A Bear-Dragon alliance?

Inscrutable China

Srikanth Kondapalli, the JNU Prof has been Peking behind the Bamboo Curtain for 30 years@Sri_Kondapalli

In answer to America’s alliance and coalition-making targeting China and Russia, the latter two countries might be on the way to firming up their own alliance. Beijing and Moscow have been enhancing their interactions, coordination and cooperation at the global and regional levels.

Close on the heels of the Quad summit in Washington on September 24, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking at the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy in Moscow on October 2, criticised the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy as lacking in consensus and for breaking the previous ‘Asia-Pacific’ regional construct. In March, after a virtual meeting of the Quad leaders, Lavrov had visited China to criticise the “rules-based order” – a major aspect of the Quad narrative -- as being against the Russia-China preferred “global governance” construct.

Although Lavrov noted Russian neutrality in the backdrop of the armed stalemate between India and China, following the Galwan incident, by suggesting that both are Russia’s “friends and brothers”, and sending signals of restrained military sales of hi-tech equipment to China during the border standoff, the larger US-Russia relations could that in the near future.

The US has declared Russia and China its “strategic competitors” and has kept up the sanctions imposed on Russia over its annexation of the Crimea. The US also abrogated the intermediate range nuclear forces treaty and the 34-nation Open Skies Treaty that allows mutual observation flights over military facilities and reduces chances of accidental war. This resulted in the Russian pivot to its east.

A year ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the international community by seemingly suggesting that while a military alliance does not exist with China currently, one could be forged in the future. He said, “Without any doubt, our cooperation with China is bolstering the defence capability of PLA.” Russia, he said, had shared sensitive military technologies with China.

Russian ambassador to China Andrey Denisov interpreted Putin’s comments to imply that things had gone beyond a traditional alliance in many ways. China and Russia do not need to establish a military alliance because their relationship is strong enough already. On the other hand, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, replying to Putin’s comments, said that both countries have been consistent advocates of international cooperation and harmonious coexistence between major countries.

This indicates that while Russia may be interested in upgrading ties with China to an alliance, China wants to continue “multipolarity” through the loose association with Russia to protect itself from the US. An alliance with Russia could be problematic for China’s rise in the international system in the longer term. Hence, Beijing perhaps wants only a tactical understanding with Moscow.

A mutual security understanding between the two countries was provided by Article 7 of their July 2001 joint statement: “China and Russia will participate in ensuring the stability and security of the Asian and Pacific region and consolidate the confidence and cooperation in that region on a bilateral and multilateral basis.”

However, while Russia has endorsed China’s positions on Xinjiang, Taiwan, Hong Kong and others, China is largely silent on the South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Crimean developments.

Alongside, even as China is making constant adjustments vis-à-vis the US – with an understanding recently on trade and Taiwan – it is skillfully using Russia as a shield in its battles with the US. Coordination at the UN, SCO, BRICS, and in cyber and space domains are a few areas of such an “united front” with Russia.

Russia had invested much energy in the Asia-Pacific construct with China. It is a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and the defence ministerial grouping. While the traditional friendship between Russia and Vietnam had waned after the Soviet Union disintegrated, Moscow is still a major source of Kilo-class submarines, Su-27 and other equipment to Southeast Asian countries. In the cesspool of South China Sea conflicts, cleverly, Vietnam (and the Indian ONGC Videsh Limited) have reposed confidence in Russia’s Rosneft. All these have provided Moscow a foothold in the region.

In this context, while Russia and China have renewed the 2001 Sino-Russian treaty recently, and conduct intensive military “interoperability” exercises, including in the South China Sea, India needs to watch out and take countermeasures against any emergence of a Russia-China alliance. Also, India needs to keep an eye on the one area of growing friction between the two countries – Siberia.

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