China’s new president Xi Jinping will make his first official foreign visit later this month. He will visit Russia, in a trip Chinese sources say “will improve relations and cement strategic partnership.”
Washington should pay attention to the strengthening ties between Moscow and Beijing. These giant neighbors have the longest shared land border in the world, and trade between the two nations is booming–at around $90 billion annually. Washington needs to do everything possible to prevent the emergence of a new Eurasian anti-American axis.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian and Chinese bilateral relations have vastly improved. Currently, both countries would like to displace what they call U.S. “hegemony,” especially along their borders.
Russia has repeatedly demanded that the U.S. pull out of the Manas air force base in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, it insists the U.S. ask for Moscow’s approval before deploying any forces in Central Asia – even when they are needed to fight Islamist terrorism. China would like to keep the U.S. naval presence in Western Pacific in check.
Russia’s assertive foreign policy, with its anti-American propaganda overtones, seeks to establish a Russian “pole” in the global world order. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said that Xi’s “upcoming visit is expected to add new impetus to the further development of the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination.” Translated from Chinese diplomatese, this means, “It is really, really important, but we won’t tell you what they are going to talk about.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov echoed his Chinese colleague’s sentiment:
Russia and China have united positions, and promote these united positions in negotiations, on the situation in the Middle East and North Africa, including the Syrian crisis, Afghanistan, the Iranian nuclear program and other crises…. On all these cases, we and our Chinese friends are led by one and the same principle — the necessity to observe international law, respect UN procedures and not allow interference from outside in domestic conflicts and all the more the use of force.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which Moscow and Beijing founded, aims to fight “the three evils: separatism, extremism, and terrorism.” There are enough secessionist areas to go around: Chechnya, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan. Both countries want international support to keep their separatists in check.
Sino–Russian cooperation is not just geopolitical but also ideological. Russia and China want to halt the spread of liberal democracy. This means keeping the U.S. out of their internal affairs, as well as those of regimes friendly to them. They believe that any government has a right to crack down on internal dissent or censure the press, including the Internet.
With these principles in mind, they have worked in concert to check U.S. efforts in the Middle East and protect their own interests, such as legitimizing authoritarian regimes. They vetoed and stifled sanctions and internationally supported peace plans for Syria. They enabled Iran to continue its nuclear program by refusing to tighten sanctions.
China, which is the principal supporter of North Korea, condemns even the possibility of military action against Pyongyang—and so does Russia. They increasingly present an alternative to Western-style democracy and are two stalwarts of the anti-US front, which also includes Iran and Venezuela.
Russia and China are expanding their economic ties. The two countries have already moved to trade with each other using their own currencies—thus excluding the dollar. Moscow and Beijing have promised to increase trade dramatically over the next decade, and they are working on finalizing a deal on the most important sector of their bilateral trade: energy.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich is conducting negotiations in China on a natural gas deal, saying that a “significant breakthrough” has been made over the past few months. This gas pipeline will connect Russia’s abundant gas reserves with China’s ever-growing need for energy.
The United States should work to prevent the Beijing-Moscow axis from taking root. After all, this was the main effort of the Nixon-Kissinger effort 40 years ago. China is making inroads in the Middle East and East Asia—two regions that remain pivotal to U.S. interests. China is using soft power to expand its influence along the Indian Ocean rim and in Africa. Chinese state-owned businesses are investing heavily in Afghan natural resources, and Beijing wields a great deal of influence in Pakistan.
Russia is executing its own “pivot to Asia”—something Moscow highlighted when hosting the 24th APEC summit in Vladivostok last fall. Like China, Russia also has an island dispute of its own with Japan over the Kuril Islands. As Beijing takes a hard line with its quarrel, the two could join forces to exert pressure on Japan and lend international credibility to each other’s territorial claims. Yet Russia is pursuing a rapprochement with Japan, Korea and Vietnam, indicating that it may be weary of the rising giant of China.
A China-Russia partnership is championing a selective commitment to “noninterference in internal affairs.” which plays well with the other authoritarian regimes around the world. They seek arms contracts and economic ties while looking the other way on nations’ human rights abuses.
However, as China continues to expand its sphere of influence through military, economic, smart, and soft power, Russia may become its junior partner in international affairs. China’s rapid economic rise, including in Central Asia, and Beijing’s desire for an enhanced global position could spell trouble for the Sino-Russian relationship down the road.
Russia’s economy is lagging behind China, and Moscow could easily turn into a natural resource appendage for Beijing. Further, densely populated Chinese provinces border the sparsely populated Russian Far East, provoking fear in Moscow that Chinese immigrants will come to dominate a large part of Siberia.
Today, Russia blames the U.S. for its “time of troubles” in the 1990s, when a weak and corrupt central government presided over the economic slump and inflation. Moreover, Moscow is increasingly rejecting “Western values” such as same-sex marriages.
Nostalgic for the empire gone, Russian post-Soviet elites blame the U.S. for “orange revolutions” such as in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), and meddling into its “near abroad,” including NATO enlargement. Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, while supported by Russia, troubled Moscow and Beijing. China sees the “pivot to Asia” as containment policy.
For now, mutual geopolitical and economic interests are drawing Russia and China together into a partnership of convenience. Xi’s first visit sends the clear message that China seeks to cement closer ties with its neighbors—and not with the U.S.
Henry Kissinger’s postulate that a Russia-China axis is not in U.S. national security interests still stands. Washington should plan its policy accordingly.
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