In recent years, geopolitical circumstances have prompted Russia to forge closer ties with China. Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have concluded large-scale energy and economic deals, conducted joint naval exercises, and pursued limited bilateral security coordination on issues like cybersecurity. But behind the warming façade, obstacles to closer ties remain. The greatest of these challenges lies in Central Asia, where Russia and China may find that differing goals for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or in plans to connect the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative and the Eurasian Economic Union could create new sources of tension.
At an event hosted by the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center, panelists discussed how China and Russia can manage sources of friction while enhancing cooperation in the areas of diplomacy, economics, and security in 2016. This panel was the first in the Carnegie Global Dialogue Series 2016 and was co-sponsored by the China Center for Contemporary World Studies.
- Reasons for Closer Ties: Panelists noted that a confluence of economic and political factors has brought China and Russia closer. They observed that the two countries have complementary economies, with Russian exports of natural gas and other raw materials serving as vital contributors to China’s economic growth. On the international stage, Beijing and Moscow have advanced similar calls in the United Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and other venues for a greater non-Western leadership role in global governance. One panelist predicted that closer relations between the two countries will continue, but that such cooperation may benefit China more given its more advantageous geopolitical position relative to Russia.
- Limits on Cooperation: Despite the countries’ overlapping interests, diplomatic coordination between Beijing and Moscow may be impeded by strategic and cultural factors, participants asserted. They said that China views some of Russia’s efforts to remain a major geostrategic actor—such as its air campaign in Syria—as overly risky and potentially destabilizing. Culturally speaking, interactions between Chinese and Russian elites are infrequent and neither country has many regional specialists who study the other. Panelists raised concerns that these obstacles make misperceptions and lingering historical mistrust harder to dispel. Speakers predicted that China and Russia will continue to enjoy deeper diplomatic cooperation, integrated infrastructure, and economic synergy, but that both countries’ desire to retain freedom of action means that a formal alliance remains unlikely.
- Global Implications of Reshaping Eurasia: Panelists pointed out that China’s proactive engagement with Russia, Central Asia, and Europe through regional infrastructure investment is likely to pave the way for greater connectivity among countries across Eurasia. One speaker described this geoeconomic shift as the most consequential global event since the collapse of the Soviet Union, predicting that China’s growing economic footprint will lead to heightened political influence. At the same time, panelists added, Russia is trying to reestablish itself as a major geopolitical actor, and not be too dependent on either Europe or Asia. They predicted that, by being more internationally engaged, China will provide Russia with new economic opportunities, but this dynamic may create new sources of tension with Moscow in the long run, as China’s global influence grows.
- Neighborhood Diplomacy in Central Asia: China and Russia’s interactions in Central Asia reveal much about each country’s diplomatic stances toward neighboring countries and toward each other, panelists agreed. They observed that both Beijing and Moscow seek to exert influence in the former Soviet republics. While some of the two countries’ interests are aligned, the agendas that they are pursuing are by no means uniform and could strain relations when objectives differ, participants said. They agreed that strengthening Beijing and Moscow’s strategic division of labor in the region could solidify constructive engagement between the two powers in Central Asia. As Beijing continues to build infrastructure and inject much-needed capital into Central Asian economies, Russia’s ongoing security role and close cultural and historical ties to the region cannot be overlooked.
- Maintaining Secure Borders: China and Russia are both seeking to maintain stability on their borders, panelists observed. They stated that this concern informs Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and perhaps even its support for the Assad regime in Syria. China’s approach to the South China Sea may also reflect this dynamic, as Beijing seeks to protect its maritime interests. Speakers did not view this approach as distinctively Russian or Chinese, but instead interpreted it as a natural tendency among emerging powers to enhance their own security that is likely to be mirrored in the future actions of other rising actors, such as India.
Paul Haenle is the director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Haenle’s research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.
Feng Yujun is the director of the Institute for Russian Studies at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), where he also works as a full-time researcher and doctoral supervisor.
Alexander Gabuev is a senior associate and the chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. His research is focused on Russia’s policy toward East and Southeast Asia, political and ideological trends in China, and China’s relations with its neighbors—especially those in Central Asia.
Hu Hao has served as the deputy director-general of the China Center for Contemporary World Studies since 2011. He worked at the Chinese Embassy in Moscow as the counselor of the People’s Republic of China to Russia from 2007 to 2010.
Dmitri Trenin is the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and has been with the center since its inception. He also chairs the research council and the Foreign and Security Policy Program.
Zhao Kejin is a resident scholar at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center and deputy director of Tsinghua University’s Center for U.S.-China Relations.