The growing alliance between Russia and China is something we shouldn’t lose sleep over, their long history of mutual suspicion runs too deep – or so we are told. Such a view is too complacent by half. China and Russia’s mutual hostility towards the West and their opportunism also run deep. And even if their burgeoning alliance is a marriage of convenience, it is still a very dangerous one.
As Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, the nightmare for western strategists is that Vladimir Putin’s actions are being coordinated with those of Xi Jinping in and around the Taiwan Strait, where China’s military intimidation of Taiwan has reached new levels of intensity. Last Sunday, Taiwan reported the largest incursion for several months by Chinese fighter jets into its air defence zone. Western military analysts have been anxiously toggling between spy satellites covering the two regions, convinced that at the very least that Xi Jinping is carefully watching the West’s reaction to events in Ukraine as he calibrates his own actions towards Taiwan.
Moscow and Beijing have been quick to support each other’s strategic priorities. Xi has backed Russia’s demand that Ukraine should never join Nato, and also Moscow’s military intervention in Kazakhstan. Russia, long ambiguous towards Taiwan, has now firmly stated that it regards the island as part of China.
This week the Russian and Chinese navies conducted exercises in the Arabian Sea – only the latest in a series of joint military drills that have become more frequent, more complex and more geographically spread. They are seeking to learn from each other’s tactics and procedures, helped by the fact Russia is a big supplier to China of advanced weapons, including fighter jets and missile systems. The Russians also have a less tangible, but highly valuable asset to pass on: the combat experience that the PLA lacks, with Russian troops having fought in wars from Georgia and Chechnya to Ukraine and Syria.
The drills appear to be going beyond symbolic shows of camaraderie, and are increasingly aimed at coordinating command and control and enhancing battlefield interoperability. In August last year, some 13,000 troops and hundreds of aircraft, drones, artillery pieces, antiaircraft batteries and armoured vehicles took part in a drill in north-west China. Two months later, Chinese and Russian warships, including destroyers, frigates, a refuelling vessel and missile-tracking ship, sailed through the 12-mile wide Strait of Tsugaru separating Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido from its main island of Honshu. It was part of a four-day joint exercise that was greeted with particular alarm in Washington and Tokyo.
It is true that China does not have formal allies in the western sense. It does not fit with Beijing’s sense of its own centrality, which is incompatible with an alliance system that might require obligations, commitments and a degree of equity. But it does have a hierarchy of partnerships, of which Russia sits at the top – the relationship is designated as a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for the new era’.
They share a paranoia that the West is plotting to undermine them, and increasingly define their relationship in terms of opposition to western democracies – and to the US in particular. In an annual worldwide threat assessment, the US Director of National Intelligence has described China and Russia as more aligned than at any point since the mid 1950s.
‘At present, certain international forces under the guise of democracy and human rights are interfering in the internal affairs of China and Russia,’ Xi told Putin during a virtual summit between the two leaders in December. ‘China and Russia should increase their joint efforts to more effectively safeguard the security interests of both parties.’ Xi addressed Putin as ‘old friend’, while Putin called the Chinese leader ‘esteemed friend’. No doubt that was also for the benefit of the West, since both men know their alliance rattles western leaders. But the showmanship makes it no less worrying.
If Russia does invade Ukraine, and strong economic sanctions are imposed, then support from Beijing for Moscow will be vital. Both want to see the end of the dominance of the dollar in international trade and finance, and such a crisis just might help galvanise their efforts.
Yes, they carry a great deal of historic baggage. After the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s, the two communist giants were bitter rivals for leadership of the world revolutionary movement. For decades they barely spoke, and a border clash in the Russian Far East in March 1969 left hundreds dead and brought the two sides to the brink of full-scale war. Going back further in history, China ranks imperial Russia among the rapacious foreign powers that imposed ‘unequal treaties’ on China, grabbing huge swathes of Qing dynasty land in what is now Central Asia and the Russian Far East. While in Moscow, China’s economic advance in areas of traditional Russian influence, such as Central Asia, does rankle.
But none of that is reason to dismiss their new alliance. Pragmatic, opportunistic, cynical. There is a touch of all those in the embrace of the panda and the bear – but it is foolhardy to dismiss it as something we should not worry about.