China-Russia: A Strategic or a Tactical Marriage?

By – Mahek Marwaha;

Sun Tzu defines strategy as the game plan for achieving a long-term vision or goal set in motion by the completion of tactics, which are checkpoints established at each milestone set by those in control of the state machinery. He says “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”; another apt quote of his is “All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved”. Hence, when the present situation is weighed against the past, it becomes clearer to assess if China and Russia’s relationship is strategic or tactical.

Mao’s China and Stalin’s USSR: Ideological similarities with widening differences

Diplomatically, during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, Mao’s China faced much animosity from Stalin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) because USSR and China’s views on Communism differed from each other. The worker’s revolt gave birth to communism in the USSR, which was a way for workers to demand equal rights and to end the tyranny created by capitalism and the monopolization of industries by a few. In the 19th and 20th centuries, China was not facing industrialization; rather, it was an agrarian economy where, according to Stalin, Communism would fail due to the lack of a working-class force. The divergent views on how Communism should be carried out sowed the seeds for the eventual widening of the rift in relations with Russia. Because of the PRC’s(People’s Republic Of China) ambition for global recognition of its nationhood, Zhou En Lai’s foreign policy at the time was to maintain friendly relations with everyone, particularly the United Nations and the United States, deepening the division between the blue and red bloc. Because of these ties, China-USSR relations became complicated.

On the military front, the ownership of the riverine islands became a source of contention in 1960, resulting in a territorial war. Because the USSR treated China as a weaker nation, Mao’s China felt inferior to Stalin’s Russia. Tsarist Russia compelled China to cede its borders to the Soviet Union in the past. During the Cold War, the Brezhnev doctrine, which formalized the Warsaw Pact, was also used by the Soviet Union to justify invasions of eastern bloc nations in order to safeguard or strengthen communism, socialism, and authoritarian forms of government against invading liberal and democratic forces of the western bloc. It was an ideological conflict fought with firearms and machinery between two superpowers where everyone including China was getting roped in. China saw Moscow’s goals as a threat since the China of the 1960s wanted to be free of USSR influence, and didn’t want to be treated as second-class citizens by Russians. The 1970s saw Deng Xiaoping coming to power, strengthening US-China ties while weakening China-Russia connections.

Deng’s China was the economically hungry behemoth with whom the United States needed to engage in the 1970s. In terms of economics, the United States began to place bets on China after seeing promising outcomes. To empower itself economically, diplomatically, militarily, and strategically, Deng’s China adopted capitalism and industrialization. Russia was a declining superpower that had begun to lose its luster due to its communal economy, the drying up of its resources during the Star Wars, and the Soviet-Afghan War, which served as the final nail in the coffin that brought the USSR’s economy to its knees. The Red bloc of communism was torn apart by a decline in hard power (economic strength) and a skyrocket in hard and soft power (political sphere of influence) of the NATO(North Atlantic Treaty Organization) led alliance.

Despite ideologically sharing the same political agenda, China and the USSR were split on numerous fronts in the past. A similar philosophy of Communism, one in the Stalin-Lenin style in Russia and the other with Chinese traits in China, provided the seed for the division, which spread to the diplomatic, military, and economic relationships, resulting in a tumultuous relationship between China and the Soviet Union. “There are no permanent allies or foes in international relations, only permanent interests,” an overused adage that explains the evolution of all geopolitical interactions, accurately sums up their evolving relationship from the Cold War to 2022.

Present Realities shaping China-Russia Ties

 The formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 1996 paved the way for deepening ties between China and Russia. Since Xi Jinping’s victory in 2013, he has seen Putin more than 30 times and considers him to be his most important ally. When it comes to Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and even North Korea, Russia, and China are on the same page in terms of foreign policy. Furthermore, with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, Central Asia has become critical in Russia and China’s re-alignment of foreign policies in order to formulate counter-terrorism tactics to combat terrorism emanating from the Middle East and Afghanistan, which would have a significant impact on Central Asian countries due to its strategic importance in terms of economy, energy, and BRI(Belt and Road Initiative) connectivity, which SCO countries provide. Another reason for the re-alignment of each other’s foreign policies towards a single strategic aim of the China-Russia-led world order.

Following the establishment of QUAD(Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), there has been an increase in defense and military ties between China and Russia, ranging from joint naval maneuvers in the Pacific in October 2019 to large-scale war simulations in Ningxia, all of which are strengthening and reinforcing China-Russia inter-military ties. China and Russia are currently working on military helicopters, missile attack warning systems, and even lunar exploration sites.

When it comes to economic ties, China is Russia’s second-largest oil importer, and Russia is China’s largest exporter of weaponry and ammunition, resulting in significant military advances. The Siberian Pipeline may become China’s lifeline for oil and gas, considering the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia is giving these natural resources at a significantly reduced price, which will benefit China. The Siberian pipeline will be Russia’s largest pipeline, and that will be profitable due to China’s surging energy needs as a side effect of its growing economy and middle class.

The developing nexus between China and Russia in 2022 has much to do with their shared security danger of direct confrontation, as well as the expanding influence of western alliances such as QUAD, AUKUS, and NATO. This vicious cycle of anxiety, in which one picks up the stone in fear of the other doing so, feeds and amplifies itself, eventually resulting in a rift and a war-like situation. The breach between the US and China widened after the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s adamant refusal to cooperate with Western-led inquiries into the pandemic’s origins. China’s growing hostility toward India, as well as the greater democratic world order, fueled a vicious cycle of groupings that eventually results in the deepening of linkages and divisions. The Western-led bloc emphasizes democracy, rule-based order in the fields of military, diplomacy, ideology, and transparency in information sharing whereas the China-Russia-led bloc emphasizes authoritarianism, govt.-based order, and heavy restrictions on information sharing. 

Connecting The Dots

By examining the aspects of diplomacy, military, and economy, we can see that, with the march of time, today’s China, led by Xi Jinping, and Russia, led by Putin, has developed a marriage of convenience that is resulting in a tactical relationship aimed at achieving each other’s personal strategic goals. When we consider the strategic goal of dismantling and establishing a new world order free of a western, liberal, and democratic lifestyle and replacing it with a more restricted, autocratic, and government-based society, we can see the convergence. China has a grand strategy of implementing the Tianxia model of governance, in which everyone is subject to one heaven’s mandate meaning the whole of mankind undergoes a voluntary fusion of that particular culture and societal lifestyle which is beneficial for the evolution of both mental and moral state of whole mankind with Beijing playing a bigger role because of its evolved hard and soft power. Whereas Russia’s revisionist power wishes to return to the glory days of the Tsarist regime when the Eurasian continent and its countries were subject to the Russian Mir, or sphere of influence. This disparity in strategic goals, as well as a reactionary rather than proactive attitude, has resulted in a tactical marriage between China and Russia, with some strategic congruence.

Mahek Marwaha is a Master’s student of OP Jindal University, Jindal School Of International Affairs building an academic background in International Relations with a broad interest in security, trade, and politics of the Asia Region with a specialized focus on China Studies and Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism Studies. 

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