The realm of international politics has evolved into multifarious complexities over time. It expanded and unfolded unique alliances, diplomacies, differences and mistrust. The Sino-Russia relationship falls into the same category, and therefore it’s complicated and multi-layered. Although it began with a tinge of sourness, the change in international dynamics induced a situational camaraderie, of which many are cynical. The ‘two power houses’ garnered much attention after the Russia-Ukraine crisis since both unfurled the domain of economic, strategic and diplomatic engagement.
This article will map the events that contoured the relationship of these giants in the grand theatre of global politics. It will delve into the historical underpinnings, ideological competition, territorial dispute, cultural clash and economic alignment to highlight the present geopolitical bond between the two juggling neighbours of the Eurasian landmass. Moreover, it will explore the impact of events on their interactions and also the implications for India.
The upheaval of the Bolshevik Communist Revolution of 1917 by the USSR provided moral backing to the Chinese communist party to come to power against the Nationalist government led by Chaing Kai-shek. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 by Mao, complying with the Soviet Union on ideological grounds, augmented the friendship between the two. It also led to the spread of Marxism-Leninism across China through ideological and material support of the Soviet Union.
Eventually, both nations formalized diplomatic relations by signing the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance in 1950. This treaty coalesced shared goals by establishing ideological alignment against the Capitalism of the United States to counterbalance its influence in the Asia Pacific. As aptly reiterated by Odd A. Westard in his book Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, “The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship solidified the ideological affinity between the two nations, illuminating a strategic convergence rooted in anti-imperialism and a shared vision of reshaping the global order through socialist principles.”
“The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship solidified the ideological affinity between the two nations, illuminating a strategic convergence rooted in anti-imperialism and a shared vision of reshaping the global order through socialist principles.”Odd A Westard in his book Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War
In the 1960s, the palpable deviation on ideological fronts, and contrasting interpretations of Marxism-Leninism became the source of open confrontations between the Asian neighbours. Both pertained to verbal stripping, where the “Soviets referred to Chinese as “splittists”, “left-wing adventurists”, “anti-Marxist”, “enemies of Socialism”, “in league with Imperialism”, while the Chinese came to regard the Soviets as “revisionists” and “social-imperialists”, or “socialist in words, imperialists in deeds”, and as “the principal danger in the world today.”
This spark culminated in a border conflict between the two countries. The Ussuri River conflict represents a low ebb in the history of Russia-China relations signalling the rupture of relations in international politics; sprouting from the seed of mistrust and resulting in estrangement. It continued in the Cold War period as China’s proclivity for the US to strengthen its economic interests converged with US’s interest, driven by ideological, diplomatic, military and political differences, further pushing the USSR to the wall.
The Phase of post-Cold War
The reformation like Perestroika and Glasnost brought up by Gorbachev in the USSR became a cataclysmic reason for its disintegration. At this time, China’s economy was thriving and it longed for untried avenues to advance its progress. After the dissolution, Russia also revamped its foreign policy and began to look to China for engagement and ties. The momentous event occurred when their territorial disputes were wiped off with the 1991 Sino-Russia Border agreement. The establishment of a “strategic partnership” in 1996 marked a commitment to enhanced economic, diplomatic, and strategic collaboration, underscoring the growing pragmatism in their relationship.
Furthermore, both countries signed the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation in 2001. Within this framework, Joseph Nye, an American scholar, enunciated “With the collapse of the Soviet Union, that de facto US-China alliance ended, and a China–Russia rapprochement began.”
“With the collapse of the Soviet Union, that de facto US-China alliance ended, and a China–Russia rapprochement began.”Joseph Nye
In 1992, the two countries declared that they were pursuing a “constructive partnership”; in 1996, they progressed toward a “strategic partnership”; and in 2001, they signed a treaty of “friendship and cooperation.” The evolving conglomeration between the two began to blossom in the 21st century, as both ostensibly pursued the path of economic pragmatism.
The Forging Ties
The year 2014 marked an epochal period in the geopolitics of Europe. The annexation of Crimea by Russia led to international condemnation along with economic sanctions from the US. This pushed Russia to develop cordial ties with China and its assistance salvaged Russia’s crippling economy. What helped the bond was yet again the common adversary that affected their safe rise to global power. Liam Carson, an emerging European economist at Capital Economics, in 2019 said, “Policymakers in both countries have actively tried to strengthen trade ties in recent years. And it’s no coincidence that this surge in Russia-China trade has come at the same time that the US has tightened sanctions on Russia and concerns about the US-China trade war have intensified.”
“Policymakers in both countries have actively tried to strengthen trade ties in recent years. And it’s no coincidence that this surge in Russia-China trade has come at the same time that the US has tightened sanctions on Russia and concerns about the US-China trade war have intensified.”Liam Carson
The bonhomie generated diverse aspects such as diplomacy, economy, technology, security and geopolitics. On the diplomatic front, both emphasized their “comprehensive strategic partnership” and teamed up for Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and BRICS to advocate for multipolarity and share a more significant role and responsibility in International Politics. Furthermore, both actively participated in military drills and security exercises to bolster their military skills and advancement in the military realm. “Zapad/Interaction” and “Vostok” exercises showcased their combined military capabilities.
Both nations also made efforts to expand trade sectors, with Russia exporting agricultural products, machinery, and technology to China, while China supplied a range of manufactured goods and consumer products to Russia. On energy diplomacy, the “Power of Siberia” natural gas pipeline, became operational in December 2019, marking a significant milestone in energy collaboration between the two. In 2022, China’s imports of discounts of up to 30% oil from Russia rose 55% in May, with Russia dipsplacing Saudi Arabia as China’s biggest oil provider in recent months.
While there may be areas of alignment between China and Russia, their differences become more pronounced, especially in the absence of the US. China is sceptical of Russia due to its precarious economic position and unprecedented sanctions. China, being a growing economy ahead of Russia, prioritizes trade and economic development as its approach. Consequently, whenever its interests are at stake, China is likely to take the lead in that realm. But one also cannot deny the recent 2021 incursion of Russia on Ukraine which accelerated the cooperation between the two. It is in this direction Joseph Torigian states that “Russia decided that it needed to look more closely at China and turn to Asia,” after the US and other European countries flouted business with Russia.
“Russia decided that it needed to look more closely at China and turn to Asia”Joseph Torigian
Implications for India
It is imperative to comprehend the alignment in order to gauge its implications for India. While India is gaining attention in the South Asia region, the interdependence of these neighbouring countries could also be detrimental to its position. Some of the challenges that India could face are:
Strategic balancing – India has to reassess its strategic balancing and realign its ties with the countries. The coming up of Sino-Russia has pushed India to align with the US, Japan and other West pro countries, as it did in the form of the QUAD alliance.
India energy trade dynamics – The alignment between Russia and China could also lead to the development of trade routes and economic corridors that bypass India, affecting India’s connectivity and trade interests. This could disrupt the supply chains and problematize India’s efforts to promote a free and open Ino-Pacific.
Regional Stability and Conflict Management – India’s concerns over regional stability and potential conflicts in regions like Central Asia or the Korean Peninsula could be influenced by the actions and interests of Russia and China. India may also need to adopt a proactive diplomatic approach to promote stability and resolve conflicts in its extended neighbourhood.
In a nutshell, India, while preserving its past relationship with Russia, also has to strike an equilibrium on this slippery slope. The two powerhouses i.e. China and Russia, could appear as a threat in the emerging geopolitical tensions. Hence, the need for an hour is to maintain a “strategic autonomy through engagement with both countries. Also, India must navigate the potential challenges such as security concerns, economic competition, and influence in regional forums.”
The challenges faced by India to secure its interest in the region should not only consider external diplomacy as the potential path for its defence, instead, it must engage in strengthening its internal capabilities, bilateral relations, multi-alignment and multi-diplomacy. This multifaceted perspective is notably underscored by the insights of Harsh V Pant, an Indian academic and scholar, who remarks that “The deepening Russia-China relationship underscores the need for India to carefully assess the evolving regional dynamics and recalibrate its foreign policy to navigate potential challenges and opportunities. India must leverage its historical ties with Russia, strengthen partnerships with other major powers, and assert its interests in the face of changing geopolitical alignments.”
“The deepening Russia-China relationship underscores the need for India to carefully assess the evolving regional dynamics and recalibrate its foreign policy to navigate potential challenges and opportunities. India must leverage its historical ties with Russia, strengthen partnerships with other major powers, and assert its interests in the face of changing geopolitical alignments.”Harsh V Pant