Both Russia and China share some common perceived interests that question whether China’s economic might and Russia’s great-power expertise will define the rules of global politics in this century. China’s rise presents advantages for Russia in the economic, geopolitical and military spheres. But there are significant challenges.
Unless Russia succeeds in reinventing its economy, it will never again be a global power. China’s central geopolitical location brings economic prospects for Russia to grow its exports, trade and investment. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the headliner among the Eastern European and Central Asian heads of state attending China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) forum in May.
How Russia will handle China’s economic power remains to be seen. The risk of becoming a junior partner to powerful China is a challenge given that China’s rising power may dwarf Russia and diminish its ability to influence the world.
Russia’s Eurasian geopolitical orientation dates back to the 1904 trans-Siberian railway. China’s OBOR initiative is a revival of Eurasianism. With Russia’s pivot to Asia, a Sino-Russian entente offers opportunities in terms of developing East Russia’s great mass of resources, which are free from US interference.
Whilst there are prospects for trade, growth and shared prosperity, there are also potential conflicts of interest to emerge between Russia and China. China lost territories to Russia in the nineteenth century on the basis of unequal treaties. As China’s economic growth rate becomes more and more dependent on oil and other energy imports, the natural resource endowments of Russian Siberia and Kazakhstan may create Chinese rivalry.
Cooperation with a rising China presents an opportunity for Russia to challenge the United States. Russia and China intensified coordinated opposition to the United States Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti missile system in South Korea. But, increased competition with the United States in the political-security sphere is inevitable.
Russia’s expansion of its power with China is hampered by the United States’ military influence and system of alliances. With an eye on China and the South China Sea disputes, the United States, backed by India, recently put further pressure on China and called for freedom of navigation.
The steadily growing competition between Beijing and Washington is likely to be backed by Russia. In turn, Russia’s confrontation with the United States will help mitigate Sino-Russian rivalries.
The recent agreement by G7 leaders to maintain sanctions on Russia over Ukraine increases the internal constraints for Russian President Vladimir Putin, making Russia weaker than it appears. The extent of the political and economic pressure of the West over Russia since the 2014 crisis over Ukraine makes China a potential partner to challenge the G7 as a parallel centre of global governance.
China’s rise implies both opportunities and threats to Russia’s grand strategy. Ensuring conditions for Russia’s economic development, security and growth of its influence in world politics will require the smart management of relations as a member of the global concert of powers.
Elisabeth Perrin is a Diplomacy and Trade postgraduate student at Monash University.