Russia is growing increasingly belligerent. With the United States busy confronting China’s growing influence in Asia, Vladimir Putin is now trying to send a message by threatening Ukraine to show the West that they shouldn’t discount his powerful country. It was then only a matter of time for an adage to return: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This saying holds in the context of Sino-Russian relations.
The two countries are geographical neighbors. When the USSR was eager to grow its influence in Asia at the start of the Cold War, it devised a policy of close cooperation with Mao Zedong’s young communist state. China had helped the USSR inflict a harsh political defeat on the U.S. during the Korean War, ensuring North Korea’s survival and forcing the U.N. to negotiate a ceasefire to end what could have been a total western victory. This success bolstered ties between the communist neighbors, and the USSR soon supplied China with thousands of its best engineers. They established weapons production facilities and even started developing China’s first nuclear research plant. However, mistrust quickly set in between the former allies.
Under Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership, tensions arose between the two powers as differences in their political ideologies became clear, leading the USSR to withdraw their support for China’s developing nuclear technology. China subsequently denounced its “slavish dependence” on the Soviets. Furthermore, Mao was growing uneasy with the USSR’s policy of détente with the West, seeing it as a public show of weakness and the relinquishing of shared Marxist ideals. Mao published an article explicitly criticizing Khrushchev’s policies, ratifying the ideological and military divorce. What happened next shocked the world. In 1964, barely four years after the Sino-Soviet split, China tested its first atomic device, becoming the fifth nuclear power. Ever since, China’s military and economic might have been steadily growing, with analysts now predicting that China will be the United States’ prime adversary in a future Cold War.
But Russia is reluctant to relinquish its position as a superpower. It still fields an army that is tactically superior to China’s. Russia effectively rose back from the dead after the fall of the USSR, when the U.S. tried to force collaboration to prevent renewed tensions. This effort failed as nationalistic instincts gripped the crippled country, leading to the election of Vladimir Putin, who many credit with rehabilitating the economy and restoring USSR-era expansionism and ambition. This effort culminated in the 2014 invasion of Crimea and the subsequent Ukrainian civil war, where Moscow continues to support Ukrainian rebels.
The West reacted by imposing tough sanctions on Russia. With Putin now threatening a total invasion of Ukraine, another economic threat looms over Moscow: gas sales to the EU. Europe relies on Russian gas, which transits through massive pipelines; it has promised that such infrastructure would be severely sanctioned in case of an invasion, losing Russia billions in foreign currency revenues. That is one area where Moscow is turning to Beijing. China has agreed to a deal that will see a new pipeline built from Russia, enabling Gazprom, Russia’s state energy exporter, to nearly double its exports. The Chinese would pay for the gas in Euros, ensuring a constant flow of fresh funds.
Furthermore, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin declared in a meeting held alongside the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics that their countries’ ties would have “no limits” moving forward. The two sides put out a statement, heavily accenting their disapproval of NATO's expansion and asking it to stop “its Cold War ideology.” This alliance is thus clearly declaring itself as an opportunistic marriage between two former enemies, recognizing that the best way to buy some time and further develop capabilities to face the U.S. is to bond and create a shared bloc. This has raised fears of shared Sino-Russian domination over Asia, a region that seems to have supplanted even the Middle East in interest from the main superpowers. But is this alliance viable?
Russia’s trade volume with China is significant, certainly more important than its exchange with the U.S., but Europe is still Russia’s premier export market, an economic volume that it cannot hope to quickly replace by an increasingly self-sufficient China. Alienating the West would prove costly to a fragile Russian economy, and Putin knows that social unrest could spell the end of his regime. Politically, China has recently supported the Russian aggression of Ukraine, in anticipation of the precedent it may set for its own situations of political unrest. Of course, this further highlights the opportunism behind this renewed alliance, but that does not make it any less threatening. A bloc is forming in the United Nations Security Council. If Russia and China cover each other’s imperialistic actions, the power of international institutions will be limited in condemning such attacks.
The West needs to be wary of Russia’s realignment towards Beijing, even more than China’s expansionism. An independent Russia might not be a U.S. ally, per se, but it effectively stops China’s political expansion on its northern border, and away from the increasingly strategic former USSR states. Russia may be inclined to turn towards a more receptive China, especially if it keeps getting bumped off the West's top foreign policy priorities. The U.S. risks the loss of a whole continent’s worth of influence to an autocratic and belligerent marriage. America has managed to keep two hostile superpowers at bay, but a combined force acting against American interests might prove very damaging for much-eroded U.S. foreign policy credentials.