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China-Russia Relations: Bonding but Can it Endure?

Major General Mandip Singh was formerly a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 18, 2013

    President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia, his first after becoming the President, is a strong pointer to the changing China-Russia relations, most noticeably after Obama administration declared its rebalancing strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Not that this visit has set any historic precedence – Chairman Mao in 1949, Liu Shaoqi in 1960 and Hu Jintao in 2003 also chose Moscow as their first destination of visit. Deng visited Myanmar, Jiang Zemin went to the US, owing to his mandatory presence at the APEC summit and Hu Yaobang called on Japan. These ‘firsts’ were dictated by the equations of their relations with their hosts at that point of time. This visit too must be viewed in the context of growing relations between the two big powers in a changing international world order.

    China and Russia have a history of uneasy relationship with a number of sensitive issues on which they continue to have differences – historical border issues, influx of Chinese in Russia’s far east, the growing competition for energy in the Arctic to mention a few. But there are areas of congruence, where both have much to gain from each other – Russia a top energy producer and China the world’s largest energy consumer, a tethering Russian arms industry and an expanding Chinese military. The dynamics of the China-Russia relations will be interesting to observe in the backdrop of the US initiative of ‘pivot to Asia’ and an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific.

    One of the key agreements signed by the two Presidents was the ratification of the “Implementation Guidelines of the China-Russia Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation.” To recall, the Treaty was signed on July 16,16 July 2001 by Jiang Zemin and Putin, but remained in a state of ‘suspension’ for the past decade. The Treaty, a comprehensive document comprising 25 Articles, underscores the degree of cooperation and understanding that is envisaged between the two powers in the future. Valid for 20 years and operable on the date of ratification of the Treaty, it signals a new direction in their relations. The implementation guidelines may not ratify the Treaty, but are an ‘in principle’ indication of the intent to move forward with its ratification. Some of the relevant extracts of the Treaty concerning security issues are:

    Article 2
    “…the contracting parties will neither resort to the use of force; or the threat of force nor take economic and other means to bring pressure to bear against the other”
    “…The contracting parties reaffirm their commitment that they will not be the first to use nuclear weapons against each other nor target strategic nuclear missiles against each other”.

    Article 4
    “The Russian side supports the Chinese side in its policies on the issue of defending the national unity and territorial integrity of the People's Republic of China”.

    Article 8
    “The contracting parties shall not enter into any alliance or be a party to any bloc nor shall they embark on any such action, including the conclusion of such treaty with a third country which compromises the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the other contracting party”.

    Article 13
    “The contracting parties shall strengthen their cooperation in the United Nations and its Security Council as well as other United Nations Special Agencies.”

    Article 16
    “On the basis of mutual benefit, the contracting parties shall conduct cooperation in such areas as economy and trade, military know-how, science and technology, energy resources, transport, nuclear energy, finance, aerospace and aviation, information technology and other areas of common interest”.1

    Implications of the Treaty

    First, China and Russia agree to settle all outstanding issues peacefully and without use of force, particularly nuclear weapons. Second, Russia recognises China’s policy on its territorial integrity, perhaps a tacit acceptance of its stand on territorial disputes in South China Sea and East China Sea and reciprocally, the Russian dispute on the Kuril Islands. Third, it insulates Russia from supporting any country inimical to China and vice-versa. By implication, it isolates the US as it moves into the region. Fourth, it calls for unity at the UN on issues of mutual concern. Lastly, it throws open the doors for cooperation in trade, energy, weapons, space and cyber domains which indicate economic and security interdependence. In short, strategically, it secures China’s northern borders, ensures energy security for its future and balances the US as it warms up to its alliance partners in the region. For Russia, it opens the taps for sale of gas, oil and rejuvenates its arms and space industry.

    In an interesting piece published in the Perspective magazine, Max Verbitz, a former Russian intelligence officer, writing under a pseudonym in 2006 said, “This agreement opens the door to broad Sino-Russian cooperation, with joined actions to offset US "hegemony", arms and technology transfers by Russia and the demarcation of their long-disputed border. Official assurances by both parties that the Treaty is not being directed against any third country notwithstanding, the agreement is just short of being a military alliance.”2 Undoubtedly, the ratification of the “implementing guidelines” is an indication of an emerging new strategic re-alignment in the Western Pacific.

    International Relations

    China and Russia have been on the same page in so far as Iran and Syria are concerned. Both have vetoed UN Security Council Resolutions in unison stalling Western pressure for removal of Assad in Syria and stricter sanctions against Iran for continuing with its nuclear programme. Further, both China and Russia have stakes in controlling a volatile and turbulent Korean Peninsula and reopening the Six Party talks to rein in North Korea. China and Russia also have territorial disputes with Japan – Kuril islands in the North with Russia and Senkaku islands in the East China Sea with China – both of which have seen inflamed passions in the recent past. Russia has also assumed the presidency of the G-20, an affluent group of the leading 20 economies of the world, since December 2012. Consequently, China would like to use this opportunity to pursue its agenda with Russia at this forum. Besides at the regional level, Russia and China engage each other at the RIC (Russia, China, and India) platform, Xi Jinping’s visit should set the stage for greater solidarity between both countries on global and regional issues in multi-lateral and UN forums.

    Trade and Energy Agreements

    During the visit Xi and his delegation signed as many as 20 agreements on wide-ranging issues like trade, economy, energy, investment, local cooperation, cultural exchange and environmental protection. Bilateral trade in 2012 was $88 billion and pegged at $100 billion by 2015 and expected to be an ambitious $200 billion by 2020. In the field of energy, Russia agreed to increase its oil supplies gradually to 45-50 million tonnes per year, almost three times the current levels. Russia had been ‘going slow’ in its energy deals with China in the past, particularly the East Siberia Pacific Ocean (ESPO)oil pipeline due to pricing disputes and a relative lack of profitability for more than a decade.3 In addition Russia’s natural gas giant Gazprom and China National Petroleum Corporation signed a memorandum that will see Russia deliver 38 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China per year starting 2018. The deal appear to be a win-win for both – Russia gets a buyer at a price of its choosing while China gets an assured supply of energy as her oil imports are expected to increase from the present 55.2 percent to over 65 percent by 2030.4 Of course, all is not smooth, particularly with issues on prices having tripped negotiations a number of times in the past.5

    Military Relations

    The highlight of Xi’s visit has been on the significance of the military relationship between the two countries. For the first time ever, a Head of State was accorded a ceremonial welcome at the Russian Armed Forces' Operational Command Center. Xi along with Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan and State Councillor for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi were briefed by Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces in the presence of the Defence Minister Sergey Kuzhugetovich Shoygu. The Chinese premier was shown “alternately real-time images of the Russian land force, navy and air force, strategic missile forces and special forces on duty and at drills. Xi listened, through the control systems, to the reports from generals of Russian fleets on marine escort missions, commanding officers of relevant regions on duty and heads of military industry enterprises that have cooperation with China”.6 Undoubtedly, the Russians had sent a strong signal- that they retained the technological superiority and the capability to be a strong contender for military supremacy in the changing global order and have the technological prowess to watch and monitor China.

    China has a large inventory of Soviet and Russian weapons. From 1990-2007, Russia sold China almost $25 billion of weapons. These include some of the front line systems that are in service in the PLA today - over a 200 SU-27 and SU-30 air superiority fighter aircraft, 20-50 IL-76 heavy lift transports, Four Sovremenny Class destroyers, 12 kilo class diesel submarines and 16 battalions of S-300 PMU-1 and S-300 PMU-2 air defence regiments that form the backbone of missile defence cover to the Chinese mainland. In 2007, Russia accused China of ‘reverse engineering’ its aircraft – the J-11 copied from the SU-27 - and cut off all arms transfers.7 This choked the supply of spares affecting maintenance and operability of these systems. While the PLA has embarked on an ambitious weapons indigenisation programme, it needs to ensure that in the interim period, till these weapon systems reach serial production, its security and defence needs are not jeopardised. More so when tensions with Japan in the East China Sea and assertiveness in the South China Sea has the potential for conflagration in the near future.

    China’s military industrial complex has already demonstrated that its technology and innovation capabilities compare with that of the Russians and it does not require Russian weaponry, yet till its major weapon systems are fielded, like the Carrier Strike Battle Groups (3-5 CSBGs by 2020 ), nuclear powered submarines ( three under construction), J-20 and J-31 fifth generation fighter aircraft ( likely to be inducted by 2018-2020 respectively), Y-20 heavy lift aircraft ( likely induction 2014) and Type-071 LPDs( two under construction) and Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD), China needs Russia. Russia, on the other hand has vast military industrial complex urgently in need of orders and rejuvenation. It’s a win-win for both nations. The $ 3.5 billion order for 24 SU-35 fighters and four Amur (some reports suggest Lada Class although both are conventional type) class diesel submarines8 need to be seen in this perspective. In fact, this is not all, there are reports that “China and Russia were expected to co-operate further in developing military technology, including S-400 long-range anti-aircraft missiles, IL-76 transport aircraft and IL-78 air-refuelling tankers.”9 Some of these are renewed contracts which halted when Russia pulled the plug on arms transfers in 2007.

    In April 2012, China and Russia held the largest ever naval exercise in the western Pacific in which Russia fielded seven ships and China exercised 18 of its state-of-the-art naval vessels together over a period of five days in the Yellow Sea off the port of Qingdao.10 The PLA Daily listed it as the top most important exercises in the world in 2012, hinting perhaps to the US the importance China gives to its growing naval cooperation with Russia in the Western Pacific. The ‘Peace Mission’ series of anti-terrorism exercises is another initiative where China and Russia are the biggest contributors and the militaries cooperate closely. These exercises “bear important significance in promoting the established mechanism of joint exercises under the SCO framework, deterring and striking the "three evil forces" (terrorism, separatism and extremism) and maintaining regional security and stability.”11 China would like to continue these exercises as it serves its interests in the controlling the restive Xinjiang region bordering the SCO member nations. China had also purchased 50 Russian Mi-171 helicopters and AL-31F engines, in deals worth $1.3 billion in 2012. Russia’s Federal Military-Technical Cooperation Service is quoted as saying that in 2012 alone, arms sales to China rose to $ 2 billion amounting to 15 per cent of total arms sales by Russia in 2012.12 Clearly, China needs Russia to put its ‘counter intervention’ strategy into place.


    Xi made the right gestures and played to the Russian galleries recalling his father’s association with Russia saying that “all the difficulties and hardships were endured by my father because of what he learned from the Soviet Union”.13 Speaking bits of Russian, like most Chinese Party members did in the 50s and 60s, it was almost ironical that he observed that “there is a Chinese boom in Russia with the number of young Russians learning Chinese growing," an indication of how things have changed on their head in the past half a century.14 Xi Jinping’s visit was, in a sense, a necessity for both. Putin had commented that Russia must "catch the Chinese wind in our economic sail",15 but rhetoric aside, whether the relationship of mutual convenience will stand the test of time is another question. Both appear to want to ‘bury the hatchet’ for the time being. But for how long is the question. History has not been kind to such a rapprochement for long.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.