The growing alignment between Russia and China
China has undoubtedly been Russia’s most important partner in Asia. A strategic partnership with Beijing has been the result of an alignment between the powers. The two share a number of interests, first and foremost stability on the border. They also have common goals such as establishing a multipolar world order. At the same time, there is no obligation to defend each other, which provides the two countries the freedom to maneuver. In the eyes of Russian leadership, China is a partner that shares many of its principles and aims, especially regarding the world order, but does not pose an existential threat as the liberal West does since it has no interest in regime change.
Being great powers, Russia and China possess both complementary and contradictory interests. Their entente has been based on the premise that they do not conduct policies that are aimed against each other but at the same time have different strategies and enjoy different relationships with other powers.
Political, security and military cooperation have been the hallmarks of Russia-China relations, while economic interaction remains complementary but unbalanced and focused on the procurement of Russian resources, especially energy, in exchange for manufactured goods and goods with high added value. The latter, however, is the characteristic of Russia’s trade relations with all major Asian states, especially Japan and South Korea. While Russia remains China’s primary source of the import of sophisticated military equipment and technologies, China has emerged as a new source of technologies and equipment in energy, telecommunications, manufacturing and other spheres where previously Russia’s chief links used to be with Europe.
There has been an increasing alignment between Moscow and Beijing as the two feel an intense pressure from Washington. Russia’s confrontation with the West has pushed it into China’s embrace, and the rise of the US-China strategic competition has also prompted Beijing to strive for a greater cooperation with Moscow. In their joint declarations of 2016 and 2019 Russia and China criticized the military build-up of the US military alliances and the deployment of ballistic missile defense systems in Asia and Europe as sources of instability and triggering a dangerous arms race. They accused Washington of eroding global rules and dismantling the arms control regime in the form of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which has a negative impact on global stability. The 2019 Declaration on the partnership entering a new era also signified that despite the global turbulence, the Russia-China strategic partnership has stayed as strong and solid as ever.
On June 28, 2021, Russia and China extended their bilateral Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, which was signed in 2001. Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted the principles stipulated in the treaty such as “mutual support in protecting state unity and territorial integrity, a pledge not to be the first to use nuclear weapons and not to target strategic missiles at each other”. The Joint Statement also states that their relations have reached the highest level in their history and that they play an important role in promoting a multipolar world order and regional security.
Apart from regular military exercises, the two countries also conducted their first joint Asia-Pacific air defense patrols in 2019 and 2020, flying in the vicinity of the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima Islands/Liancourt Rocks. More than that, in October 2019, Putin made a statement that Russia is helping China to construct a missile early-warning system that can help it develop the same capabilities that only Russia and the US currently have and the ability to launch a retaliatory strike.
China and Russia’s respective tensions with the West have provided an incentive to upgrade security cooperation. Asked about the possibility of a full-fledged military alliance in October 2020, Putin said that the current level of cooperation and trust seems sufficient and that there was no such goal but an alliance is plausible. In essence, it can be interpreted that if the pressure from the West continues, the strategic partners are likely to explore new areas of security cooperation.
Russia’s view on the Indo-Pacific
The emergence of the Indo-Pacific strategies by many regional states is a development that has concerned the Russian government. Although in the past Asia used to be the region where the differences in the interests of Russia and the US were much less pronounced, the systemic confrontation between the states has had a negative impact on their interaction in Asia. It could be considered as the main reason for Russia’s negative attitude towards the concept of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP), as Russian officials highlight the American strategy.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in particular, has repeatedly criticized the concept of the Indo-Pacific. First, as it is directed against China and believed to be aimed at containing it, Russia could never support such a vision.
Second, the Indo-Pacific is described to create a competitive rather than cooperative strategic space that works against the desire of regional actors to preserve peace and stability and might force them to make the choices that they would not like to. Moscow fears that it could undermine ASEAN centrality, make the inclusive regional institutions irrelevant and focus on the exclusive groups which many regional states are not invited to join.
Third, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad – an informal strategic grouping of the US, Japan, Australia and India – is seen as a potential alliance-style arrangement. Given that Russia has a negative history of interaction with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it is quite understandable why having an Asian NATO is also a concern for Moscow.
Fourth, Lavrov wondered what are the rules that the US wants to promote, how its intentions correspond with international law, and why something other than international law is required. It should be pointed out that the Russian officials focus their criticism only the US FOIP strategy and its consequences out of concern that it could influence the actions of other states and aggravate security tensions.
At the same time, when answering a question on his views on the Indo-Pacific, President Putin in his speech in October 2019 emphasized that Russia is against creating blocs and divisions in Asia, as regional states have no interest in making choices. He emphasized the role of ASEAN as a central organization and said that Russia would welcome creating a network of cooperative engagement and “common security systems” where the countries could find common ground.