China and Russia Relations: A New Era?

China and Russia
image via Xinhua

Summary

President Putin and Xi have recently declared their intention to deepen ties in the face of what they perceive as increasing Western hostility through NATO expansion. Despite alarmist claims of a likely new military alliance between the two powers, it is highly unlikely that they will make a formal military alliance due to China’s opposition to joining alliances and their unwillingness to be formally tied to Russia’s destabilizing actions in Europe. Instead, it is highly likely they will continue to deepen a more informal military partnership through increasing the scale and complexity of their joint military exercises. In terms of economic relations, it is likely they will increase their ties in a symbolic or limited way due to their asymmetrical economic power requiring Russia to protect itself against increasing dependency on China.

Key Judgement 1

China and Russia are highly unlikely to form an official military alliance whilst President Xi remains in power.

  • China has a longstanding foreign relations policy of refusing to take part in formal alliances, which has been reaffirmed under President Xi, with references to China’s continued opposition to alliance systems appearing repeatedly within China’s official communiqués.

  • Foreign policy think tanks in China have discussed their opinion that the format of an alliance is too rigid and includes too many obligations, and that more informal partnerships provide flexibility in a state’s security relationships.

  • Despite the mutual desire for an expanding military partnership, a military alliance would formally tie China to any destabilising action Russia independently conducts, making China vulnerable to economic and diplomatic sanctions.

  • The threat of an informal alliance/military partnership is sufficient in sending a message to Western powers that China and Russia will cooperate to maintain their own regional security.

Key Judgement 2

China and Russia are highly likely to continue to increase the scale and complexity of their joint military exercises over the next 12 months.

  • According to the US Naval Institute, the ‘the frequency, complexity, and geographic scope’ of their joint military exercises have gradually increased in recent years.

  • Last year the Zapad/Interaction-2021 joint exercises took place within China’s borders and involved Russian soldiers using Chinese weapons for the first time, demonstrating Beijing’s growing willingness to have a deeper military partnership with Russia.

  • To present a strengthening military partnership, it is necessary to continue this trend of conducting increasingly large and complex joint military exercises, to demonstrate a willingness and capability to work together militarily.
China and Russia
Five Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets during the Zapad/Interaction- 2021

Key Judgement 3

China and Russia are likely to increase economic ties in a symbolic or limited way within the next 12 months.

  • Russia has been attempting to reduce its economic dependence on Europe through steadily increasing its trade with China. By continuing to develop more trade links with China, Russia will somewhat soften the blow of Western sanctions caused by potential aggressive action against Ukraine.

  • China and Russia have an exceptionally asymmetric economic relationship, with China making up 15.5% of Russia’s trade in 2018, while Russia only accounted for 0.8% of China’s total trade. As such, if Russia dramatically increased its trade with China, it would only shift its economic dependence on Europe onto China.

  • Due to the size and development of China’s economy, creating free trade or lower tariff arrangements between the EAEU and China would threaten weaker industries within the EAEU.

  • Chinese private investors are hesitant to invest in Russia due to its business environment and its declining population, making investments in Russia more uncertain than those made in other developing countries.
Ethan Lierens
Ethan Lierens
Ethan is a graduate in History and Politics from the University of Exeter. Following his bachelor’s degree he completed a master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security at King’s College London. His research focuses are disinformation campaigns, post-soviet politics and conflict in the Middle East. Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ethan-lloyd-lierens-31a2b4154

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