“Our two countries’ multi-faceted cooperation is in our peoples’ fundamental interests and is a conscious historic choice. We will continue our close coordination on regional and international issues.”
–President Vladimir Putin,
March 22, 2013, on President Xi
Jinping’s first visit to Russia.
President Vladimir Putin’s first meeting with his Chinese Counterpart Xi Jin Ping set the pace of the relationship where both communist powers decided to sink their teeth into one of the most important partnerships of the 21st century.
With bilateral trade and investment enhancing rapidly from $5 billion in 1990s to $100 billion in 2014 coupled with energy collaborations including the landmark $400 billion gas pipeline deal as well as military cooperation encompassing joint counter-terrorism exercises conducted bi- and multilaterally, the partnership has achieved the breakthrough that it always desired. But this has not always been the case with China and Russia. The rhetoric has changed drastically over the course of history. From the phase of intense political and economic cooperation in the 1950’s alternated with years of hostility and obdurate suspicion post the 1969 border war, to the normalization of ties in 1989 and the stable strategic partnership at present: this relation has come a long way.
Most evaluations of this relationship have classified it into an ‘axis of convenience’, not clearly encapsulating the true meaning of this relationship. So what really binds the two countries is the real question. It is not only their bilateral interests to cooperate in the economic, military and political arenas, but also the deep rooted convergences towards the regional and global issues.
Both China and Russia have emphasized on the common principles of less military action and noninterference in global hotspots including Korean Peninsula and Middle East. Their regional security collaboration backdrop is characterized by equality, ingenuousness and transparency and is a key factor in the harmony and stability of Asia Pacific region. On the Korean Peninsula both countries stress upon the importance of political and diplomatic solution under the framework of Six Party talks. They have welcomed the full membership of Pakistan and India into the SCO aiming towards regional peace building and are also working together to reinstate the confidence of the global community regarding the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. According to them, the internal processes of the countries of the region must not be meddled with outside forces. The formation and development of a strategic cooperative conglomerate is based on by their collective strategic interest.
However, this relationship is not devoid of points of friction in the Central Asian region where both countries continue to exert their dominance. The impact of Eurasian Economic Union established by Russia and its tariffs on the level of trade and investments in the region as China remains the chief economic partners of Central Asian states and their main source of development finance remains to be seen. China, however has accepted that Russia needs to be treated as a partner on equal terms and has garnered support from Russia on its initiatives including the Silk Road Economic belt and Asian Infrastructure Bank. As the two leaders signed a joint declaration ‘On cooperation in coordinating development of EEU and Silk Road Economic belt’; the common goal emerges as to coordinate the two projects in order to build a common financial space in Eurasia including a Free Trade Agreement between the EEU and China. This document is significant evidence that a genuine and sustainable partnership between Moscow and Beijing is foreseeable. And, if hypothetically, Moscow transforms the adversity of the present crisis caused by three pronged damage due to collapse of oil price, western sanctions and economic slowdown into opportunity through structural reforms by launching a strategy of economic development it can emerge much stronger than before.
For both countries, this relation should also be viewed with respect to their approach towards the United States. While resistance to the formation of the infamous ‘unipolar world’ became part of their official rhetoric, their respective nature of the relationship with United States operates on different levels. Pre-dominantly China’s relationship with the West is economic and fortunately for this reason, it’s rapprochement with the West will not inevitably be detrimental for Russia. In essence, the Kremlin must begin to comprehend that any pivot to Asia is unmanageable without first cultivating its frayed relationship with the West.
Enhanced competition between US, Russia and China is inevitable in the long term: a delicate balance of power is the true crux of diplomacy. In the context of world affairs, it may take three to work towards a peaceful understanding.