A joint statement on 4th February 2022 between the Russian and Chinese presidents mentioned the strategic partnership between the two nations as being one “with no limits”.1 This has raised fears of the emergence of a two-front Moscow-Beijing Axis to take on the United States-led existing liberal international order. While this axis is definitely not an alliance at the moment, there have been recent analyses linking it with the Sino-Soviet partnership of the 1950s. In this article, we try to demystify the strategic ambiguity behind this partnership and analyze if it is indeed as steadfast as both parties claim, in light of the recent Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Posted On Friday April 29, 2022 by Arpit Chaturvedi,CEO, Global Policy Insights & Ameya Joshi Global Policy, Diplomacy, and Sustainability (GPODS) Fellow under International Strategic Studies
Chinese Conceptualization of the Middle Kingdom
Chinese civilization has long-cherished the notion of its centrality as well as the status of the Emperor as the “Son of Heaven and overlord of all peoples in the Under-Heaven”, with other peripheral states being considered as tributary vassals. In medieval times, this led to the Chinese isolating themselves diplomatically from the rest of the world.2
A good way to gain an insight into the worldview of civilizations is to look at their historical artifacts. These artifacts do not just mean the buildings, the artworks, the books, or the physical infrastructure but they also include rituals, stories, metaphors, and symbols. Edgar Schein (1992) divided an organization’s culture into three distinct levels: artifacts, espoused values, and assumptions. “Artifacts are the overt and obvious elements of an organization. They’re typically the things that even an outsider can see.” However, they reflect the underlying assumptions of the system or the organization, even if the espoused values may not betray them.
One such artifact in form of a ritual during the Qing Empire (1644-1911) was the kowtow, a humiliating ritual that included prostration (kneeling and bowing) to emphasize the inferiority of other rulers to the Chinese Emperor. Every foreign ambassador had to “perform the kowtow thrice while crossing the border of the Qing empire and again at the Emperor’s audience”.3 This ritual stands among the many historical pieces of evidence which point towards the Chinese worldview of its self-perceived status as the “Middle Kingdom.” There is also much anecdotal evidence to show that the underlying assumptions that inform the mental models of the Chinese foreign policy elite have been and continue to be shaped by this “Middle Kingdom complex”.
Unlike the Qing period when China would not send envoys abroad, since it considered all other nations as its nominal vassals, the current regime in China seems to have changed its practices but perhaps not its mindset. President Xi Jinping, for instance, seeks to recreate this vision of Chinese worldwide dominance through his consistent exhortations of “Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” through the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. However, China has hitherto restricted itself to the status of a mercantilist superpower, mainly by coaxing and wherever needed, coercing nations into economic subservience through President Xi’s ambitious brainchild, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which will connect much of the Eurasian landmass. Yet still, the BRI presupposes underlying assumptions of Chinese superiority which have finally revealed themselves.
Russia and China: Uncomfortable Diplomatic Beginnings
Initial contacts between China and Russia in the 17th century got off on the wrong foot. The expeditions of Russian pioneers such as V.D. Poyarkov and E.P. Khabarov to the Amur valley led to its economic development by Russian settlers, alarming Qing rulers. In 1652, the Russian government sent “the first official embassy to China under the boyar (the highest rank of nobility) Fedor Baikov to establish diplomatic and commercial relations with China”. However, this mission proved to be a failure due to serious friction with Qing officials, who wanted Baikov to perform the “humiliating rites of Confucian etiquette” such as the kowtow .
The next embassies under Ivan Perfiliev and Nikolai Spafary were equally unsuccessful, due to the complicated political situation in the upper and middle reaches of the Amur. During the latter’s audience with the Chinese Emperor, Manchu officials categorically declared that “trouble at the borders and breach of court etiquette by the Russians” meant that the Qing would “neither reply to the Russian Tsar’s messages nor would his envoys and merchants be allowed admission into China”. Military confrontations at Aihun and Albazin ensued, until in 1689, territorial negotiations at Nerchinsk began, with Chinese envoys maintaining that “China had held possession of the land north of the Amur territory since the time of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.” Finally, after the Russians made an extreme concession in the form of giving up Albazin, the Treaty of Nerchinsk was concluded, in which the border between Russia and the Qing Empire was fixed only” in the upper Amur area”, with “geographical landmarks” allowing for different interpretations.
Negotiations between the two sides in the early 18th century again proved difficult because, ironically, the Qing were interested primarily in border issues with the Russians more concerned with trade. Until the mid-17th century, trade between Russia and China was carried on mainly through merchants from Central Asia who dealt in “Oriental goods such as Chinese silk and cotton goods and rhubarb root”. Trade between the two empires expanded with “the opening of new avenues of commerce with China”, and the “establishment of direct though sporadic ties” with Chinese merchants through the main trade route via Nerchinsk. The Qing officials still obstructed any expansion of trade ties between Russian and Chinese merchants by repeatedly blocking caravans and banning trading at the Kiachta border post. This did “grave damage to mutually advantageous trade which impaired chances for closer cultural and political contacts” between the people of both nations.4
In the late 19th century, when China was weak as a state, Russia expanded into Manchuria. With the Qing empire crumbling at the dawn of the 20th century, Russia joined a collective European intervention in Beijing. When the empire finally fell after the 1911 Boxer rebellion, Russia was embroiled in the Chinese Civil War, supporting both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders and Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) alternately. Eventually, though the Soviets wanted the Communists under Mao Zedong to cooperate with the KMT, the former did not heed the Russian advice, as a result of which the Soviets had to side with the CCP for convenience. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the decade of the 1950s proved to be the golden era for Sino-Russian relations. Even during these times, Mao was disappointed with the Soviet Union for not fighting alongside China in the Korean War. This was perhaps the crucial juncture when the Chinese leadership decided to consider Russia as merely a strategic partner, not an ally, even though the Soviets gave China plenty of technological and infrastructural support. Since then, Sino-Russian relations have swindled from being, in the words of Axel Berkofsky (2014), “allies and comrades” to “enemies going to war” and back to “political and military allies”.5 Yet, as demonstrated earlier, their strategic partnership has often been one of convenience that has seldom stood the test of time
The Ukraine Crisis, a Rocky Alliance, and the Tightrope that China must Walk
Enter Ukraine, which occupies prime real estate in Halford Mackinder’s heartland theory (1904). Mackinder argued that since “Eurasia controlled most of the “world’s population and industrial potential, a power or coalition that gained control of Eurasia’s resources could then build unrivaled navies and expand its empire across the seas”. The coming “geopolitical dramas would thus play out on and around this vital landmass”, meaning that Eurasia will always remain a prominent stage for geopolitical conflict, as seen in both World Wars and the Cold War.6 This problem is compounded by Russia’s “red-lines” regarding NATO expansionism, reiterated by China, and President Putin’s rejection of Ukrainian independence, especially its gradual westward shift. The situation is further complicated by China’s trade ties with Ukraine, its status as an important partner of the BRI, Chinese recognition of Ukraine as a sovereign nation, and the West’s united response to the Russian invasion. Overall, the current crisis presents a thorny path to tread for the Chinese. Prima facie, China has navigated this dilemma carefully by pinning the blame for the crisis on NATO expansionism on one hand, and simultaneously suspending talks for a major petrochemical investment and gas marketing venture in Russia 7 while also imposing tighter procurement regulations for military equipment.8
Exploiting vulnerabilities in the “no-limits” partnership
We move on to analyze a few instances where differences between China and Russia have come out in the open, with a special focus on the current crisis
Firstly, China has always been a strong proponent of territorial integrity and independence of sovereign states, while at the same time attempting territorial revisionism in the East and South China Seas and along its Indian and Bhutanese land borders.9 This approach is at a stark contrast with that of President Putin, who has repeatedly asserted the “oneness” of the Slavic race, described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” and demands a veto power over the foreign policy of any former Soviet republic with ethnic Russian speakers. While analysts were quick to draw parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, China has been careful to emphasise that it considers Taiwan as a renegade province of China and not a sovereign nation such as Ukraine, a fact acknowledged by the 178 UN member states who nominally adhere to the “One-China Policy”. Moreover, China has always desired stability and order at home and beyond, now more than ever in light of the 20th Communist Party Congress later this year when President Xi cements his third term in power.
Secondly, China and Russia fundamentally differ on their notions as to what constitutes the “West” and their strategies for dealing with it. Russia has always defined the West in geographic and security terms since Soviet times. This school of thought considers the nations lying west of the erstwhile Iron Curtain having Euro-Atlantic aspirations as decadent, fragmented and chaotic. In the Russian strategic calculus, it is unfathomable that former Soviet republics and nations which were a part of the erstwhile Warsaw Pact would, of their own volition, try to gravitate westwards and attempt to change the European security architecture. Conversely, the Chinese mind-set could not more removed from this line of thinking, as is made evident by China’s nominal pledges of support to Russia but consistent refusal to get involved in the current conflict. For China, its strategic competitor is the United States of America. Period. Far from considering the European Union (EU) as a strategic rival, Chinese leaders and diplomats consider the EU as complementary to their plans to link the Eurasian landmass from Xi’an to Rotterdam through the overland Belt corridors. China’s approach to the West is far more mercantilist than Russia’s and it certainly would like to wish the current Russian invasion away for the sake of its trade with the EU, which crossed $709 billion in 2020, making it Europe’s biggest trade partner.10
Finally comes the question of sanctions. In spite of unified Western sanctions, Russia could somehow get away with being an international pariah without total economic collapse, on the lines of Iran. However, this is hardly the outcome that China would like to achieve for itself. It is important to note that, China has undermined the globalized order from within, not without. It has tried to establish separate a financial messaging system, Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS), and conducts bilateral trade with Russia and other nations in Yuan, thereby bypassing sanctions, all while being an active member of the UN and WTO. President Xi has also spoken of “self-reliance” being the foundation of the Chinese nation. However, Chinese officials well know that economic autarky is not an ideal outcome for their country in an interconnected world. China “heavily depends” on its favourable balance of trade with many nations to fund infrastructure (read global economic hegemony) through the BRI, effectively meaning that it “thrives on the globalized dollar-centric economy”. It is also not self-sufficient in the production of critical technology such as semiconductors. More so, a united Western sanctions-oriented response to Russia’s brazen invasion has ensured that Chinese officials will “study the current crisis carefully” before embarking on similar adventurism elsewhere. While the Chinese economic machine definitely has the wherewithal to bear the weight of US-led sanctions for a prolonged period as compared to “Fortress Russia”, China is likely to nominally support Russia while continuing to avoid the wrath of the sanctions regime on its own industries.11
Dawn of a Moscow-Beijing Axis
Why is China supporting Russia then, if their long-term objectives differ substantially? This conundrum encourages us to draw parallels between the existing Moscow-Beijing Axis and a similar World-War Two era coalition, the Rome-Berlin Axis of 1936. The Rome-Berlin Axis was a classic case of two powers with similar autocratic forms of government but differing objectives. While Germany wanted all German-speaking areas in its backyard to be part of a Greater Germanic Reich, Italy desired no such outcome. The Rome-Berlin Axis also exemplifies the situation of a superior party getting bogged down by the military defeats of the junior partner, in turn losing out on its own strategic advantages. Italy’s many defeats forced Germany to rush to aid a failing Italy, and fail it did, being the first Axis power to be defeated by the Allies, eventually taking Germany closer to defeat as well. The Moscow-Beijing Axis eerily seems to be a case of history repeating itself, with Russian logistical/military nightmares in Ukraine compounded with civilian casualties in Bucha, Kharkiv and Mariupol making the situation incredibly difficult for the Chinese to justify and continue supporting the Russian position.
China might well continue tacitly supporting Russia for the foreseeable future, but the question remains: at what cost? The basic premise of the Moscow-Beijing Axis, as with any other strategic partnership which China is a party to, is self-interest: the ultimate achievement of Chinese foreign policy and economic objectives. Chinese diplomats and strategists might have shrewdly calculated that the eventual outcome of this Axis is a situation where Russia becomes economically dependent for resources and markets on China (not unlikely, given that Russia’s biggest trade partner even today is China). The lure of cheap energy from Russia along with Russian diplomatic help in the future might be an added inducement. However, a wholesale acquiescence to the Anti-West pits it at loggerheads to its other major trade partners, such as Europe, driving them as well as other non-aligned nations such as India into the arms of a stronger NATO/QUAD led by the United States, an outcome it desires the least.12 So far, while China has managed to walk the tightrope between these two extreme outcomes cautiously, future developments will soon reveal the path that China chooses to take in this regard: a path which, in any scenario, does not regard Russia as an equal ally but rather merely an occasional partner of convenience.
1) Moscow-Beijing partnership has ‘no limits’. Reuters, February 4, 2022. https://www.reuters.com/world/china/moscow-beijing-partnership-has-no-limits-2022-02-04/
2) Tikhvinsky, S.L. “Modern History of China.” Progress Publishers, Moscow. pp 54 (Translated from the Russian by Vic Schneirerson, 1985).
5) Axel Berkofsky, “Russia And China: The Past And Present Of A Rocky Relationship,” Il Politico 79, no. 3 (237) (2014): 108–23
6) Brands, Hal. “The Eurasian Nightmare.” Foreign Affairs, February 25, 2022.https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2022-02-25/eurasian-nightmare
7) China’s Sinopec pauses Russia projects, Beijing wary of sanctions. Reuters, March 28, 2022. https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/exclusive-chinas-sinopec-pauses-russia-projects-beijing-wary-sanctions-sources-2022-03-25/
8) Huang, Yasheng. “What Lessons Does China Take from Putin’s War?” Foreign Policy, April 07, 2022 https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/04/07/china-russia-putin-ukraine-war-lessons-taiwan/?tpcc=recirc062921
9) Blanchette, Jude and Lin, Bonny. “China’s Ukraine Crisis.” Foreign Affairs, February 21, 2022. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2022-02-21/chinas-ukraine-crisis
10) China overtakes US as EU’s biggest trading partner. BBC News, February 17, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-56093378
11) Ivanov, Philip; Repnikova, Maria; Wishnick, Elizabeth and Chorzempa, Martin. “What Lessons Does China Take from Putin’s War?” Foreign Policy, April 07, 2022. https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/04/07/china-russia-putin-ukraine-war-lessons taiwan/?tpcc=recirc062921
Arpit is the Co-Founder and CEO of Global Policy Insights, a centrist Policy think tank and the Co-Founder & Chief Strategy Officer of EnviPol, an Environmental Consulting firm based out of India. He is also the Co-Director of Global Policy, Diplomacy and Sustainability Fellowship (GPODS). Along with leading these organisations, he is a Lecturer at the San Francisco State University where he teaches Comparative Perspectives in Public Service to graduate students. He is a graduate of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs and holds an MPA degree (Pi Alpha Alpha) with a focus on Governance, Politics, and Policy Studies. He was also the first non-US citizen to hold the position of the Editor-in-Chief of the Cornell Policy Review. He is the author of the book “Our Egalitarian Universe?” and has been the editor of “Not Without her: Communal Harmony” – a monograph printed by the National Foundation for Communal Harmony, Government of India, with essays from the top civil servants of the country. He has published articles in various prestigious journals on the themes of democracy, governance, systems thinking, game theory, history and politics.
Ameya is a Chartered Accountant with the passion to equip himself with interdisciplinary knowledge, tools and leadership skills required to serve the international community. He is an incoming Graduate Student of International Relations at John Hopkins SAIS in Washington, DC. He is keen on leveraging his multidisciplinary background as a finance professional, National Talent Scholar, mentor to first-generation learners, writer and award- winning paper presenter to help in bringing about impactful change at the intersection of finance, geopolitics and geoeconomics