#38 - Evaluating Sino-Russian Relations
中俄关系 - Zhong1 E2 Guan1 Xi4 - Sino-Russian Relations
The Sino-Russian rapprochement is potentially the largest diplomatic shift of the new millennium so far. Relations between the two countries are arguably at their highest point since the Mao era (before the 1961 Sino-Soviet Split), fueled by mutual antagonism toward the United States.
Since declaring a limitless partnership on 4 Feb 2022 (twenty days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine), the relationship has continued to deepen. Despite withering Western sanctions and export controls placed on Russia, China persists in propping up the Russian defense industrial base (DIB). There are reports that Beijing is considering sending lethal aid to Moscow, as well as rumors this has already happened.
Russia’s top diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, meets with China’s then second-highest ranking diplomat, Wang Yi (now China’s top diplomat as of Jan 2023). AFP 2020
Turning to the US, Washington’s relationship with Beijing has continued last year’s slide. The balloon incident prompted a near free-fall, with Beijing canceling key diplomatic exchanges, leading to various restrictions on high-level engagements across a range of issues. In contrast, the Russian foreign ministry announced on 30 January 2022 that discussions on a “new level” of partnership with China are taking place.
Military Cooperation Continues Modest Growth
During the anniversary of the Ukraine invasion (24 Feb) South Africa hosted Russia and China for the MOSI II Exercise combined joint military drills (17-27 Feb). This was the third large-scale combined drill between China and Russia in the past six months. The stated purpose of the exercise was to share operational skills and knowledge, likely at the naval tactical level of operations utilizing frigates (small warships). Interestingly, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will be the only nation sending a destroyer (a warship larger than a frigate), possibly signaling that exercise C2 will be conducted by the Chinese destroyer staff.
Chinese naval officers attend Armed Forces Day in Richards Bay, South Africa, 21 Feb 2023. The parade took place as a naval exercise was underway off the east coast of the country with Russian and Chinese navies. Voice of America / Reuters 2023
China is also increasing its trade in military technology with Russia. According to a review of custom’s data, Chinese state-owned defense enterprises are shipping “navigation equipment, jamming technology, and jet-fighter parts to sanctioned Russian government-owned defense companies.” Clearly, the Russian defense industrial base does not have the capacity to produce this equipment faster than the rate of expenditure in Ukraine. These parts have likely been used directly in Russia’s war with Ukraine.
Russia is also heavily reliant on imports for dual-use technology such as semiconductors. Western sanctions targeting Russia have not completely stopped trade of these products, but China has stepped into the void by supplying its own chips.
China’s official lack of opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also damaged Beijing’s relationship with the European Union. In August, Estonia and Latvia left a China-European diplomatic forum originally named the “17+1”, citing a preference for working through the EU, saying each would strive for relationships “based on mutual benefit, respect for international law, human rights and the international rules-based order.”
Germany is attempting to play both sides, with high-level visits to both Beijing and Taiwan, while decrying Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Berlin continues in default mode, desiring to be a close ally of the United States but offend no nation and trade with all. Regardless, in a promising development from last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned Beijing not to aid Russia in the Ukraine War.
Additionally, over the weekend of 18-19 Feb Josep Borrell (the EU Foreign Policy Chief) claimed he told Wang Yi (China’s senior diplomat) that “Chinese military assistance to Russia’s war on Ukraine would be a red line.” This statement may be tested sooner rather than later.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine acted as a super catalyst for Sino-Russian energy cooperation (and Russian dependence on China). In August, China’s spending on energy made up 83 percent of its total imports from Russia. Since Xi and Putin met at the Winter Olympics, China and Russia have signed more than 16 energy agreements, including multiple Power of Siberia deals as well as other development opportunities.
Since the start of the year, volumes imported through the Power of Siberia pipeline, which pumps cheap Russian gas into China, have increased by an estimated 60%. Russia is exporting more oil to China than they have in the past decade at over a 50 percent discount, effectively financing Russia’s war in Ukraine. As of 10 August, EU countries have sanctioned imports of all Russian coal. China, however, bought 7.42 million tonnes of coal from Russia in July, according to the General Administration of Customs. That was the highest monthly figure since comparable statistics began counting in 2017. Arguably, China doesn’t even need this coal as it has plenty of domestic coal reserves and is throwing Russia a financial bone.
Evaluating the Russia/China Partnership
The early Cold War years before the Sino-Soviet split (1961) mark the last time that Russia and China maintained a robust relationship. Two of the four major victors of WWII, Moscow and Beijing make up half the winning Allied team and certainly the half that bore the brunt of the combined fighting. Since 1985, Moscow and Beijing have spent many years slowly creeping back into an embrace. This is a novel coalition with many strengths and weaknesses.
Strengths of the Partnership:
Continental Redoubt: China and Russia together contain a continental expanse which cannot easily be invaded. This is Mackinder’s heartland empire enabled by railroads and pipelines providing interior lines of communication/supply. Moving combat power, trade, or logistics east or west depending on shared needs will be easier for Moscow/Beijing than it is for the US, which must ship those same resources across either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans.
Sir Halford John Mackinder (1861-1947), one of the founding fathers of modern geopolitics.
China and Russia’s shared landmass would also enable the construction of a more robust Europe-Siberia-Asia trade route. This Northern Sea Route is ~14,300km from Rotterdam to Shanghai, while the existing Suez route is ~18,700km from Rotterdam to Hong Kong.
Finally, if both work together diplomatically, they can place enormous pressure on the three countries with which they share mutual borders: Afghanistan, Mongolia, and North Korea.
Outputs to Inputs: Russia and China together have far greater economic potential than any other combination of historical American adversaries excluding Great Britain. Considering the vast natural bounty of Russian territory, the size of the Chinese domestic market, both nations’ overlapping sphere of influence in Central Asia, and their shared transactional approach to Africa and South America, Beijing and Moscow are potentially able to generate global economic tides.
While most outlets repeatedly mention Russia’s raw materials and China’s manufacturing prowess, few are tracking that the value-add relationship can also operate in the opposite direction. Challenging geography inhibits China’s oil and natural gas extraction capabilities. Combined operations and technology sharing could help China utilize superior Russian extraction, piping, and offshore technologies to significantly boost output, helping meet growing Chinese demand.
Another example is in aerospace design, where the Russians have particular strengths in aircraft engine manufacturing which China sorely lacks. This opportunity could be a huge boost to the fighter fleet of the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).
At this point, there is likely very little the US can do to split China and Russia. Typically, nations’ largest trade relationships are with their neighbors anyway. This may be a return to balance, as Russia was oddly not even in China’s top 10 trading partners in 2021. In fact, China exported more to the Netherlands than Russia in 2021, despite the Netherlands' economy being half the size of Russia’s (prewar). Sino-Russian trade and investment may have been unnaturally depressed during the past few decades because of political friction.
However, before Sino-Russian economic potential is realized, there are three major obstacles to be negotiated. The first is simple, can Russia and China control their mutual distrust and work together closely? Second, these shared economic ventures will not have the benefit of Western involvement. Can Russia/China go it alone and execute, create, and sustain projects of economic value? Can they deploy and operate technology in the fields of oil and gas extraction, advanced weapons manufacturing, agricultural, and raw materials exploitation? Third,
Strong Borders: Taken as a single unit, Russia and China together have an excellent set of defensive borders. Close cooperation would enable each party to mutually secure their second longest set of land borders (Kazakhstan is Russia’s longest border and Mongolia is China’s longest border). Anchored in the arctic north, traveling east around the sparsely populated Kamchatka, the Russians and Chinese own the entire coastline of Northeast Asia with the exception of tiny South Korea. On the southern flank, China is well protected by the foothills of the Himalayas extending across Southeast Asia, and then protected from South Asia by the Himalayas proper. Russia and China together strategically encircle Central Asia, which is generally an empty and hard to cross steppe. Heading westward, Russia is protected by the Caspian Sea and then the Caucasus Mountains. West of the Caucasus, Russia faces its first vulnerable area, Ukraine (imagine that). This vulnerability extends northward along the NATO flank and is most acute considering the exclave of Kaliningrad. However, once past Scandinavia (newly NATO-ized) we return to the easily defensible arctic expanse that stymied the operations of the 1918 American Expeditionary Force in Siberia.
Flair for Intelligence: Both countries are quite strong in the intelligence domain and can play to each other’s strengths. Also, by lowering the mutual threat level, both Beijing and Moscow are required to expend less intelligence resources watching eachother. This allows their intelligence organizations to lift and shift personnel and material to other priorities, namely the United States.
Cultural Independence: Both Russia and China each have a very strong independent sense of cultural identity. Russia sees itself as completely separate from Europe and Asia, eternally a culture and people set apart. China sees itself as the beating political, linguistic, and cultural heart of Asia returning to its previous historical eminence. There is little to no chance that either culture will be “co-opted” by Western ideas in the near to mid term. However, there is also little chance of Sino-Russian synthesis.
Totalitarian Speed: Both Putin and Xi are able to make decisions rapidly with little domestic pushback or time for debate. This also allows both leaders to devise long term plans which are executed for as long as they remain in power. Another strength of this model is that exceedingly few people are required to make very high level decisions, meaning China and Russia’s decision making processes can be kept opaque to outsiders, allowing both leaders to disguise intentions quite well.
Weaknesses of the Partnership:
Totalitarian Speed: Just because both Putin and Xi are able to rapidly pursue goals with precision does not mean either leader is wise or able enough to choose goals which will actually strengthen their respective countries. Either country is quite capable of quickly marching towards a destructive goal, causing a sympathetic debacle for their partner.
Biased Inwards: Since both China and Russia expend untold effort and resources repressing their own citizens, each is uniquely vulnerable in the same way. This forces a large portion of attention on the domestic situation, far more than any Western country. As Matt Potinger has pointed out, China spends more money on their military than all other countries in Asia combined. Yet, this figure is still likely lower than what Beijing outlays for domestic security. Both countries’ addiction to repression represent clear existential future dangers.
Talent Management: Putin and Xi may have each seized the reigns of destiny. But one man can’t keep the sled running forever. A modern nation relies on millions of individuals to properly function. Some call this group the bureaucracy. This unfathomably large group of people needs extremely talented and dedicated leadership. If this is lacking, then the tax dollars funneled into the government return less and less utility. Both countries will have major difficulties cultivating high quality leaders. Under totalitarian regimes, talented subordinates make for dangerous potential usurpers.
Lack of Economic Freedom: Neither country has anything close to a free market. Both economies are highly centralized, which leads to low innovation and efficiency. This produces three major risks. The first is the lower quality of life resulting from a centralized economy, which could lead to discontent which destabilizes either regime. The second is that centralization eventually causes massive economic imbalances that must again be fixed by centralized methods. The third is that public-private partnerships for developing military technology are severely hampered by economic centralization. In the future, the US could outcompete Russia/China in advanced military capabilities (think SDI, JSTARS, GPS, PGMs, and all the other high-tech military research/equipment that has served the US well).
Landlocked: Both countries, having done a fair bit of expansion over the centuries, find themselves both quite hemmed in by unfriendly neighbors. While Russia does not hold the exits to the Baltic and Black Seas, China’s eastern seaboard is ringed by US military power lodged in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, potentially the Philippines, and Singapore. What's more, the Arctic passage from northern Siberia to China must still transit Alaska’s western flank, while vessels leaving the same origin traveling to Europe must first bypass Scandinavia. Neither Russia nor China is technically land locked, but a combination of aggression against their neighbors, US maritime proficiency, and an inward bias (discussed above) conspire to keep both countries primarily focused internally. Beijing is attempting to buck history and break that trend with the invigoration of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).