Illustration: Craig Stephens
Danil Bochkov
Danil Bochkov

Russia-China bromance is going strong, but it’s far from perfect

  • Official statements from both countries may place the bilateral relationship on a pedestal, beyond reproach. But China’s growing friendship with Ukraine and its footprint in the Middle East are just two potential areas of tension
This month, Russia and China commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation, a cornerstone document which Russian President Vladimir Putin calls a “fundamental international legal act” that has guided bilateral relations through the years to an “unprecedented height”.
In the face of mounting pressure from the US-led democratic camp, both countries wish to exhibit their close-knit unity.
Putin stressed in his June video call with Chinese President Xi Jinping that the treaty contains such key agreements as mutual support in upholding state unity and territorial integrity. Meanwhile, Xi pledged that bilateral cooperation will continue “no matter how many obstacles and hurdles must be overcome on the road ahead”.

Their eloquence is meant to signal that Moscow and Beijing are not insular on the global stage and rely on each other with regard to issues of key national interest.

After a period of oscillation and ambivalence, Moscow and Beijing have finally rebuffed any prospects of a military alliance to focus on building other forms of cooperation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend an event at the Friendship Palace in Beijing on April 26, 2019. In the face of mounting pressure from the US-led democratic camp, both countries wish to exhibit their close-knit unity. Photo: Pool via AP
Xi called the Russia-China relationship a “model example of a new type of international relations”, while Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi described it as being better than an alliance. In general, Chinese officials refrain from any specific definition of the bilateral entente, to avoid adding further strain on their relations with a West already anxious about Moscow and Beijing forging a closer partnership.
Moscow is more forthcoming in its description of fraternity. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called the treaty a “legal basis for the Russia-China tandem”, a closer relationship than a classical political-military alliance.

This dovetails with Wang’s assessment and the two leaders’ joint statement after their June meeting. It was not the first time Lavrov had referred to the bilateral relationship as a tandem, but now this has clearly been elevated above a less-effective and ideologically bound alliance.

The shared identification of Russia-China relations as being more than an alliance has two aims: first, to show an unprecedented level of comprehensive coordination; second, to champion the cause of multipolarity and reject a Cold War mentality. It is a clear reproach to the US with its attempt to renew traditional alliances.
However, this Moscow-Beijing tandem has its limitations. Russian and Chinese officials prioritise data security as an important part of their cooperation. It was mentioned at the Wang-Lavrov meeting in Tashkent and enshrined in the Putin-Xi joint statement.

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Despite their growing friendship, Moscow toes a cautious line on its key technological infrastructure to avoid an overreliance on Western or Chinese equipment. Russian authorities are seeking to make all cellular operators embrace only Russian-produced LTE equipment as a condition for relicensing in 2021, which excludes Western and Chinese producers.

Another potential point of tension is the warming relations between China and Ukraine. The two governments this month announced an expanded agreement on infrastructure projects, days after Ukraine withdrew its support for a joint statement calling for an independent UN investigation into human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
And in a phone call on July 13, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky told Xi that Ukraine could be a “ bridge to Europe” for Chinese business.
Protesters in Budapest hold up placards, including one that reads “We will not be a colony”, during a demonstration on June 5 to oppose the Hungarian government’s plan to build a satellite campus for China’s Fudan University in the city. Photo: AP
This promise is timely for China due to its weakening position in Eastern Europe. In May, Lithuania withdrew from the Beijing-led 17+1 China and Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries cooperation mechanism and, together with Estonia and Latvia, has shown itself willing to stand up to China on certain issues.
In Hungary, a protest erupted last month over the government’s plans to build a satellite campus of Fudan University in Budapest.
All of this might have led Xi to extend China’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

This potentially opens the door for the Crimea issue to be raised, since Beijing has not officially recognised Crimea as part of Russia. Moscow seems unwilling to push Beijing on this and avoids spotlighting the issue, even as both sides embrace cooperation in a multitude of areas.

When asked last month about China’s stance on Crimea, Putin pointedly told the NBC interviewer that attempts were being made to destroy the relationship between Russia and China, including by asking such a question.


Russian leader claims Russia-China relationship being sabotaged

Russian leader claims Russia-China relationship being sabotaged

The Russian envoy to China, Andrei Denisov, stressed this month that Russia recognises Taiwan as part of China by the provisions of the friendship treaty, and would not link Crimea to the Taiwan issue.

Nevertheless, he noted, China had in 2014 expressed its understanding for the historical and political reasons behind the Crimea situation. That apparently was enough for Moscow not to press Beijing on the issue and turn it into a stumbling block for deepening ties.

Tensions could also rise over Beijing’s growing footprint in the Middle East. Most recently, China is set to galvanise its political and economic presence in Syria, a stronghold of Russian support in the region.

In his visit this month to Damascus, Wang Yi shared China’s vision for overcoming political gridlock in Syria and pledged to ramp up cooperation with Damascus under the Belt and Road Initiative. In return, Syria backed China on the Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong issues.

China’s intensified activities in the region, including increased arms sales, may lead to a heating up of great power competition with Moscow.

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Similarly, China’s economic penetration into Central Asia through its belt and road may also make Moscow wary, especially as the touted harmonisation of the belt and road with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union has been slow to materialise. For example, despite a free-trade agreement signed in 2018, no tariff reductions have yet been agreed on between China and the union.

Despite the fine words in the official statements and outlined limitless potential for a “Moscow-Beijing tandem”, some constraints still exist.

They do not decisively affect the bromance, since they lie outside the strong framework of the Russia-China partnership based on global strategic coordination, political trust and mutual respect of security concerns and key national interests. But they do cast a shadow on the impeccable relationship being promoted officially.

Danil Bochkov is an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council