Sino-Russian relations have changed dramatically over the past year. The Ukraine crisis has prompted a deep rift between Russia and the West, and consequently brought China and Russia closer together. Meanwhile, the historic gas deal that Beijing and Moscow signed in May 2014 will sustain growth in bilateral ties over the coming decades. How is the United States reacting to this shift and how will these dynamics affect stability and the balance of power in Eurasia and Central Asia?

At Carnegie’s second Global Dialogue, Carnegie–Moscow’s Dmitri Trenin moderated a panel on how events in Ukraine and other global developments will affect relations between Beijing, Moscow, and Washington going forward. The participants were Carnegie’s Eugene Rumer, Yang Jiemian of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, Sergey Radchenko of Aberystwyth University, and Zhao Kejin of Tsinghua University. 

Discussion Highlights

  • A Closer But Uneven Power Dynamic: Despite historical tensions, China and Russia have an important strategic relationship, panelists agreed, that harms both sides’ interests when it is poorly managed. Now Moscow wishes to enhance economic cooperation with Beijing, its main trading partner. Because Beijing enjoys a favorable strategic position and its choice of stronger trading partners, panelists noted that China has refused to concede to Russian petitions for more favorable trade conditions that would expand Russian exports to China beyond natural resources.
  • Ukraine Crisis Isolates Russia: The Ukraine crisis has changed the dynamics of both U.S.-Russian and Sino-Russian relations, panelists observed. Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine and subsequent Western sanctions have isolated Moscow internationally, which has forced Putin to shift from trying to manage Beijing to actively seeking closer ties. Moscow’s isolation, one panelist asserted, reinforces Chinese reluctance to draw too close to Russia, because such a policy could expose Beijing to international isolation through closer association with Moscow.
  • No Sino-Russian Alliance On The Horizon: U.S. attempts to exert pressure and influence Beijing and Moscow’s foreign policy might, panelists conceded, provide incentive for China and Russia to seek closer bilateral ties. However, most panelists agreed that this dynamic has limitations, and current Sino-Russian cooperation will stop well short of a formal alliance. China places a premium on multipolarity and maintaining pragmatic, mutually beneficial relationships with all countries; therefore, Beijing will not risk alienating Moscow or Washington by aligning too closely with one side or the other. Furthermore, given the chilly U.S. relationship with Russia, panelists maintained that the United States has little leverage to influence Sino-Russian bilateral ties.
  • Chiefly Bilateral Relations: Until recently, panelists agreed, interactions between Beijing, Moscow, and Washington have solely involved two distinct sets of bilateral relations. Indeed, virtually no three-way engagement had been occurring, and the concept of triangular relations has seemed outdated since the Cold War. China’s focus on cultivating independent bilateral ties with all major powers has only exacerbated this trend, panelists said. China’s rise and Russia’s decline have led the United States to focus on engaging China. Trilateral exchanges have also decreased as Washington withdraws from Afghanistan in Central Asia, which was previously one of the main regions where these three state actors interacted. Panelists concluded, however, that Russia’s assertiveness and the Ukraine crisis have prompted all three parties in the last year to pay more attention to trilateral relations.
  • Shifting Economic Balance in Central Asia: One panelist contended that Moscow has conceded to being supplanted by Beijing as the predominant economic actor in Central Asia. With China’s Silk Road initiative in Central Asia, he said, the region has developed economically and tightened diplomatic ties with China. Panelists posited that Russian concessions stem from limited leverage and perceptions that China’s presence will not introduce destabilizing political change.