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Common-Sense Partnership

With Jakub Jakóbowski on the asymmetric Russian-Chinese alliance and the military cooperation between the two states talk Małgorzata Schwarzgruber and Tadeusz Wróbel.

On the occasion of the Olympic Games in Beijing, Russia and China issued a joint statement, confirming that their political, military and economic relations are closer than ever before. Which of the two countries needs this tighter cooperation more?

Both countries need each other. Their relation is based on several foundations. First, the elites of both states feel they are in conflict with the USA. Second, they are afraid of color revolutions, which they perceive as Western attempts to destabilize power in Russia, China, as well as their satellite states. The alliance between Beijing and Moscow is asymmetrical, but the fact that it is accepted by both sides makes this arrangement stable. It hasn’t always been like that. For decades, the relation of Russia and China has been referred to as this of a younger and older brother. In the times of Mao Zedong and Nikita Krushchev both states argued fiercely about who was more important.

What made two states that have been at odds for decades start such a close cooperation?

The Chinese Communist Party and the Kremlin’s elites decided that the conflict referred to by the Chinese as “fighting with two fists against the USA and the Soviet Union,” was a mistake. Thus, at the beginning of the 1990s they started to tighten their cooperation, which over the years matured and finally took the form of an informal alliance.

Who was the driving force behind the change: Russia, weakened by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, or China, which was undergoing intensive growth at the time?

Initially, both sides probably expected that they would each shape relations with the West in their own way. Russia had tried to establish relations with the USA and Europe many times, but as it had always wanted to do it on its own terms, the attempts had been unsuccessful. China, on the other hand, had been focused on economic development and tried not to irritate the West. However, by 2000, both Russia and China had closed all border conflicts, which enabled them to redeploy a part of military resources to other regions. Moscow and Beijing decided old disputes were not worth dwelling on, and focused on new challenges that called for joint action, such as the stabilization of Central Asia. It was convenient for both Russia and China to keep nonantagonistic authoritarian regimes in the region and block American influences there.

Due to the cooperation with Russia, China has gained more influence in Central Asia, which had been under Moscow’s control during Soviet times. What is the current situation in the region?

The Chinese are geared towards economic expansion, securing supplies of resources and shipping routes, but they are also engaged in anti-terrorist activities in the region – for example, they have military bases in Tajikistan. Nevertheless, Russia still plays the key role in the region in the political and military sense. This fact is confirmed by its January intervention under the flag of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, undertaken in Kazakhstan, where spontaneous, mass protests threatened the ruling regime.

Would China be able to execute a similar operation in Central Asia?

No, it wouldn’t. China doesn’t have such military capabilities in the region, and the build-up of such capabilities might cause concern at the Kremlin. After the intervention, the Chinese openly stated that the Russian operation in Kazakhstan was beneficial to their interests and similar actions should be undertaken in the future. Entrusting the issue of security in Central Asia to Russia seems convenient to Beijing, as it doesn’t have to deal with a region it considers to be peripheral.

Do China and Russia have a similar outlook on the threats currently existing in other parts of the world?

The mentioned Chinese-Russian statement issued at the time of the Olympic Games in Beijing clearly shows their perception of global threats – both China and Russia are afraid of the system of military-political alliances led by the United States. The Chinese are concerned with their expansion on the Pacific, and the Russians of the same in Europe. Therefore, Moscow and Beijing declared that they want to oppose them together. The Chinese illustrate it with a metaphor about two boxers standing back to back, protecting each other – although they are boxing in slightly different directions, they have a common goal.

During Vladimir Putin’s February visit in Beijing, China declared its support to Russia in the conflict with Ukraine. Will this declaration negatively influence China’s economic relations with Europe?

Since February 4, and throughout the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Beijing has clearly been on the side of Moscow: it blames the conflict on NATO’s and the USA’s aggression, it criticizes the sanctions, supports Russian claims in the area of security, calls for creating a new European system. Beijing’s support for Russia in the conflict with Ukraine might raise even bigger skepticism towards China on the Old Continent than before. For the Chinese, the biggest threat is politically united Europe working toward the same goal as Americans. Supporting Moscow in the war, China counted on the Old Continent, divided and separated from the USA, to do the same, but clearly, the game Russia decided to play with the West can easily have an opposite effect, which we can see in the “awakening” of the EU.

In return, the Kremlin supports China in its conflict with Taiwan.

Taiwan is an area of key interest to China, just like Ukraine is to Russia. In both cases, the USA is regarded as a force that wants to snatch these two regions from under the Chinese or Russian influence. However, Beijing is currently not seeking to escalate tensions, as it is awaiting the most important political event in China – the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which is going to take place in the fall. Besides, an attack on Taiwan would be a very complicated operation and Beijing is not yet ready to begin such a war.

Americans, however, have already announced that if such war was to break out, they would join it and stand with Taiwan.

De facto, Washington and Taipei have a binding alliance. That’s why Americans are afraid that giving Taiwan to China without a fight would cause a domino effect in East Asia, and other states, such as Japan or South Korea, might start to wonder about the fastness of guarantees given by the USA to its allies.

To date, China has chosen economic cooperation as a means to obtain political objectives. Russia, on the other hand, uses military force, which has been confirmed in Georgia and Ukraine. Why do they implement such different methods of conducting foreign policy?

Russians are more inclined towards using military force because they have more capabilities in this area. It seems that China not only lacks such capabilities, but also, for the time being, lacks political courage to act in this way. Although its foreign policy is based on exerting long-term economic and political pressure on states and their elites, Beijing sometimes finds itself in situations in which using force would be advisable. Currently, the Chinese know they can use Russia’s support if need be, but they are also aware they must obtain global power projection capabilities of their own.

Russia and China claim they are committed to building an equal and open security system in the region of Asia and the Pacific, which is not directed against any third countries. How would such a system work?

Both the Chinese and the Russian vision of this system is vague at most. The Chinese have been talking for decades about creating a security system by the Asian states – meaning without the USA – but there is nothing concrete that would follow these plans. It is likely that such a system would involve creating a Chinese area of influence and allowing individual states to join it upon meeting China’s requirements.

Are Asian neighbors of China and Russia interested in this common security system?

Not really. In recent years, the states bordering on the West Pacific have been tightening political and military relations with the USA. I think they are quite aware of how the Chinese-led regional security system would work. The Chinese don’t leave any illusions here, extending their territorial claims on the South or East China Sea.

Are Russia and China afraid that AUKUS can give rise to a large regional defensive alliance?

China decided that AUKUS – a trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the USA – is targeted against its security, and the nature of this agreement is not only strategic and military, but also nuclear, as Australia is planning to procure nuclear-powered submarines. It’s a sensitive issue for China, so they asked Russia for political support. Beijing has recently supported Russians in Europe, declaring its opposition against NATO expansion and supporting Russian claims towards the West. Vladimir Putin reciprocated by declaring his opposition against creating small alliances in the Pacific, such as AUKUS and QUAD [Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – an alliance between Australia, India, Japan and the USA].

Opposition against the USA makes military cooperation very important in the China-Russia relations. In the past, China received from Russia ready armament and military technologies, necessary to modernize their own armed forces and the arms industry. Do they still need such transfers?

In the 1990s and at the beginning of the 21st century, China bought ready armament systems from Russia. However, since that time, it has significantly increased the level of technological autonomy, both by purchasing technologies and by stealing intellectual property. Currently, the basis of work on Chinese armament systems is cooperation in design and delivery of components. Nevertheless, China is still dependent on Russia as the supplier of, among other things, ship building elements and aircraft engines, including those for fifth-generation fighters.

What are other areas of military cooperation between China and Russia?

A strong binder in the bilateral relations is the transfer of military know-how. Beijing is interested in Russian reforms of the armed forces, as the People’s Liberation Army, formed in the 1950s, was modeled on the Soviet Army. The existing similarities make it easier to transfer and implement Russian solutions in China. Hence, for example, the Chinese army reorganization, started in 2015, is based in a wide extent on the experiences of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation reform carried out when Anatoly Serdyukov was the minister of defense. Cooperation with Russia is valuable for the Chinese also due to their combat experience, as the last serious conflict in which China was involved was the Vietnamese War in 1979. All this translates into cooperation on both the conceptual and the training level. The Chinese form the second largest (after Belarusians) group of foreigners studying at Russian military universities. In the recent years, about 3–4 thousand Chinese officers graduated from such schools.

Do the Chinese copy all the Russian solutions while reforming their army?

No, as they consider themselves to be a rising power with global aspirations, the execution of which requires slightly different armed forces, with expeditionary capabilities. The security strategy, implemented by Xi Jinping several years ago, clearly states that in order to secure global economic and political interests, China must build a navy capable of operating on open seas. A strong navy and naval aviation will also be useful in the event of a conflict with the USA and its allies.

Therefore, when it comes to power projection on a global scale, China is actually closer to the USA than Russia.

Yes, definitely. It is clear that the transfer of knowledge and experience from Russia when it comes to the directions of developing the armed forces has its limitations. It’s also possible that the cooperation potential in some areas has already run its course. We need to keep in mind that the Chinese see Russia as a declining power, focused on deterrence, also when it comes to nuclear power, and on land and air operations in its close vicinity.

If their military cooperation is so strong, why haven’t China and Russia formed a formal military alliance?

China as a rule doesn’t enter into military pacts, and Chinese politicians even regard the only existing pact, signed with North Korea, as a burden. The cooperation between Moscow and Beijing carries many features of an alliance, but both sides look for as much autonomy as possible in mutual relations. Chinese authorities think that being bound by formal treaties will restrict their room for maneuver in foreign policy. As to Russia, keeping its Western partners in a state of constant uncertainty has enabled it to conduct its ruthless policy – send signals that it can be pulled away from China in return for certain concessions, including economic and military ones. Some high-profile European politicians have treated those signals seriously, but this masquerade is soon to end. In the February statement from Beijing, China and Russia declared strategic coordination in key areas and stated that they perceive the operating theaters of Europe and West Pacific as interrelated. This can be understood if not as a step towards formalizing the legal and treaty relations between China and Russia, then at least as a clear signal to the world that in reality they have a character of an alliance.

Would there be any states ready to join such an alliance? Possibly the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States?

For the time being, the Beijing-Moscow axis sticks to bilateral relations. Belarus, North Korea, or the Central Asia republics are treated as satellite states. However, there are several other countries which could gravitate towards the Beijing-Moscow axis, such as Pakistan, remaining in close relations with China. This would cause problems, though, as Pakistan is at odds with India, which, in turn, tries to maintain close relations with Russia.

In the face of tightening the bond between Moscow and Beijing, what is the current state of relations between India and Russia?

Although India is undergoing a certain awakening in its perception of Russia, there is still strong hope for pulling it away from China. The politicians in New Delhi reckon they will succeed in playing Moscow and Beijing until they drive a wedge between them. In my opinion, such hope will slowly fade away, as Russia is more and more openly demonstrating its alliance with China.

Putin, isolating himself throughout the pandemic, visited India in December 2021 after all. What was the reason for that visit?

Some commentators indicate that Russia is trying to take advantage of its good relations with India to keep China at bay. Therefore, a part of the American and Japanese elites think that Russia’s policy towards India might create a conflict between Russia and China. However, it might just be about maintaining bilateral relations, including the military and technical cooperation.

Is China bothered by the fact that their ally is providing weapons to potential adversaries?

It’s possible that China prefers to see India or Vietnam buy Russian weapons rather than American ones. If necessary, Moscow will be willing to sacrifice these relations for the sake of the alliance with Beijing. Generally, a situation where a conflicting state is in good relations with Moscow is more beneficial for China, as the much worse alternative is for such a state to get closer to the USA.

What is the possible future of the Moscow-Beijing alliance?

China treats Russia as the most important, although one of many, pillar of the future network-centric world, and are willing to appoint Moscow a place where it will be useful. A question that arises is whether Russia will accept the role of a weaker partner. I think it will, as long as the current Kremlin elite remains in power. It seems these people have come to a conclusion that it is a lesser evil to join the Chinese world, but they want to do it on their own terms. China, on the other hand, accepts the fact that Russia has its own zone of influence and conducts aggressive policy in the post-Soviet area. Beijing also stays out of Russia’s internal affairs. Therefore, the question of becoming dependent on China is of secondary importance to the Russian elites.

China is more powerful economically, and has more room for political maneuver, as Russia is in conflict with both the USA and the EU. Can this situation tempt China to change the rules of the game?

The relation between these two states is based on the belief that no one can be trusted, and you must cooperate with those who have common interests. For China, the more Russia is conflicted with the West, the more controllable it becomes. The Chinese are waiting for moments when Russia finds itself in a difficult situation, just like it was in 2014, when they kept postponing signing gas supply contracts to get the best conditions. This fierce game is also played in other areas. For that reason, Russia is trying to protect its own economy and refrain from going deep into financial relations with China. It also doesn’t let Chinese investors go too far in and it doesn’t sell strategic assets to them.

If they do not trust each other, then why did the two states decide to tighten their cooperation?

There are certain discrepancies written into the Chinese-Russian relations, but the conflict with the USA is more important than that. Both Moscow and Beijing consider the USA as one of the greatest threats to their own regimes and interests.

Rozmawiali: Małgorzata Schwarzgruber, Tadeusz Wróbel

autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz

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