From close allies during the Cold War, to awkward neighbors during China’s normalization of relations with the United States during the Nixon years, China and Russia share a complex relationship.  But now, Putin and Xi are jointly seeking to thwart the US’ agenda of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific.  While the official claim is that Sino-Russian relations represent a “comprehensive partnership and strategic collaboration,” the author of this article, Thayer, argues that with the presence of various conflicts of interests, their consensus on the South China Sea is a mere “transient confluence of limited interests, rather than a deep strategic commitment between Russia and China.”

In other words, Putin’s decision to side with Beijing over the recent Arbitral Tribunal ruling takes into account Russia’ maritime interests, as well as his own desire to limit the US Navy’s maritime activity in the region.  The idea of freedom of navigation, which he purportedly supports, only applies for the Russian Navy.  He is most likely “unconcerned if China makes it difficult for the US Navy.”  Their growing maritime intimacy, in the form of joint naval drills and such, serves to deter any US containment policies against China in the Asia-Pacific.

Unlike their close bond during the Cold War, however, both China and Russia are cautious of how their latest partnership is perceived.  Explicitly labeling this a Sino-Russian alliance would imply a geopolitical dynamic akin to that of the Cold War.  In reality, however, as Thayer suggests, there are no overarching allegiances in this new world dynamic; China has interests with the US, and they have collaborated on a number of issues in recent times.  They also have interests closer to time, and that includes collaborating with Russia in developing Central Asia and Western China’s infrastructure.  Russia, however, also has reasons to be wary of China’s expansion in Central Asia through its “One Belt, One Road” Initiative, since a project of such scale threatens to undermine Russian supremacy in that region.

In other international issues, China’s customary non-interventionist foreign policy stance is at odds with Russia’s aggressiveness in foreign affairs.  In the Middle East, for instance, Putin has aligned itself with Assad in Syria, while China has not openly endorsed any form of military intervention, essentially claiming that Syrians need to shape their own future.  This just goes to show that a country should not and cannot achieve ideological consistency in a world with constantly shifting political interests.  At a time when western sanctions are still plaguing the Russian economy, China has no interest in playing sides.  That is, it will not warm to Russia and jeopardize its international standing and reputation by undermining its relationship with the US, which is politically tenuous at times but economically fruitful nonetheless.  In sum, Russia and China are no longer bound by shared ideological beliefs.  It just so happens that when it comes to the South China Sea controversy, their interests converge.

Article by: Carlyle A. Thayer from the National Interest

Commentary by: Adrian Lo

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