Neighborly Love

Are China and Russia getting too friendly?

Vladimir Putin

If Americans remember Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China as a landmark foreign-policy achievement, it is because the president eased Cold War fears of a Soviet-Chinese alliance. But neither the collapse of the Soviet Union nor China’s embrace of capitalism fully buried concerns that a Sino-Russian partnership would imperil U.S. and European interests across the vast Eurasian landmass. Some Western officials now worry that such a partnership is finally coming to fruition. Their fear may be well-founded.

Washington worries that a Chinese-Russian alliance would create obstacles to the achievement of U.S. strategic objectives, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. Attempts to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions and counterterrorist efforts in Central Asia top a long list of such priorities. European officials fear that, in the longer term, China may absorb increasing quantities of the Russian energy supplies on which EU states increasingly depend, and that Russia will try to re-establish Ukraine and Belarus as buffers against European influence.

Western officials shrugged off a 2001 Sino-Russian friendship and cooperation treaty, and Russia and China were hardly alone in their opposition to the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq. But a Russian-Chinese push within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to evict U.S. troops from Uzbekistan in 2005 raised eyebrows. One month later, an unprecedented series of joint Russian-Chinese military exercises involving some 10,000 troops and advanced military aircraft increased the alert level still further. Their coordinated opposition to tough sanctions on Iran has brought U.N. Security Council tensions to a simmer and raised fears they may pool their diplomatic resources to frustrate other Western goals.

Several factors have traditionally limited prospects for strategic partnership. During the Cold War, Moscow and Beijing competed for leadership of the Communist world. Border tensions between the two states erupted into low-level armed conflict in 1969. Nixon’s visit to Beijing three years later widened the Sino-Soviet divide.

Since the Soviet collapse in 1991, China’s demographic weight has intimidated Russian policy-makers. Russia’s vast territory, which spans 11 time zones, is home to just 143 million people, a number now declining by about 700,000 per year. Anxiety over the problem led President Vladimir Putin to use his May state of the nation speech to offer cash rewards to women who produce two or more children.

Russia’s Far East is among the most sparsely populated areas on Earth. Many in Moscow fear that, over time, legions of Chinese migrants could tip the political, economic, and social balance in Russia’s eastern provinces in China’s favor. This anxiety feeds an anti-Chinese xenophobia that has existed in Russia for centuries. (In July 2003, Slate’s Kim Iskyan suggested that China should purchase the Russian Far East.)

What’s more, Central Asia is a traditional sphere of competition between the two states. When the five former Central Asian Soviet republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) gained independence in 1991, Moscow feared that competition for their loyalty and resources might intensify.

But there are several reasons why Russian-Chinese relations may now have turned a corner. During the last decade, both have become more preoccupied with U.S. encroachment into their respective back yards. Russia faces pro-Western governments in the Baltics, Ukraine, and Georgia. China casts a wary eye toward growing U.S. ties with India. The global war on terror moved American troops into Afghanistan and then into other Central Asian states. Anxieties over encirclement and U.S. influence in the world’s pre-eminent political and financial institutions have persuaded Russian and Chinese officials that American power must be checked.

Second, during the last three years, the global price of oil has tripled, lifting Russia’s current account surplus—and its self-confidence. China needs ever-increasing supplies of energy to fuel its growth and overland pipelines to transport them. Russia can provide both. Some 80 percent of China’s oil imports now pass through the strategically vulnerable Strait of Malacca, a maritime region dominated by the U.S. and Indian navies. Beijing and Moscow have made recent progress toward a pipeline agreement that would mitigate this risk.

Third, Putin’s current popularity—his domestic approval rating is hovering near 70 percent—and the considerable revenues Russia has earned from $70-per-barrel oil have assuaged Kremlin fears that Russia would remain the junior member in any Sino-Russian partnership.

Finally, Russia has received so little from the United States in return for its cooperation that many Russian officials now wonder openly why it should continue. The two sides continue to share intelligence on the terrorist threat that plagues them both. But NATO has expanded across Eastern Europe into the territory of the former Soviet Union. Washington has scrapped the ABM treaty; supported pro-Western political forces in Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus; criticized Putin’s consolidation of domestic political power; condemned the role Russia’s state-owned energy firms play in former Soviet republics; and delayed the country’s accession into the World Trade Organization.

Many in the Kremlin argue that Moscow has gained nothing from accommodating Washington beyond creation of the moribund NATO-Russia Council and a U.S.-Russian “energy dialogue” that Moscow may no longer need. That’s why Kremlin officials have brushed aside U.S. complaints about April’s $120 million weapons sale to Venezuela and Moscow’s opposition to sanctions on Iran—Russia’s biggest arms and civilian nuclear client.

During next weekend’s G8 summit in St. Petersburg, Western leaders will have an opportunity to ease some of the strains burdening Russia’s relations with the United States and European Union. Though the meeting offers them nothing like the opportunity Nixon seized to widen the distance between Moscow and Beijing, any meaningful reaffirmation of shared interests could mend a few fences. But if Putin’s G8 counterparts have nothing tangible to offer him, Moscow may well turn toward other, potentially more profitable, partnerships—and newfound friends in Beijing.