the dollar in global financial markets, and criticizing the liberal international system that they had little role in shaping.
Yet the depth of the China-Russia relationship shouldn't be exaggerated. Russia hopes to ride the coattails of China's ascent while preventing Chinese preeminence in its own backyard—a daunting feat. China will welcome any Russian contributions to its campaign for vital commodities, but it won't be beholden to the negotiating terms or strategic imperatives of the Kremlin.
Mr. Wyne is co-author of "Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World" (MIT Press, 2013).