Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a defiant joint statement last week. They affirmed their “strong mutual support for the protection of their core interests” and openly opposed the U.S.-led world order and value system. Many international observers saw the statement as a “manifesto” for a new multipolar world order in which Russia and China are united against the United States.
To demonstrate the strength of their unofficial alliance, Russia pledged it “supports a successful hosting by the Chinese side of the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2022,” undoubtedly snubbing at the U.S.-led diplomatic boycott of both games. Russia also affirms, “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.” In return, for the first time in history, China joined Russia in opposing any “further enlargement of NATO.”
The joint statement claims that the “friendship between [Russia and China] knows no limits.” But the questions remain how strong their alliance really is and how long it will last.
Former Enemies with Common Goals
Russia and China share a border that is more than 2,000 miles long and have fought numerous wars over border disputes. After Joseph Stalin died in 1953, the ideological divisions and power struggle between China’s leader Mao Zedong and USSR’s leader Nikita Khrushchev led to a drastic fallout between the two nations.
The USSR ceased economic and military aid to China and pulled out all Soviet technicians helping China industrialize its economy. Mao responded by severing the diplomatic ties with the USSR in 1967 and began to plot a pivot to the United States. The Soviets accused Mao of biting the hand that fed him. The two nations fought a bitter border war between 1968 to 1969, which almost led to World War III.
The two nations have only begun to deepen their relationship in recent years out of both fear and necessity. The biggest fear of both Xi and Putin is that “colored” revolutions, with the backing of the United States, will take place in their countries and overthrow their authoritarian regimes.
Both Xi and Putin face pressure from the West over their aggressions and human rights violations. Both wish to do away with America’s leadership, and the liberal world order America helped establish. Undoubtedly, this shared goal has brought China and Russia closer.
Since 2005, China and Russia have held joint military drills. They have also strengthened economic ties. Russia is “the second-largest supplier of crude oil to China and the third-largest provider of natural gas.” Bilateral trade reached $140 billion in 2021. Trade with China has helped Russia evade economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and western allies.
But there are plenty of reasons the Sino-Russia alliance is fragile in the long run.
An Unstable Alliance
Xi and Putin don’t fully trust each other, partially due to the long history of disputes and betrayal between the two nations. In addition, they have different policy goals based on their nations’ strengths and weaknesses.
Xi doesn’t see Russia as an equal partner but as a pawn to realize his vision for China, to replace the United States as the only superpower in a Sino-centered and autocracy-friendly new world. While China is Russia’s largest trade partner, Russia amounts to less than 2 percent of China’s total trade volume.
Xi has no intention of helping Russia become an economic powerhouse. According to Jon Yuan Jiang, a Chinese-Russian relations analyst in Australia, an economically weak but militarily aggressive Russia suits Xi’s vision. He prefers that the Russian military keeps the west, primarily the United States, occupied and draws attention from Beijing’s geopolitical expansion. At the same time, he hopes that Russia’s economic dependency on China will deter Putin from challenging China’s dominance.
Putin has no delusions that a new world order dominated by China will not bode well for Russia in the long run. His goal is to return Russia to what he sees as the glorious past of the USSR by all measures, including territories, military strength, and economic power. Putin is unsatisfied that Russia is a junior partner in the Sino-Russia economic relationship, and he recognizes that Russia’s economic dependency on China is a barrier to his goal.
These competing interests goals, alongside historical disputes, mean the Sino-Russia cooperation is limited.
An Opening for Biden
There are three things the Biden administration should do to exploit the friction between China and Russia. First, the Biden administration must reverse its energy policies that have benefited Russia.
Since coming into office, President Biden has imposed ruinous energy policies, including establishing a moratorium on leasing federal lands for oil and gas production and rescinding the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have added 830,000 barrels of oil a day to the world market. These policies resulted in skyrocketing gas prices, hurting U.S. consumers and economic recovery while creating a windfall for Russia, and providing Putin the financial resources to cause nuisance worldwide.
The Biden administration should instead lower the cost and remove the regulatory barriers for domestic energy producers to ramp up production. Since the energy sector represents 60 percent of Russia’s economy, lower oil and gas prices will hurt Russia’s economy. They may cost Putin the widespread support from the Russian people over Russia’s possible invasion of Ukraine.
Lowering energy prices worldwide will cause some clashes between China and Russia. As the world’s largest oil and gas importer, China welcomes any opportunity to pay less for energy resources. Beijing will rely on Russian partners less if it can find cheap energy imports elsewhere. Even if, for strategic reasons, Beijing has to maintain imports from Russia, the Chinese will drive a hard bargain on prices, which will undoubtedly cause resentment among Russians.
The second thing the Biden administration should do is focus on economic sanction tools that will drive China and Russia apart. Suppose Russia invades Ukraine, and the West responds by cutting Russia from the international banking system. In that case, China may want to put a distance between itself and Russia because China’s export-oriented economy is heavily dependent on such a system. Xi will have little appetite to jeopardize China’s economic growth to save Russia.
Finally, the United States should avoid outcompeting Russia in weapon exports in specific strategic markets. Russia’s economy is about the size of Italy, and it relies on two types of exports: energy and weapons. Putin has tried to diversify Russia’s economy to reduce Russia’s economic dependency on China, even if it means irritating China.
Russia exported $7.5 billion worth of military equipment to India from 2015 to 2019. Russia and India signed a new trade agreement in 2021, pledging to increase bilateral trade to $30 billion by 2025. India and China are rivals. With more than 1.4 billion people and nuclear weapons, India is the only Asian country that checks China’s growing geopolitical ambitions in Asia. China and India fought a bloody border war in the 1960s. Since 2020, the two nations have engaged in contentious border disputes.
India has been purchasing weapons from both the United States and Russia. China is particularly annoyed that Russia is arming India and expanding trade relations with Beijing’s rival. As long as India maintains a good relationship with the United States, the United States should not try to outcompete Russia in weapon exports in India. Russia’s continuing weapon exports to India naturally limit Moscow and Beijing’s cooperation.
As the saying goes, “There are no permanent friends, or permanent enemies; only permanent interests in international relations.” The United States should take the cooperation between China and Russia seriously while continuing to exploit opportunities to drive the two apart.