China and Russia are the two largest—and neighboring—powers of continental Eurasia. Can two tigers share the same mountain, especially when one great power is rapidly gaining strength and the other is in relative decline? And there seems to be a pattern in the history of international relations that two ambitious major powers that share a land border are less likely to make an alliance, while they are more likely to engage in territorial disputes with one another as well as rivalry over primacy in their common neighborhood. There are at least three major parts of Eurasia—East Asia, the post-Soviet space (mainly Central Asia), and the Arctic—where China’s and Russia’s geopolitical interests intersect, creating potential for competition and conflict. But, on the other hand, if managed wisely, overlapping interests and stakes can also generate opportunities for collaboration. The following sections examine how Russia and China are managing to keep their differences in key Eurasian zones under control while displaying a significant degree of mutual cooperation.
East Asia This is China’s ‘home region’, but also one where Russia, by virtue of possessing the Far Eastern territories, is a resident power. Moscow, which has traditionally been concerned with keeping sovereignty over its vulnerable Far East, does not at present see China as a major security risk on Russia’s eastern borders. All border delimitation issues between Moscow and Beijing were resolved in the 1990s and 2000s, while the 2001 Sino-Russian Treaty explicitly states that the two countries have no territorial claims to each other. Furthermore, Moscow is well aware that Chinese military preparations are directed primarily toward Taiwan, the Western Pacific and the South China Sea, not against the Russian Far East. There is the cliché, persistent among the Western media and commentariat, of a Chinese demographic invasion of the Russian Far East. For example, a Wall Street Journal article claimed recently that ‘about 300,000 Chinese, some unregistered, could now be settled in Russia’s Far East’ (Simmons 2019). In reality, the actual number of the Chinese who live more or less permanently in the Russian Far East is far lower, and there are very few cases of illegal Chinese migration. There is no imminent risk of the Russian Far East falling under Chinese control demographically or otherwise.
Not sensing any major Chinese menace to the Russian Far East, Russia has refused to engage in rivalry with China in East Asia. On the most important issues of contemporary East Asian geopolitics Moscow has tended to support Beijing or displayed friendly neutrality. On the Korean Peninsula, Moscow has largely played second fiddle to Beijing. On the South China Sea disputes, although Russia’s official stance is strict neutrality, some Russian moves may be seen as favoring Beijing. For example, following the July 2016 Hague tribunal ruling that rejected China’s claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea, Putin expressed solidarity with China, calling the international court’s decision ‘counterproductive’ (Reuters 2016).
Russia shares with China the objective of reducing American influence in East Asia and undermining the US-centric alliances in the region. Russian weapon sales are helping China alter the military balance in the Western Pacific to the detriment of the USA and its allies. Russia’s decision to assist China with getting its own missile attack early warning system may have also been partly motivated by the desire to strengthen China vis-à-vis the USA in their rivalry for primacy in East Asia. The Russian ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov hinted as much by saying that this strategic system will ‘cardinally increase stability and security in East Asia’ (TASS 2019c).
Russian deference to China on East Asian issues, albeit somewhat hurting Moscow’s great-power pride, makes geopolitical sense. The Kremlin treats Pacific affairs as an area of lower concern than Europe, the Middle East, or Central Asia. Mongolia, which constitutes Siberia’s underbelly, is the only East Asian nation that can count on Russian security protection in case it finds itself in danger of external aggression, at any rate a purely theoretical possibility so far.
It would be incorrect to say that Russia has completely withdrawn from East Asian geopolitics. In some cases, Russia does act against Chinese wishes in the Asia–Pacific. One recent example is Russia’s quiet determination to keep drilling in the areas of the South China Sea on the Vietnamese continental shelf over which China lays sovereignty claims. The Russian state-owned energy company Rosneft operates on Vietnam’s shelf, despite Beijing’s displeasure and periodic harassment by Chinese ships (Zhou 2019). Apart from the desire to make profits from the South China Sea’s hydrocarbons, Russia may be seeking to support its old-time friend Vietnam—to whom it also sells weapons—as well as demonstrate that it is still an independent actor in East Asia. Through such behavior on China’s Southeast Asian periphery, the Kremlin could also be sending the signal to Beijing that, if China gets too closely involved in Russia’s backyard, such as Central Asia or the Caucasus, Russia can do similar things in China’s. Albeit a friction point between Beijing and Moscow, the activities by Russian energy firms in the South China Sea are unlikely to destabilize the Sino-Russian entente, since Moscow and Beijing need each other on much bigger issues.
The post-Soviet space Russia has vital stakes in the geopolitical space formerly occupied by the Soviet Union and is willing to go to great lengths to defend those interests. It was, after all, a perceived brazen attempt by Brussels and Washington to draw Ukraine into the EU’s and NATO’s orbit that induced Moscow to take drastic action in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, causing a rupture with the West.
When it comes to Moscow–Beijing politics over the post-Soviet space, the most problematic question is certainly about Central Asia, a region composed of five former Soviet republics which shares borders with both Russia and China. Since the nineteenth century, Russia has traditionally considered Central Asia as its sphere of influence. However, in the 2000s China began its economic expansion in the region. It is now by far the biggest trade partner for Central Asian states (Bhutia 2019) as well as its largest source of investments. China also set up a small military presence inside Tajikistan, apparently to secure a sensitive area which borders China’s Xinjiang region and Afghanistan (Lo 2019).
Despite initial misgivings in Moscow, China’s economic penetration of Central Asia has not, so far, done any substantial harm to Russian interests. Just like Russia itself, Central Asian ‘stans’ are moving extremely cautiously with respect to Beijing’s calls for a free trade area, fearing their economies will be devoured by China. Moreover, populations in Central Asia, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, exhibit high levels of Sinophobia. Russia is rather confident the Central Asians are not going to abandon it in favor of China. On the contrary, they may need Moscow even more to hedge against Beijing’s rising geo-economic influence.
Multiple predictions by Western analysts that Moscow and Beijing would inevitably clash over Central Asia have thus far been proven wrong. In a stark contrast to the Russian–Western antagonism over Ukraine, Russia and China were able to establish an understanding—and strike a rather stable balance—in Central Asia, whereby Beijing has emerged as the main economic force while Moscow retains the status as Central Asia’s chief political-military ally and partner. There will be some irritants, but a clash of Chinese and Russian interests in Central Asia is unlikely in the foreseeable future (Zogg 2019).
Central Asia is the most important but not the only area in the post-Soviet space where Chinese rising involvement could potentially come at the expense of Russia. In recent years, China has shown an increasing interest in the South Caucasus, a strategic region comprised of the three former Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The South Caucasus’ geographic location makes it an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. As an observer notes, ‘[f]or all three countries, China plays the role of an alternative to Russia and the West. Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku are all tired of Moscow, Washington, and Brussels eternally squabbling on their own territory. In this respect, Beijing is seen as a possible counterbalance’ (Markedonov 2019). There is also an issue of Beijing’s flirtation with Belarus, Russia’s wayward ally. In the fall of 2019, Belarus reportedly expected a 3.5-billion-yuan loan from China as an alternative to funding from Russia (EurAsia Daily 2019). Moscow had earlier withheld financial assistance to force Minsk to agree to closer integration with Russia. If China actually helps the Belarusian autocratic leader Alexander Lukashenko get off Russia’s financial hook, it will not be to the Kremlin’s liking.
It is unlikely Beijing would push the envelope in Russia’s ‘near abroad’. China’s stakes there are, in most cases, not high enough to be worth testing the strategic partnership with Russia. And where China does have important interests in the post-Soviet space, such as in Central Asia, the record so far shows that Beijing is able to find mutual accommodation with Moscow.
The Arctic Apart from East Asia and Central Asia, the Arctic is another area where Russia and China’s interests may, theoretically, come into conflict. Russia lays claims to a significant part of the Arctic Ocean and views it as a sanctuary vital for the country’s security and economic interests, as well as for the national identity. China, on the other hand, has been displaying Arctic ambitions, calling itself a ‘Near-Arctic state’ and seeking to gain access to the Arctic’s resources, including through the vision for the Polar Silk Road that would see Chinese ships traversing Arctic routes (Xinhua 2018).
Until recently, Russia was wary of letting China into the Arctic. But this seems to be changing. The strengthened Russia–China strategic partnership necessitates a more accommodating attitude by Moscow toward Beijing’s Arctic aspirations. Furthermore, with a severely reduced access to Western capital and technology, collaboration with China looks like the only realistic option for carrying out major projects in the Russian Arctic that Russia cannot afford to implement on its own due to their huge costs and technological complexity.
In recent years, Russian officials have repeatedly stated that Russia is ready for more collaboration with China in the Arctic, with the two countries signing a number of agreements on Arctic projects. So far the most important case of the Russia–China Arctic collaboration has been Chinese participation as the biggest foreign stakeholder in the liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects on Russia’s Arctic shore (Humpert 2019). Russia also hopes to attract Chinese investment into the Northern Sea Route, the Arctic’s main shipping artery and a potential maritime corridor between Asia and Europe (TASS 2019d). The Kremlin is apparently betting it will be able to manage China’s rising presence in the extreme North without risking Russian dominance of the Arctic.
Russia’s embrace of China in the Arctic contrasts sharply with the American stance, with US officials warning that China’s intentions cannot be trusted, since its ‘pattern of aggressive behavior elsewhere will inform how it treats the Arctic’ (Digges 2019).