Russia’s 2018 presidential election, the conclusion of the 19th Party Congress in China, and the beginning of President Trump’s second year in office are creating new dynamics in the relations between Russia, China, and the United States. Propelled by the close personal relationship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin and their shared multi-polar worldview, China and Russia have deepened their strategic partnership through energy agreements, joint military exercises, and economic development in Central Asia through the Belt and Road Initiative. The Trump administration’s recent designation of China and Russia as “rival powers” to the United States in its national security strategy, meanwhile, underlines the increasingly competitive, and in some cases adversarial, nature of their relations with Washington.
Immediately following Russia’s presidential election, Carnegie–Tsinghua Center director Paul Haenle moderated a discussion with scholars from Carnegie’s Moscow Center and Fudan University’s Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies, to analyze globally significant issues intersecting China, Russia, and the United States and the geopolitical implications for the Asia-Pacific.
This panel was the third of the Carnegie Global Dialogue Series 2017-2018 and cosponsored by Fudan University’s Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies. This event was off the record.
- Putin’s Reelection and the Future of Russian Politics: The panelists discussed the outcome and implications of the recent Russian presidential elections, noting that President Putin still commands great respect from the general public. Despite cynicism in Western countries as to the validity of the elections, the discussants agreed that Putin’s sweeping victory does indeed reflect a genuinely high degree of domestic popularity, driven in large part by a widespread view of the leadership as unwavering champions of Russian interests abroad. Although the current Russian constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms, one panelist argued that Putin is likely to continue to influence the government’s political objectives well past 2024. Nonetheless, the discussant noted that Putin is relatively unique among Russian presidents in his determination to manage his transition from power and groom and install the next generation of leaders. The discussants also said that, though Putin will likely amend the domestic economic system, he will primarily focus on creating a geopolitical strategy that attempts to reposition Russia as a leading power on the international stage.
- A Deepening Sino-Russian Strategic Partnership: The discussants largely concurred with recent language from Chinese and Russian leaders and officials describing the relationship between the nations as having reached a historic high, particularly in light of the tensions that characterized their interaction in the latter half of the 20th century. One panelist said that the new cooperative mechanisms put in place by both governments have been successful in fostering mutual trust and economic exchange, as reflected in recent Russian surveys that show China as the nation’s friendliest ally. China’s outbound trade to Russia has grown rapidly, as has China’s foreign direct investment in areas ranging from infrastructure to real estate, the discussant noted. Similarly, energy cooperation has deepened, as evidenced by the fact that Russia has become China’s top supplier of crude oil. However, one panelist noted that Russia is becoming increasingly dependent upon China for investment and trade, whereas China has many other economic partners from which to choose. Another discussant cautioned against setting unrealistic expectations for further bilateral initiatives despite recent successes.
- The Deterioration of U.S.-Russian Relations: The conversation highlighted the downward spiral in U.S.-Russia ties, as the panelists agreed that the current confrontational relationship will continue for the foreseeable future. One discussant said that Russia has largely abandoned the principle of reintegration with the West, a fundamental goal in the post-Soviet era, in favor of focusing on achieving coequal political status in an international system dominated by the United States. The panelist argued that Russia, unlikely to receive that level of international acknowledgement, will continue to ‘punch above its weight’ to maintain political clout and challenge perceived U.S. hegemony. Russia is willing to overextend itself in the short term despite the consequences, since both the Russian political class and general public support the geopolitical strategy. This unwillingness to capitulate for fear of showing weakness, combined with the relentless pressure on Russia produced by current American domestic politics, together present a long-term threat to U.S.-Russia relations, the discussant said.
- The Possibility of a Formal China-Russia Alliance: One panelist noted the potential for the ongoing mutual alienation between the United States and Russia to push China and Russia closer together. Another discussant identified the tense U.S.-Russia dynamic as the most important factor shaping the China-Russia relationship. Nonetheless, the panel agreed that several factors are negatively impacting the likelihood of a formal China-Russia alliance. A panelist said that, in terms of economic cooperation, any easily negotiable collaborations have already been initiated, leaving no new or large projects for the immediate future. Furthermore, the power dynamic between the two countries is becoming increasingly asymmetric, which could cause friction moving forward. Another discussant said that the two nations have different attitudes toward international security and simply disagree on issues ranging from Ukraine to North Korea, which suggests the continuation of the supportive but flexible status quo in lieu of a formal military alliance. Only a simultaneous strike on both countries from a third party would change this trend, the panelist said.
- Chinese and Russian Geopolitical Interests Amid a Changing International Order: The panel addressed several of the factors complicating China and Russia’s relationship within the context of the current international environment. Although western countries have criticized Russia as a revisionary power intent on undermining the current world order, one panelist said that Russia’s concern is less with the system itself and more with its own status within that arrangement. As such, Russia highly values its veto power as a permanent member of the United Nation’s Security Council and will continue to challenge perceived attempts to minimize its influence. Meanwhile, the discussant said, China has worked to improve its standing within the international system and has benefitted greatly from that approach. Within this context, Russia and China will attempt to follow a strategy where they are ‘never against each other but not necessarily with each other’, so that they can pursue their interests without endangering their growing ties. Nonetheless, as great power dynamics and spheres of influence evolve, current initiatives such as the Belt and Road do have the potential to challenge this relationship, one panelist said.
Feng Yujun is vice dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University and director of the institute's Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies.
Dmitri Trenin is the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and the chair of its Foreign and Security Policy Program.
Ma Bin is assistant research fellow at the Center for Russia and Central Asia Studies and the Research Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization, both at Fudan University.
Alexander Gabuev is a senior fellow and the chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
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.