Oksenberg Conference Panelists Discuss Origins and Implications of Sino-Russian “Friendship without Limits”
Three weeks before Russian troops invaded Ukraine, China and Russia announced that their 2019 “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination in a New Era” had been upgraded to a “friendship without limits.” Chinese, Russian, and third country commentators used even more inflated rhetoric to describe the relationship and predict its implications for the United States, the liberal order, and Taiwan. APARC’s 2022 Oksenberg Conference examined the origins, objectives, and implications of the much-vaunted relationship.
As Russian forces were massing along the border with Ukraine, Vladimir Putin flew to Beijing for the opening of the 2022 Winter Olympics. While there, Putin and Xi issued a joint statement declaring friendship without limits and pledging to coordinate on foreign policy, security, trade, and many other policies. Lofty rhetoric and the length of the joint statement were designed to signal a new and meaningful partnership. APARC’s 2022 Oksenberg Conference, entitled “Prospects for the New Sino-Russian Partnership,” convened experts on China and Russia to discuss the motivations and objectives of Beijing and Moscow and to predict how the new partnership would shape their policies at home and abroad.
To obtain different perspectives on the new partnership, APARC China Program Director Jean C. Oi recruited specialists on China, Russia, and China-Russia relations. Several of the panelists also have extensive experience in governmental interactions with Beijing and Moscow. Evan Medeiros of Georgetown University described China’s calculus and expectations for the relationship, and Alex Gabuev of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace did the same for Russia. Their presentations illustrated that Beijing and Moscow have similar motivations but different goals and expectations. Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova of Rīga Stradiņš University described the different ways in which Beijing and Moscow depict the relationship to external audiences and to their own people. Shorenstein APARC Fellow Thomas Fingar focused on China’s desire to use the image of a close relationship with Russia to constrain Washington and elicit U.S. concessions intended to weaken the partnership with Russia. FSI Director Michael McFaul discussed how what happens in Ukraine will shape the international context within which Russia, China, and the partnership will pursue their objectives.
Image and Reality
Panelists also explored “why” and “so what” questions about the newly elevated partnership, examining the roots of the relationship and its implications for the United States and other non-autocratic states. All agreed that the primary motivation for Beijing and Moscow is to constrain U.S. hegemony. Pursuit of other shared objectives is secondary. Both parties want the benefits of a relationship that is perceived to be closer than it is and does not significantly impede the ability of either to pursue its own interests. In this respect it is more like the “strategic triangle” created by rapprochement between Washington and Beijing in the early 1970s than like the short-lived honeymoon between Moscow and Beijing in the 1950s.
The partnership is more intent on constraining U.S. action and influence than on replacing the rules-based global order dominated by the United States. Indeed, Beijing seeks to preserve and change that order to make it more conducive to the pursuit of PRC interests. Moscow would like to dismantle the liberal order. They agree more on what they oppose than on what they want to achieve. Both are and will remain disinterested in a formal security alliance and wary of collaborative actions that endanger regime legitimacy and their own freedom of action. Both will, however, pursue long-term arrangements that guarantee Russia a market for its hydrocarbon and other resources and provide China with reliable sources of supply at “friendship” prices negotiated while Putin is over a barrel.
China and Russia have strong-man dominated authoritarian systems but their partnership is not motivated by desire to spread a shared ideology or to replicate their own political and economic systems. Both are more eager to protect their own versions of authoritarian rule than to win converts. Finding additional partners to constrain the United States and willing to disregard U.S. calls for sanctions and other instruments intended to weaken their regimes and international influence is more important to both than is the political or economic system of other states. Both countries emphasize the importance of their pre-eminent leaders and the strength of their personal relationship but doing so undermines their attempt to depict the partnership as based solidly on enduring national interests.
A Heavy Albatross
Despite efforts to depict the China-Russia relationship as a strong and equal partnership, there are many signs of friction and fragility, especially in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Whether Putin gave Xi a heads up regarding his plans when he visited Beijing in February is unknown, as is what Xi might have said in response. Regardless of whether the possibility (certainty) of war was discussed in advance, the invasion has put Beijing in a difficult position. To preserve the image of a partnership able to constrain the United States, China must continue to give rhetorical and diplomatic support to Russia and condemn U.S. and European sanctions.
But, contrary to what many predicted would be the case, China has been careful not to violate the sanctions in ways that could–would–trigger secondary sanctions damaging to China’s already fragile economy. Rhetoric doesn’t provide much tangible assistance to Putin’s increasingly beleaguered economy but it does undermine the perceived value of China’s oft-affirmed defense of sovereignty, non-interference, and territorial integrity as well as its strategic partnership with Ukraine and roughly three dozen other countries. As or more damaging to PRC interests is the further deterioration of relations with Europe and strengthening of NATO attributable, in part, to Beijing’s support for Moscow.
Panelists were in broad agreement that China and Russia will continue to extol and exaggerate their partnership because doing so is deemed useful for constraining and deterring the United States, and will continue to act in conformity with what they expect to obtain from the relationship. In addition to long-term Chinese commitments to purchase Russian resources, both sides will continue to conduct at least limited joint military operations and Moscow will continue to sell advanced weapons to China. These relationships are important, substantively as well as symbolically. But extending the list of mutual benefits is difficult and somewhat artificial.
A Partnership of Convenience
The panelists explored whether the alignment was situational or enduring. Individuals expressed different judgments about the degree to which Beijing and Moscow shared common values and visions for the world, or were motivated primarily by “the enemy of my enemy can be my friend” calculations. All panelists agreed that the partnership is not an alliance, but were less clear about what it is for beyond constraining U.S. leverage. A key purpose is to increase Russia’s and China’s room to maneuver, both at home and on the world stage. There is no evidence that it seeks to replace the United States with a Russia-China duopoly or that there is agreement that one or the other should become the new global leader. One panelist argued that the partnership is a pragmatic coupling, not the product of a shared vision or values.
Another panelist suggested that distrust will preclude a more meaningful and lasting relationship. Despite the “no limits” rhetoric, the reality of the partnership is limited by both sides. For example, Russia closed the border with China during the pandemic and China has sought to remain neutral on the Ukraine conflict, calling for a peaceful solution. China has not condemned the Russian invasion but it also has not provided much in the way of material assistance. In many respects, the image of the partnership that both countries present to the outside world is its most important dimension. Indeed, both capitals present a very different view of the partnership to their own people.
Shifting Motivations, Mounting Expectations, and New Dilemmas
Panelists noted the asymmetry of the relationship and the determination of both parties to avoid dependence on or domination by the other. Yet, the prolongation of the war in Ukraine will leave Russia weaker vis-a-vis China. One panelist posited that as the war in Ukraine drags on, Beijing will gain increasing leverage over Moscow, despite Moscow’s insistence on the rhetoric of equal partnership. Whether and how Beijing seeks to exploit and Moscow to escape the resultant asymmetry remains to be seen.