China and Russia have strengthened their political, economic and military relations this year, despite their uneasy history in the past, as both countries say they resent what they call growing pressure from the West.
So far this year, the two have held a series of military exercises and issued joint diplomatic statements aimed at Western countries. On November 27, for example, an essay by both countries’ ambassadors to Washington protested the upcoming U.S.-led Summit for Democracy for creating divisions in the world. Neither Russia nor China appeared on the list of 110 invitees.
Russia depends on China’s massive industrial economy for oil and gas exports as environmental rules in the European Union complicate energy imports there, said Vassily Kashin, senior fellow at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
He said two-way relations were at their strongest since the 1950s.
“Most importantly, we have a common position concerning the global order, which is that we don’t like the U.S. global order, so this close partnership is based on common opposition to the U.S.-led global order,” Kashin said.
Western democracies from the United States to Australia and throughout Europe have strengthened their own ties this year at a time of concern about China’s policies. Western governments have signaled opposition to Beijing’s aggressive language on Taiwan, its crackdown on dissenters in Hong Kong and its policies targeting a Muslim minority in China's Xinjiang region.
Countries, including the West and some in Southeast Asia, further resent China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” approach that has seen China’s Communist Party become more vocal about promoting its views among overseas audiences. In foreign relations, experts say Beijing has been using “increasingly assertive tactics” to “aggressively defend their home country,” often in the cyber world.
China and Russia in turn hope to stop a return to U.S.-driven soft power of the Barack Obama-George W. Bush presidencies, when smaller countries saw the United States as “more acceptable leaders” among great powers, said Alan Chong, associate professor at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Chinese soft power, Chong said, “has taken a hit” because of President Xi Jinping's comments that make him sound strong at home at the expense of solidarity and friendship overseas. China sees U.S. President Joe Biden as “a very tough opponent,” he added.
Western governments have called out China this year particularly over its perceived aggression toward Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing calls its own. A U.S. official also warned Russia last month about troop buildup near Ukraine.
Evidence of stronger Sino-Russian ties
With the world’s second-strongest military, after the United States, Russia holds occasional military exercises with China — five made public to date — while selling arms to its giant neighbor to the south.
In October, China and Russia held their 10th annual "Maritime Interaction” naval drills with the Russian Pacific Fleet’s anti-submarine ship Admiral Panteleyev, the Moscow-based Sputnik news service reported. China's People's Liberation Army Navy sent several destroyers and a diesel submarine.
The two navies drill together to strengthen “combat capabilities” in case of “seaborne threats,” Sputnik said.
Russia and China held five days of military exercises in a remote region of central China in August, drawing more than 10,000 service personnel, aircraft, artillery and armored vehicles.
China and Russia also began operating a space weather center this month in Beijing and Moscow, the Chinese state-run China Daily reported. In June, they agreed to extend their 20-year-old Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation to strengthen relations by respecting each other’s interests and sovereignty, the Daily said.
Russia looks to China for support of its goal in occupying parts of Ukraine, as well as a conduit to show Moscow can “still play a role” in Asia, in the region,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.
China needs Russian weapons, energy and support against Western pressure, Yang said. Russia agreed in 2015 to sell China 24 combat aircraft and four S-400 surface-to-air missile systems for about $7 billion. On the economic side, China became Russia’s No. 1 trading partner in 2017. Two years ago, Xi and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agreed to fuse each side’s efforts to open trade routes by building infrastructure in other countries.
“I think this is the traditional, old-fashioned balance of power,” Yang said. “They consider if China and Russia can join together, they can also regulate the regional security issues.”
Limits to Sino-Russian cooperation
Cold War-era distrust between China and Russia is likely to limit cooperation to broad or informal actions rather than a signed pact, analysts say. Sino-Russian relations faded in the 1960s when the two Communist parties split over ideology and border conflicts ensued.
The two sides could set up a military technology sharing deal like the AUKUS pact involving Australia, Britain and the United States, said Nguyen Thanh Trung, a faculty member at Fulbright University Vietnam. Earlier goals haven't been met, he told VOA.
“Over the last two years, China and Russia have signed a lot of agreements, but I don’t see a lot of concrete progress in their agreements,” Nguyen said.
Western allies need not worry about China-Russia cooperation unless the two powers sign a formal agreement, Chong said.
"If you see an MOU [memorandum of understanding] where they would state, explicitly, [that] they would stage X number of military exercises, they would establish some sort of integrated military command or something, then there’s cause for worry, but as they go at the moment, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” he said.
This week the Pentagon announced as part of a regular review of its forces around the world that it would reinforce deployments and bases directed at China and Russia, while still maintaining forces in the Middle East to deter terrorist groups and Iran.