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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

THE SINO–SOVIET SPIRIT

During the cold war, writers spoke of a 'strategic triangle' between the United States, the Soviet Union and China. It was a helpful way of analysing the partnerships and rivalries between the three powers. For all that has changed in international politics and diplomacy in recent decades, one is still compelled to at least consider the degree of amity and enmity between Washington, Beijing and Moscow through the lens of triangular diplomacy.


Diplomats still care about the same strategic triangle, even if the balance of power between them has shifted (with China, by most measures, coming out far stronger today than it did during the cold war). Last month the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, travelled to Beijing where he met his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. A couple of weeks later and US secretary of state Antony Blinken was in China, where he had meetings with premiere Xi Jinping and Wang.


During Lavrov's trip, he and Wang affirmed their countries' friendship and spoke of 'strengthening strategic cooperation'. I've written about the China–Russia relationship before and will rehearse some of my previous remarks on their diplomatic, military and economic ties in this post. I will conclude by bringing the Americans back into the picture.


The Russia–China double act


China and Russia have a shared rhetorical commitment to the emergence of a multipolar world order. This goes back some time now. In 1997 they signed a joint declaration on the matter. 'In a spirit of partnership,' they averred, they 'shall strive to promote the multipolarisation of the world and the establishment of a new international order.' An echo of the 1997 declaration came last spring when Xi was overheard telling Putin: 'Right now there are changes – the likes of which we haven't seen for one hundred years – and we are the ones driving those changes.' It is in their common interest to see a world less overshadowed by US power.


Such rhetoric combines with some coordinated actions. The two states have wielded a 'double veto' at the UN Security Council in recent years, something that emerged during the Syrian civil war. More recently the two sides have begun to talk of 'dual opposition' to the West. In the light of both rhetoric and action, therefore, we should look at their relationship in earnest.


It is regrettable that western journalists are quick to scoff. Most newspaper articles about the China–Russia relationship over the past two years reference the fact the two states declared they had a 'partnership without limits' shortly before Russia's large-scale invasion of Ukraine. The journalists tediously note that the war showed clear limits in how far China would go in its support of Russia.


The 2022 war shock


It's worth remembering that Putin had been in China for the winter Olympics directly before Russia's invasion. At the time, many commentators speculated that Putin had agreed with Xi to hold off until after the closing ceremony. Those speculations were probably wide of the mark. Most China specialists think Xi was caught as unawares as anyone else and had no foreknowledge of Russia's plans. (Bear in mind that Putin kept information confined to only his innermost circle in Russia. Foreign minister Lavrov, reportedly, didn't know about it until the invasion was underway.)


China is not a disinterested observer when it comes to the Russian invasion. As I have written repeatedly, China benefits from NATO depleting its resources and Russia turning to Beijing cap in hand. It is what Geoffrey Blainey called the waterbirds' dilemma: China keeps outside the fray and lets the waterbirds – China and the US (through its support for Ukraine) – deplete their power. The Chinese probably don't like seeing Russia violate Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty which is inconvenient because it violates norms China publicly defends. On the other hand, many think Russian success might embolden China to incorporate Taiwan forcibly.


China is learning from Russia's actions but it's important to stress that they are not military allies as some lazy journalists claim. For sure, China and Russia have taken part in joint military exercises and the two defence ministers had a video meeting in January but none of this constitutes an alliance, which is an agreement about cooperation during wartime made outside of war. The fact that China appeared caught unawares by Russia's invasion two years ago corroborates the point.


The Chinese know that Moscow doesn't like playing second fiddle to Beijing, and yet if Russia burns its bridges to the west then that's what it is stuck with – to China's benefit. At the same time, China is no doubt happy if Russia can give US foreign policy a bloody nose along the way. That is likely why China has stepped up its support for Russia 'by providing drone and missile technology, satellite imagery and machine tools.' China is helping Russia's domestic munitions manufacturing industries.


The limits of growth


As to the economic relationship, some of the rhetoric about trade growth between China and Russia is bluster. It may have grown at a clip – trade grew by 26% to $240bn in 2023 – but some argue that trade figures are deceptive and that the growth will soon 'plateau'. Part of the argument is that trade is starting from a low baseline.


Bilateral trade is hardly booming in a way that benefits the two sides equally. Although prices are confidential, it seems to be widely agreed that Russia is selling gas to China through the Power of Siberia pipeline at prices highly favourable to China. One presumes that the oil China has been buying from Russia also comes at a good price. The proposed second Power of Siberia pipeline has not been agreed despite Russia's keenness publicly to show it has replaced profitable European markets with Chinese buyers. The Russians are finding that the Chinese drive too hard a bargain.


As I mentioned in a previous post, some scholars see structural problems embedded into the Chinese economy. Others attribute challenges to the leaders. In a recent book, Keyu Yin writes: 'China's central leadership, which spurred the most successful economic growth story of our time, could also make choices that might have the opposite effect in the future... The power of the state provides the system's greatest potential and also poses its gravest inherent risk.'


Don't Blink–en


One might argue that the real change affecting the strategic triangle isn't really about China or Russia. The argument here would be that the relevant detail is US decline.


Consider US secretary of state Blinken's recent trip to China: you can come away from reading the media with different messages depending on the bias you the reader (or the newspaper) brings. Some reports emphasise that the Chinese warned Blinken that the two countries must avoid 'vicious competition' and must respect China's 'red lines' such as Taiwan and stop 'introducing measures to contain China.' Others that Blinken warned Xi about interfering in the US election and the consequences of China's support for Russia's war effort. Two different slants providing two different ideas about which state holds the reins of power.


It's easy to think that the world is moving in China and Russia's direction. Russia continues to expand its footprint in Africa, while Chad and Niger have both ordered US troops stationed in their countries to leave. China's military capabilities are improving quickly and a China–Russia alliance, were it to form, would be a formidable beast in the short term.


It's also easy to think that the world order is breaking down in the face of such challenges to US primacy. The Middle East's conflicts looked set to escalate after an Israeli strike on the Iranian embassy in Damascus recently. There were tit–for–tat exchanges as Iran launched a massive drone attack on Israel, but the tensions were calmed. They were calmed in the blink of an eye. I think we can assume that US diplomacy had a hand in that; there was a growing sense the White House was losing patience with Israel. If US diplomacy did calm tensions, then that is significant in telling us where the real power lies in the world.


The US, too, remains the economic powerhouse. Here's an interesting observation from Fareed Zakaria: 'Of the ten most valuable companies in the world in 1989, only four were American... Today, nine of the top ten are American.' Zakaria quotes investment in biotech and artificial intelligence to show how the US commands as big a share of the global economy as it did three and a half decades ago. It is way out ahead of China.


What next?


If China's growing power doesn't look as impressive framed in this way, then Russia fares worse still. Even in Ukraine, its recent territorial gains have been at best incremental. After the capture of Avdiivka one might think the tide had turned and that those incremental gains would accumulate into bigger ones. Clearly the Ukrainian army is under the cosh at the moment, retreating from three villages under Russian fire in the past couple of days. But the US Congress has now agreed a new aid package which means munitions are already on the way to the front lines. It may still be that Russia prevails – but it is not certain, provided the US delivers military aid in a timely fashion. My point is not so much to contradict claims of China rising (with some Russian assistance) as to argue that the US still has the stronger hand in the game of global geopolitics.


My more important point is about the bilateral relationship between China and Russia. During the cold war, Moscow and Beijing formed a strategic partnership based on convenience. They still had quarrels including a seven–month–long border skirmish across the Amur river in 1969 (as Muscovy and the Qing Empire did long before!). The two states may become closer strategic partners in the coming years, as they have done since the February 2022 invasion (and as I suggested might happen). There is little to think that their cooperation this time round will be any different from during the cold war though. Before too long the tensions break into the open. Any comity between Russia and China will, I suspect, be relatively short lived. The US will be the chief beneficiary.



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Cover image credit: Putin and Xi in 2015, from the Kremlin (kremlin.ru) used under creative commons licence 4.0.

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