China Is Not Ten Feet Tall
How Alarmism Undermines American Strategy
At a time when Russian relations with the United States and western European countries are growing cold, the relatively warm ties between China and Russia have attracted renewed interest. Scholars and journalists in the West find themselves debating the nature of the Chinese-Russian partnership and wondering whether it will evolve into an alliance.
Since the end of the Cold War, two main views have tended to define Western assessments of the Chinese-Russian relationship and predictions of its future. The first view holds that the link between Beijing and Moscow is vulnerable, contingent, and marked by uncertainties—a “marriage of convenience,” to use the phrase favored by many advocates of this argument, who see it as unlikely that the two countries will grow much closer and quite possible that they will begin to drift apart. The other view posits that strategic and even ideological factors form the basis of Chinese-Russian ties and predicts that the two countries—both of which see the United States as a possible obstacle to their objectives—will eventually form an anti-U.S., anti-Western alliance.
Neither view accurately captures the true nature of the relationship. The Chinese-Russian relationship is a stable strategic partnership and by no means a marriage of convenience: it is complex, sturdy, and deeply rooted. Changes in international relations since the end of the Cold War have only brought the two countries closer together. Some Western analysts and officials have speculated (and perhaps even hoped) that the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, in which Russia has become heavily involved, would lead to tensions between Beijing and Moscow—or even a rupture. But that has not happened.
Nevertheless, China has no interest in a formal alliance with Russia, nor in forming an anti-U.S. or anti-Western bloc of any kind. Rather, Beijing hopes that China and Russia can maintain their relationship in a way that will provide a safe environment for the two big neighbors to achieve their development goals and to support each other through mutually beneficial cooperation, offering a model for how major countries can manage their differences and cooperate in ways that strengthen the international system.
On several occasions between the end of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth century, China entered into an alliance with the Russian empire and its successor, the Soviet Union. But every time, the arrangement proved short-lived, as each amounted to nothing more than an expediency between countries of unequal strength. In the decades that followed, the two powerful communist-led countries muddled through, occasionally cooperating but often riven by rivalry and mistrust. In 1989, in the waning years of Soviet rule, they finally restored normalcy to their relations. They jointly declared that they would develop bilateral relations based on “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.” Two years later, the Soviet Union disintegrated, but Chinese-Russian relations carried on with the principle of “no alliance, no conflict, and no targeting any third country.”
Soon thereafter, the newborn Russian Federation embraced the so-called Atlanticist approach. To win the trust and help of the West, Russia not only followed Western prescriptions for economic reform but also made concessions on major security issues, including reducing its stockpile of strategic nuclear weapons. However, things didn’t turn out the way the Russians had hoped, as the country’s economy tanked and its regional influence waned. In 1992, disappointed with what they saw as unfulfilled pledges of American and European assistance and irritated by talk of NATO’s eastward expansion, the Russians began to pay more attention to Asia. That year, China and Russia announced that each would regard the other as a “friendly country” and issued a joint political statement stipulating that “the freedom of people to choose their own development paths should be respected, while differences in social systems and ideologies should not hamper the normal progress of relations.”
The Chinese-Russian relationship represents a possible model for other states to follow.
Ever since, Chinese-Russian relations have gradually improved and deepened. During the past 20 years or so, bilateral trade and investment have expanded on a massive scale. In 2011, China became Russia’s largest trading partner. In 2014 alone, China’s investment in Russia grew by 80 percent—and the trend toward more investment remains strong. To get a sense of the growth in economic ties, consider that in the early 1990s, annual bilateral trade between China and Russia amounted to around $5 billion; by 2014, it came close to $100 billion. That year, Beijing and Moscow signed a landmark agreement to construct a pipeline that, by 2018, will bring as much as 38 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas to China every year. The two countries are also planning significant deals involving nuclear power generation, aerospace manufacturing, high-speed rail, and infrastructure development. Furthermore, they are cooperating on new multinational financial institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank BRICS, and the BRICS foreign exchange reserve pool.
Meanwhile, security ties have improved as well. China has become one of the largest importers of Russian arms, and the two countries are discussing a number of joint arms research-and-development projects. Extensive Chinese-Russian defense cooperation involves consultations between high-level military personnel and joint training and exercises, including more than a dozen joint counterterrorism exercises during the past decade or so, carried out either bilaterally or under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In the past 20 years, thousands of Chinese military personnel have studied in Russia, and many Russian military officials have received short-term training at the National Defense University of China.
As economic and military links have strengthened, so, too, have political ones. In 2008, China and Russia were able to peacefully resolve territorial disputes that had troubled relations for decades, formally demarcating their 2,600-mile-plus border and thus eliminating their single largest source of tension—a rare achievement for big neighbors. In recent years, the two countries have held regular annual meetings between their heads of states, prime ministers, top legislators, and foreign ministers. Since 2013, when Xi Jinping became president of China, he has paid five visits to Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has traveled three times to China in the same time period. All told, Xi and Putin have met 12 times, making Putin the foreign head of state whom Xi has met most frequently since assuming the presidency.
For all this progress, differences still exist between the two neighbors, and they don’t always share the same focus when it comes to foreign policy. Russia is traditionally oriented toward Europe, whereas China is more concerned with Asia. The two countries’ diplomatic styles differ as well. Russia is more experienced on the global theater, and it tends to favor strong, active, and often surprising diplomatic maneuvers. Chinese diplomacy, in contrast, is more reactive and cautious.
China’s rise has produced discomfort among some in Russia, where some people have had difficulty adjusting to the shift in relative power between China and Russia. There is still talk in Russia of “the China threat,” a holdover expression from past eras. A poll conducted in 2008 by Russia’s Public Opinion Foundation showed that around 60 percent of Russians were concerned that Chinese migration to Far Eastern border areas would threaten Russia’s territorial integrity; 41 percent believed that a stronger China would harm Russian interests. And as China’s quest for new investment and trade opportunities abroad has led to increased Chinese cooperation with former Soviet states, Russians have worried that China is competing for influence in their neighborhood. Partly as a result, Moscow initially hesitated to support Beijing’s Silk Road Economic Belt initiative before ultimately embracing it in 2014. Meanwhile, some Chinese continue to nurse historical grievances regarding Russia. Despite the resolution of the border issue, Chinese commentators sometimes make critical references to the nearly 600,000 square miles of Chinese territory that tsarist Russia annexed in the late nineteenth century.
However, these differences hardly support speculation in the West that Beijing and Moscow are drifting apart. This theory has occasionally appeared in Western commentary in the past two years, as Russia’s relations with the United States and the EU have deteriorated owing to the crises in Syria and Ukraine. Despite some differences, however, China and Russia share a desire to firmly develop their bilateral relations and understand that they must join hands to achieve national security and development. Their cooperation is conducive to balance in the international system and can facilitate the solution of some international problems. Sometimes they agree; sometimes they do not. But they are able to acknowledge and manage their disagreements while continuing to expand areas of consensus. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has noted, the Chinese-Russian relationship offers a new approach for conducting external relations and represents a possible model for other states to follow.
The Chinese-Russian relationship is a stable strategic partnership: it is complex, sturdy, and deeply rooted.
The crises in Syria and Ukraine illuminate the ways in which China and Russia have effectively managed their partnership. Many in the United States see China’s attitude toward the conflict in Ukraine as unclear or suspect that China has sided with Russia. In fact, after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated unequivocally that Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity should be respected. China emphasized that all the parties involved in the Ukrainian conflict should resolve their differences through dialogue, establish coordinating mechanisms, refrain from activities that could worsen the situation, and assist Ukraine in maintaining its economic and financial stability. China did not take any side: fairness and objectivity serve as guiding principles for Beijing when addressing international affairs.
But Chinese diplomats and leaders are also mindful of what led to the crisis, including the series of Western-supported “color revolutions” in post-Soviet states and the pressure on Russia that resulted from NATO’s eastward expansion. It is also worth noting that there have long been complicated historical, ethnic, religious, and territorial issues between Russia and the former Soviet republics. The Ukraine crisis is a result of all these factors. As Xi put it, the crisis is “not coming from nowhere.”
On Syria, the view in Beijing is that Russia launched its military intervention at the request of the Syrian government in order to combat terrorist and extremist forces. Although Washington has called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, it shares Russia’s goal of taking on the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). So on the one hand, the United States has criticized the Russian intervention, but on the other hand, it has expressed willingness to work with Russia on counterterrorism. The Russian move, then, was not exactly what the United States wanted to see but was not an entirely bad thing for U.S. interests, either. From China’s perspective, Russia and the United States share an interest in confronting the brutal terrorists of ISIS. The hope in China is that talks among Russia, the United States, Iran, and a number of other regional powers will make progress in resolving the conflict.
But it is difficult to know how far U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria can go without a common understanding about what will lead to peace and order. And many in China find it perplexing that U.S. and Russian perceptions are still so heavily influenced by the Cold War. U.S. politicians and commentators tend to talk about Russia as if it were still the failed Cold War rival. Meanwhile, Russian officials and observers frequently criticize Washington’s behavior as arrogant or imperial. Some analysts on both sides have suggested that the standoff between Moscow and Washington over Syria and Ukraine could lead to a new Cold War. But from China’s point of view, the current confrontations seem more like a prolonged ending of the original Cold War. It remains unclear if Moscow and Washington will take this opportunity to finally put old enmities to rest.
Given the way that relations among China, Russia, and the United States are intertwined, no analysis of Chinese-Russian ties would be complete without a consideration of where things stand between China and the United States. Compared with the Chinese-Russian relationship, the one between Beijing and Washington is wider and more complicated. Combined, China and the United States account for one-third of global GDP. In 2014, U.S.-Chinese trade reached nearly $600 billion, and accumulated mutual investment exceeded $120 billion. Thirty-seven years ago, when the People’s Republic of China established diplomatic relations with the United States, no one expected such a strong partnership to emerge.
But there is no denying the structural difficulties in the relationship. Significant differences remain between Chinese and U.S. political values and between the governing systems in the two countries. And many Americans perceive China’s growing economic strength and its correspondingly higher international influence as a potential threat to Washington’s global leadership. China has quickly grown into the world’s second-largest economy. When U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003, China’s GDP was roughly one-eighth that of the United States. By the time the Americans pulled out of Iraq eight years later, China’s GDP had grown to half that of the United States. According to many estimates, China’s GDP will approach the United States’ by 2020. These changes have provoked fears in Washington that China and the United States are on a collision course. Disputes over China’s construction activities in the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea, have fueled a heated debate about how the United States should respond to what some American scholars and commentators see as expansionism. Meanwhile, Beijing regards the presence of U.S. military vessels near Chinese territory in the South China Sea as an act of provocation. Some argue that U.S. policy toward China may shift from constructive engagement to containment.
These debates provided the backdrop for Xi’s state visit to Washington last September. In remarks during the visit, Xi directly addressed the idea that China’s development presents a challenge to the United States’ global leadership. “The path China follows is one of peaceful development, and China does not pose a threat to other countries,” Xi said. Later, he added, “People should give up the old concepts of ‘you lose, I win,’ or zero-sum game, and establish a new concept of peaceful development and win-win cooperation. If China develops well, it will benefit the whole world and benefit the United States. If the United States develops well, it will also benefit the world and China.”
Significant differences remain between Chinese and U.S. political values and between the governing systems in the two countries.
Chinese leaders attribute much of their country’s rapid ascent to China’s successful integration into the world economy. They see China as a beneficiary of the international order, with the UN at its core, and as a strong advocate of principles such as sovereign equality and nonintervention in the internal affairs of states, which the UN Charter enshrines. China expects that it will have to focus on its own domestic economic and social development for a long time to come and thus highly values the maintenance of a stable and peaceful external environment. Although China is determined to protect its own interests and would respond firmly to provocations, encroachments on its territorial sovereignty, or threats to its rights and interests, its main goal is still to ensure that peace and stability prevail. And China is committed to safeguarding the international order and the Asia-Pacific regional order, as well as further integrating into the globalized world.
Improving U.S.-Chinese relations represents an important part of China’s diplomatic effort. Last September marked Xi’s first state visit to Washington, but he and U.S. President Barack Obama had previously met five times since 2013 and had spoken over the phone on three occasions. In June 2013, when the two leaders met at the Sunnylands summit, in California, they talked for more than seven hours. After the meeting, Xi announced that China and the United States would pursue a “new model of major-country relationship,” which he defined as a relationship based on nonconflict, nonconfrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation. The two leaders have since continued their conversations on that theme: in November 2014 in Beijing, they held the “Yingtai dialogue,” which lasted for nearly five hours. And during Xi’s state visit, he and Obama spent around nine hours talking to each other and attending events together. These long meetings between the two leaders have helped them build understanding and ward off the confrontation that some U.S. analysts believe is inevitable.
The state visit, in particular, was very productive. The two sides reached agreement on a wide range of issues, including macroeconomic policy coordination, climate change, global health, counterterrorism, and nuclear nonproliferation. Xi and Obama also spoke candidly about the cybersecurity issues that have represented a serious point of contention between Beijing and Washington; the two leaders clarified their countries’ intentions, agreed to form a high-level joint dialogue on the subject, and committed to work together to establish an international cybersecurity code of conduct. This is a strong demonstration that the two countries can promote global cooperation on important issues.
Of course, Beijing and Washington may continue to have disagreements over the South China Sea, Taiwan, human rights, trade policy, and other matters. The intentions of the U.S. military alliances in the Asia-Pacific remain a particular source of concern for China, especially since Washington announced its “pivot” to Asia in 2011. Some U.S. allies in the region have made claims on China’s sovereign territory and infringed on Chinese maritime rights, hoping that by cozying up to Washington, they could involve the United States in their disputes with Beijing. This is a dangerous path, reminiscent of the “bloc politics” of the Cold War.
Some scholars in China and elsewhere have suggested that if the United States insists on imposing bloc politics on the region, China and Russia should consider responding by forming a bloc of their own. But the Chinese leadership does not approve of such arguments. China does not pursue blocs or alliances, nor do such arrangements fit comfortably with Chinese political culture. Russia does not intend to form such an bloc, either. China and Russia should stick to the principle of partnership rather than build an alliance. As for China and the United States, they should continue pursuing a new model of major-country relations and allow dialogue, cooperation, and management of differences to prevail.
Relations among China, Russia, and the United States currently resemble a scalene triangle, in which the greatest distance between the three points lies between Moscow and Washington. Within this triangle, Chinese-Russian relations are the most positive and stable. The U.S.-Chinese relationship has frequent ups and downs, and U.S.-Russian relations have become very tense, especially because Russia now has to contend with significant U.S. sanctions. Meanwhile, both Beijing and Moscow object to Washington’s use of force against and imposition of sanctions on other countries and to the double standards the United States applies in its foreign policies.
The United States and its allies might interpret closer ties between China and Russia as evidence of a proto-alliance that intends to disrupt or challenge the U.S.-led world order. But from the Chinese perspective, the tripartite relationship should not be considered a game in which two players ally against a third. The sound development of Chinese-Russian relations is not intended to harm the United States, nor should Washington seek to influence it. Likewise, China’s cooperation with the United States will not be affected by Russia, nor by tensions between Moscow and Washington. China should neither form an alliance based on bloc politics nor allow itself to be recruited as an ally by other countries.
The current international order is the cornerstone of global stability—but it is not perfect. In 2005, China and Russia issued a joint statement on “the international order in the twenty-first century,” which called for the international system to become more just, drawing its legitimacy from the principles and norms of international law. The statement made clear that Beijing and Moscow see the evolution of their relations—from mistrust and competition to partnership and cooperation—as a model for how countries can manage their differences and work together on areas of agreement in a way that supports global order and decreases the chance that the world will descend into great-power conflict and war.