Russia and China have made common cause on two outstanding Asian security issues. Like China, Russia opposes the possible deployment of a US missile defense system in South Korea to counter the North Korean nuclear threat And Russia echoes China’s view that the US is a destabilizing force in the South China Sea.
International relations are complex and on 2 March Russia and China had joined the US in supporting a UN Security Council Resolution imposing sanctions against North Korea for carrying out a nuclear test in February. So their recent opposition to US plans to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea has added a new significance to Russia-China tie in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing has warned Seoul that the deployment could spoil their bilateral ties, harm the security interests of Russia and China and trigger a new arms race.
Russia views the possible deployment as an “overreaction” to “any conceivable threats” that might come from North Korea.
The South China Sea is not a major Russian interest, and Russia favors peaceful resolutions to disputes between China and some neighboring countries in its international waters. But Moscow opposes America’s strong presence in the South China Sea. It sees the US increasingly focused on a deliberate systemic containment of Russia and China and alleges that the US presence in the Sea could threaten Russia.
Moscow has cited as an example of Washington’s hostility to Russia the pressure put by the US on Vietnam in 2015 to stop letting Russia use the former American base of Cam Ranh to refuel nuclear-capable bombers.
Perceiving the US as increasingly hostile to them both countries resent and challenge America’s primacy in the Asia-Pacific. Unlike the US neither has many friends in Asia so each hopes to enhance its clout through mutual economic, diplomatic and military support.
Russia and China have extolled their relationship in the Asia-Pacific. There are no serious disputes between them. Meeting Sergei Ivanov, Chief of the Russian Presidential Administration in Beijing in the last week of March, President Xi Jinping hailed China’s tie with Russia as its most important strategic partnership, and envisaged the two countries playing a key role in safeguarding regional and global peace. Also in March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that China was coordinating its foreign policy with Russia “as a strategic principle” rather than out of expediency. Last year Russia singled out China as its core partner in the Pacific.
What draws Russia and China together? Their relationship in Asia is based on more than mere expressions of joint opposition to the US. Since becoming President in 2000 Vladimir Putin has striven to attract foreign investment to develop Russia’s strategically pivotal and resource-rich Far Eastern region (RFE). It is the RFE, stretching from Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia to the Pacific Ocean, that enables Eurasian Russia to stake a claim to be an Asia-Pacific power.
A peaceful northern border with the RFE makes it possible for China to concentrate its military planning on other strategic theaters. That is important as China evolves its strategy in the Asia-Pacific. Meanwhile it gains access to the RFE’s natural resources, which include oil, gas, iron ore and gold.
At another level, Russia has for some time been reorienting its foreign relations from an economically troubled Europe to the more dynamic markets of East Asia. But the western economic sanctions imposed on Russia after it hived off Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 hurt its economy and prompted Moscow to reinforce its ties with Beijing. Isolated from the west Russia desperately needed friends, and more importantly perhaps, new buyers for its oil, gas and arms exports.
Quick to seize the political advantage Beijing did not join the West and Japan in condemning Russia’s aggression. Instead China reaped the benefits of disregarding the international principle of territorial sovereignty in Ukraine.
Russia and China are now crafting strategies that will give impetus to cooperation on China’s Silk Road and the Russian-fostered Eurasian Economic Union. At the moment China’s economic push into Central Asia does not threaten the historical political dominance of economically sluggish Russia over the region.
Russia is wary about China’s economic progress and growing military might but seeks to harness them to promote its own strategic and economic aims. With Moscow’s encouragement China is modernizing Russia’s outdated infrastructure. China’s major projects include the building of Russia’s first high-speed rail link that will eventually connect Moscow to China via the Russian city of Kazan and modern ports on Russia’s Pacific coast, including Zarubino. Russia and China are jointly developing Zarubino, which is strategically located in the south of the RFE, close to the Russian, North Korean and Chinese borders. When completed, Zarubino port will give China coveted access to the Sea of Japan, where Russia and China held joint naval drills last August.
Energy cooperation is close – whatever their differences on the content and price of that cooperation might be. Low energy prices and western sanctions on Russia have made China dependent on Russian gas – and Russia dependent on large Chinese purchases of its gas.
China surpassed Germany as Russia’s largest gas buyer in 2013 – even before Russia invaded Ukraine. Recently a shrewd China lent the state-owned Gazprom $2.17 billion. Two years ago, in May 2014, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation signed a $400 billion contract to buy natural gas from Gazprom, which has been hard hit by Western sanctions. Beijing’s aim is to help Russia develop its natural gas resources which can then be exported to China.
China has also invested in Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil and gas company – which is Russia’s largest oil producer. As Europe has reduced its dependence on Russian energy imports over the last two years, “selling east” has opened the Chinese door to both Gazprom and Rosneft. Beijing’s investments highlight Chinese support for Moscow against the West – and that too, at a time when Russia thinks that the West has treated it like an international pariah since “Ukraine 2014”.
Arms sales also explain the compatibility between China and Russia. China has made advance payments for Russia’s high-tech S-400 surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile system, which it should begin receiving in 2017.
China is the first country to be offered and sold this state-of-the-art Russian missile system, which will provide it with the capability to strike Taiwan as well as to hit targets as far as New Delhi, Calcutta, Hanoi, Seoul and all of North Korea. Beijing would also be able to fully protect the Yellow Sea and China’s Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea. Even if Moscow has any reservations about adding weight to China’s military position in East Asia through the sale, Russia has clearly chosen in favor of strengthening China against the US in the region.
For Moscow, collaboration with Asia’s largest power confers legitimacy on Putin’s foreign policy. Chinese funding for economic ventures makes Russia look like a good investment bet. In return China strengthens its economic influence over Russia and Central Asia. Most significantly, China gets the backing of the world’s second-largest nuclear power, much-needed Russian energy and weapons as it tries to achieve ascendancy in Asia and establish itself as America’s main contender for global power.
Each side would be happy to see the other embarrass the US, or to challenge jointly the US in Asia, as they have on a nuclear defense system for South Korea and the South China Sea. Both these security issues have a wider international relevance. With China as its top strategic partner against the lone superpower, Russia can project itself as a major Asian and global power, regardless of its economic weakness. The world profiles of both countries are enhanced as they challenge America’s dominance. Could Russia and China throw down the gauntlet to the US in the Asia-Pacific?