There are recent signs that Russia and China are growing closer.
Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping chose Moscow as the destination for his first overseas trip after he took office. At the summit between Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, they pledged to build an “all-round strategic partnership.”
After U.S. President Barack Obama's "rebalancing" visit to Asian alliances in April, Putin was welcomed by China in May with the signing of the largest ever natural gas deal. Xi and Putin vowed to enhance bilateral ties and support each other to ensure national security and other interests. Putin told Chinese media, “Establishing closer ties with China is Russia’s unconditional foreign policy priority.”
At the fourth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), held in Shanghai in May, Putin was present and supported Xi’s proposal of “a new Asian structure for security cooperation.” As a security summit from which Japan and the United States are excluded, the CICA provides a forum for China and Russia to express different voices on regional security affairs.
Furthermore, the two also deepened military ties by conducting a joint naval drill in the East China Sea in May. Given China's tensions with Japan in the region, the joint action demonstrates that Putin is helping China to deter Japan. In comparison, right before that, Obama warned China by clearly saying that the Senkaku Islands fell within the scope of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
So what pushed Russia and China to become so close recently? In a word, the two now face very similar diplomatic predicaments and geostrategic challenges.
Russia has been hit by sanctions by the United States and the European Union for its military activities in Crimea. Undoubtedly the aim of the sanctions, including reduction of energy imports from Russia, would have great impact on the Russian economy. Russia has long been plagued by NATO's gradual expansion to Eastern Europe, Russia's traditional sphere of influence. Ukraine therefore becomes the flashpoint. The U.S. and European efforts to isolate Russia economically and geopolitically would naturally drive it to turn to China for a closer "strategic relationship."
China is having a pretty difficult time in the East China Sea and South China Sea as the maritime territorial disputes continue to intensify. The U.S. rebalancing and pivot to the Asia-Pacific has further amplified China’s sense of insecurity. The U.S. backup to Japan and increasing military deployment in the Philippines are perceived by China as containment to its rise in the region, in particular its outward maritime strategy.
Ｄｕｒｉｎｇ the Cold War era in the 1950ｓ, China and the Soviet Union used to be allies, based on the same communist ideology. Currently China and Russia also have similar authoritarian regimes, different from Western democracies.
However, this time they are aligning along the line of geopolitics much more than ideology. Russia and China see similar security challenges from U.S.-led alliances, be it on the Eurasian continent or in the East and South China Seas.
The broad structural background for the re-alignment might be that the Pax Americana (peace under American preponderance) is approaching its ending. The multi-polarization in world politics is accelerating, and America is not the sole overwhelming superpower anymore. As two emerging powers, China and Russia are intentionally or unintentionally challenging the existing world order and requesting more rights to construct a new international order.
Surprisingly, recent world politics have gained some “Cold War” dynamics. On the one hand, Russia and China are growing closer.
On the other hand, the United States is also convening its allies in Europe and Asia. At the recent G-7 summit, for the first time, Russia was excluded. Russia and China became the major concerns of the meeting, and both were condemned for their recent foreign policy behaviors. However, this would even stimulate Russia and China to go hand in hand to counter the pressures from the U.S.-led bloc.
Some have even argued that Russia and China might develop a formal alliance. However, the possibility would be quite low as the two also have a lot of divergent interests and geostrategic competition. A bipolar world order in the Cold War era is not attractive any more for great powers given the booming regionalism and deepening economic interdependence.
COLD WAR MENTALITY
Nevertheless, it seems that since the end of the Cold War, the geopolitical contours for great powers haven’t changed much. The Cold War did end in 1991, but its legacy remains resilient. The “cold war mentality” is still lingering.
Great powers have the path dependency to ally with old partners when the power transition causes structural reorganization. A trust deficit between the emerging powers and existing powers also leads to the revival of old alliances. This is true for both the Russia-China realignment and the strengthening of U.S.-led alliances.
Unfortunately, the recent development of the Russia-China strategic partnership reveals that great powers haven’t escaped from the trap of playing “power balance games” in world politics. China has championed the “new model of great power relationship” for its relations with existing powers, particularly the United States.
However, the perceptional gap and strategic distrust still loom large. To achieve improved great power relationships in the gradually multi-polarized world, major powers might need a revolutionary mind change and strenuous confidence building.