China-Russia Cooperation: Not Really Allies

October 23, 2021 Updated: October 23, 2021

News Analysis

The relationship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin is largely predicated on a common interest in countering the United States, but this does not actually make China and Russia allies. In the long term, it is unlikely that Russia desires to become a junior power in a global axis, dominated by China.

Chinese state-run media Global Times ran an article headlined, “China does not have allies, but has friends with partnership diplomacy.” China’s only official ally is North Korea. There are other countries that support the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) when it suits their interests—such as Iran, Cambodia, Pakistan, and most notably Russia—but their goals and desires are very different, preventing China and Russia from becoming a unified block in the sense of the Soviet Block during the Cold War.

In early October, a naval group of 10 warships from China and Russia sailed through the Tsugaru Strait, which lies between Japan’s main island and Hokkaido. Technically, the ships were in international waters, so no laws were broken—but the message was clear. In recent times, the frequency of China-Russia joint military drills has been increasing.

Many experts believe that current military cooperation between China and Russia is not the result of a true alliance, but just a shared stance against the United States. And, as global opinion turns against China, there appears to be a political distancing between the two. Economic cooperation has also increased, but is largely one-sided, with China paying. On the other hand, the fact that neither country needs to defend its shared border has given both countries more resources to spend on other strategic objectives.

An extremely complex relationship, Russia has many of the same complaints with China that other countries have. Russia lost at least 200,000 citizens to COVID-19. The Kremlin has also been angry about the CCP’s recruitment of Russian citizens as spies, as well as its use of Confucius Institutes for the purposes of propaganda and espionage. Just like the situation with Western media, Chinese media is permitted in Russia, while much of Russia’s media is banned in China.

The CCP has, at times, turned its “wolf warrior” diplomacy against Russia, suggesting that enemies and supposed friends of the Chinese regime will be subjected to bully tactics.

Russia has also been less than supportive of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), particularly in Central Asia, where Russia has generally enjoyed the most power and influence. The BRI has already made the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) more or less obsolete. Xi has called China a “near-Arctic power,” infringing on one more domain where Russia has historically been the primary power.

Epoch Times Photo
China’s leader Xi Jinping (left) and Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev review an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept. 11, 2019. (Mark Schiefelbein/AFP via Getty Images)

If China and Russia aligned too closely, a modern arms race, reminiscent of the Cold War era, could develop. The only surviving agreement limiting weapons proliferation between the United States and Russia is the New Strategic Arms Control Treaty (New START), which will expire in 2026. Dr. Luo Xi, research fellow at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, warns that China could be drawn into a nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia.

In 2020, China spent $252 billion on defense, a 6.6 percent increase from the previous year. Additionally, Beijing plans to spend $209 billion in 2021. China and the United States are already fierce competitors in the global market for semiconductors, one of the critical technological inputs on which many 21st century weapons are dependent. China is expected to spend between $12.3 billion and $15.3 billion on chips this year.

The CCP has published goals to modernize China’s military and to supplant the United States as the dominant military force over the next two decades. As the United States already outspends China on defense, at a ratio of about three to one, China will have to dramatically increase its spending if it wants to achieve this goal. Getting dragged into a nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia would demand even more spending.

It is believed that China is already expanding its nuclear arsenal at an accelerated pace. Officially, China has a “no-first-use” policy, focusing on strategies of absorbing an attack and then retaliating. To this end, the regime has been developing hypersonic missiles. Satellite photos have revealed the presence of hundreds of nuclear missile silos in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. A Pentagon report said that China was poised to double its stock of nuclear missiles.

Russia is China’s largest and most powerful friend, but based on historical evidence, it is arguable if Russia is actually an ally. Between the 1920s and 1940s, Joseph Stalin at various times flip-flopped his support for the Kuomintang nationalists to the Chinese Communist Party. In 1969, the two countries even fought a border conflict at the Battle of Zhenbao Island.

True allies would generally be expected to have entered into some sort of defense pact, but Russia and China have no mutual defense treaties in place. Russia sells weapons to India and Vietnam—and both have fought armed conflicts with China. Shortly after one of China’s recent border skirmishes with India, Russia cancelled a deal to sell missiles to Beijing.

India is a U.S. ally and a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), a U.S.-led China containment agreement. India has found it beneficial to cooperate with Russia on countering terrorism in Afghanistan—a relationship which has made Beijing and Islamabad nervous.

Many experts such as Alexander Lukin, author of “China and Russia: The New Rapprochement,” believe that China-Russia relations has already reached its peak. For the relationship to intensify and reach the level of a political block, Russia would have to agree to being subordinate to China. While the political winds and alliances in Russia have shifted over the years, there is one thing that has remained constant: Russia is unwilling to be subordinate to anyone.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Antonio Graceffo, Ph.D., has spent over 20 years in Asia. He is a graduate of Shanghai University of Sport and holds a China-MBA from Shanghai Jiaotong University. Antonio works as an economics professor and China economic analyst, writing for various international media. Some of his books on China include "Beyond the Belt and Road: China’s Global Economic Expansion" and "A Short Course on the Chinese Economy."