Should We Be Worried About Russia and China Ganging Up on the West?

Probably not. Here’s why.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin

Whenever Russian and Chinese officials shake hands, Washington takes notice, and renewed concern over a potential anti-Western Sino-Russian axis gains fresh momentum. The annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Moscow- and Beijing-dominated Central Asian security forum, generated headlines earlier this month when special guest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the occasion to again denounce U.S. foreign policy.

The SCO has gotten the Bush administration’s attention before. In 2005, Russia and China used the organization to push for the eviction of U.S. troops from an airbase in Uzbekistan. Joint SCO military exercises again raise the specter that the organization might become a military bloc.

Are Russia and China finally forming the much-dreaded partnership? Neither the Soviet collapse nor China’s embrace of capitalism fully buried U.S. fears that a Sino-Russian alliance would threaten American interests across the vast Eurasian landmass.

Russia has added to American worries over the past several years by actively opposing U.S., European, and NATO plans; meddling in the political lives of its neighbors; and moving toward authoritarianism at home.

China has invested considerable sums in recent years to expand its military capabilities. Uncertainty in Washington over just how considerable those sums are has provoked high-level criticism from U.S. officials.

Yet the Russian and Chinese governments are highly unlikely to substantially align their foreign policies anytime soon. They will continue to cooperate when cooperation serves them, but their fundamental interests are not compatible.

First, Russia is one of the world’s leading exporters of oil and gas. China’s demand for both has grown enormously in recent years—and will continue to rise as its economy expands. The two countries are building a solid buyer-seller energy relationship.

But the differences in their foreign-policy goals emerge when we remember that Russia needs high energy prices, while China would like to see them fall. So many international conflicts today have potential implications for energy prices that Russia and China will frequently find themselves on different sides of key issues.

Neither government supports tough U.N. sanctions on Iran. But if Tehran were to retaliate against Western attempts to thwart its nuclear ambitions by deliberately pushing oil prices to new heights, Russia’s economy would profit while China’s would suffer. That’s why Russia and China, no matter how forcefully they resist the imposition of severe U.N. sanctions, cannot view the international conflict over Iran in quite the same way.

Second, China’s economic and military expansion inspires dread among Moscow’s military and security elite, which fears, among other things, that Russia’s resource-rich Far East could eventually become a zone of intense Sino-Russian competition. There are some 18 million ethnic Russians in Siberia; there are now about 300 million Chinese across the border in China’s northern provinces.

As Russians leave the sparsely populated eastern territories in search of opportunities in the country’s increasingly prosperous cities, waves of (mostly illegal) Chinese migrants are moving in. The trend is likely to intensify, feeding an anti-Chinese xenophobia that has existed in Russia for centuries. The risk of interethnic violence is bound to grow, complicating relations between the two governments.

Third, state-owned Chinese firms have expressed interest in buying increasing volumes of Russian equities. Russia will happily accept the cash, but the Kremlin is loath to accept investment that gives any foreign power a stake in the so-called strategic sectors of the Russian economy.

Today, trade with Russia, estimated at around $40 billion, accounts for just 2 percent of China’s trade total. According to Chinese customs data, U.S.-Chinese trade reached $262 billion in 2006. Trade with the European Union came in at around $272 billion. Given the importance of trade for the Chinese leadership’s vision of China’s future, these numbers reveal that Beijing’s interest in any anti-Western alliance will remain limited.

Finally, the Russian and Chinese governments now see the world (and their roles in it) in fundamentally different ways. China is well on its way to becoming a status-quo power. The Chinese Communist Party’s first priority is to safeguard its legitimacy at home by generating prosperity for the Chinese people.

To build that prosperity, Beijing has embarked on a “Go Out” foreign investment strategy meant to secure the reliable long-term supplies of energy and other resources on which future growth will depend. To ensure the strategy’s success, China must maintain reasonably positive relations with the United States and the European Union, home to wealthy consumers who buy increasing volumes of China’s manufacturing goods and companies that both invest in China and transfer new technologies to Chinese firms. International conflict—with America or any other powerful state—puts some of this commerce at risk.

For Moscow, on the other hand, the international status quo has become intolerable. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, demand has grown within Russian society for a more assertive role on the international stage, one that satisfies domestic demand for a forceful reassertion of Russia’s historical importance.

Following a decade of relative poverty and rising fears that Western powers were encircling Russia and profiting from its weakness, President Vladimir Putin’s government has embarked on a self-consciously aggressive new foreign policy. The steep rise in energy prices over the past four years finances the project.

But even Russia’s anti-Americanism is limited. Moscow’s relations with Western governments have reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. But Putin is not Ahmadinejad, and the Kremlin has no interest in becoming a pariah. The Kremlin forcefully insists that it has remained within the letter of international law in righting recent wrongs.

Russia and China will continue to find tactical advantage in working together on specific foreign-policy issues. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is, in part, a tool designed for that purpose. Some of that coordination is bound to come at the West’s expense. But the two countries’ foreign policies will continue to diverge, limiting the likelihood of any anti-Western alliance.