In light of President Xi’s latest visit to Russia, it would be appropriate to provide a nuanced perspective to the current state of Sino-Russian relations. It is understandably difficult for the western media to deliver this kind of nuance; this difficulty stems not only from western biases against both Russia and China that obstructs objective analysis, but also the complications inherent in bilateral relations. For the sake of brevity, I will make just two observations which is inadequately emphasized in modern-day discourse on the Sino-Russian bilateral relationship – incentives for cooperation and Russia’s true value as a “comprehensive” strategic partner.There is a highly questionable assumption in the West that the “warmth” of Sino-Russian relations depend mostly on each party’s relationship with the US & the west. In other words, western mainstream thinking suggests that Sino-Russian relations will have the appearance of improvement ONLY when US-Russia or US-China relations take a turn for the worse, and that China & Russia have little genuine practical interests that incentivize them to cooperate with each other.
This assumption may have been valid in the 90s & early 2000s, but it is becoming less and less so today. The most notable example of this trend is energy cooperation – a pillar of improving bilateral ties. Russia needs to diversify its energy & resource customer base away from Europe, capitalize on Asia’s emerging markets; China needs abundant, diverse, and secure energy supplies through non-maritime sources. Central Asia is another example. China & Russia both have strong incentives to prevent terrorism and the drug trafficking in Central Asia, and they would coordinate policies through institutions such as the SCO, regardless of their respective relationships with the West. Trade is yet another example. Russia needs to stimulate the economy of the Russian Far East, while China needs to revitalize its northeastern provinces. Sino-Russian cross-border trade is one of the channels through which both sides complement each others’ development needs. All of these are lasting interests that will not change regardless of the state of each country’s respective relationship with the EU or the US.
The second nuance about Sino-Russian relations that is hardly ever discussed is Russia’s true value as China’s “comprehensive” strategic partner. People often cite Russia’s importance in the individual microcosms of Russia as a trade partner, an energy exporter, an arms provider, or a political backer. In reality, Sino-Russian trade volumes are nowhere near that of China’s trade with US, Japan, or Germany. In the sphere of energy, Angola and Saudi Arabia are China’s top oil providers, Central Asia is China’s largest natural gas provider, while Mongolia and Australia are China’s main providers of imported coal. As for Russia’s role as a provider of advanced weaponry for the PLA, arms exports to China has steadily diminished since the mid-2000s, and despite recent reports about Su-35s and Lada submarines, is unlikely to return to its former height in the early 2000s. Moreover, Russia has the default status of being China’s main arms provider simply because the West and the US chose not to compete in the market (for obvious reasons). Last but not least, in the sphere of politics, while Russia supports most of China’s diplomatic stances in the international arena, Russia has virtually no ability to enhance or diminish the legitimacy of the Chinese government in the eyes of its own citizens, especially compared to the West’s ability to influence China’s internal politics, as well as China’s stature in the developing world and participation in international organizations, for better or worse. In addition, China and Russia have potential source of competition as well; competition for influence in Central Asia comes to mind right away (but keep in mind that competition exist in ANY bilateral relationship in international affairs).
That said, if Russia isn’t China’s most important trade partner, energy exporter, arms provider, or political backer, what then, is its key value proposition to the PRC? The answer is that Russia can be, and is, any and all of the above to some degree. Russia has a unique place in Chinese foreign policy, for no other country in the world has BOTH the intention AND the capability to cooperate with and provide benefits to China in ALL spheres of global interactions, be it trade, science/hi-tech, military cooperation, law enforcement, diplomacy, culture, or any other fields one would care to list. Granted it may not be China’s biggest benefactor in any aforementioned field, but Russia – as a “comprehensive” partner – can be best described as a jack of all traits, even though it’s a master of none.
Regardless of the state of China’s political and economic relationships with anyone else, it is imperative for China to continue maintaining stable, progressive, and mutually-respectful bilateral ties with Russia, given Russia’s unique importance as a comprehensive partner. Prospects of coordinating action against hegemonic behavior is simply icing on the cake.