Anyone who grew up during the Cold War has an instinctive dread of these two countries. Anyone who grew up during the post-Cold War years might have felt abstract frissons of fear when hearing either of those countries' names; oddly enough, more when China is invoked than when Russia. As usual, the proof is in the pudding. Just consider the hate crimes committed against people who look like they're Chinese, especially since the coronavirus made its way around the world. Has there ever been any reports of such crimes against Russians? Thanks to globalisation and technology, we no longer have to rely on pundits' opinions and analyses of either people. We can learn about them and understand them through their own voices: their music and films, the stories and traditions that enrich their culture and, best of all, by joining with them in friendship and dialogue. Yes, it's easy for us to lay aside our Cold War tremors. For politicians and diplomats, doing so is much more difficult. Especially considering how closely China and Russia seem to be aligned.

Areas of Sino-Russian cooperation:
Economic, primarily trade: China is Russia's largest trading partner, with the latter country currently having a negative trade balance.
Military technology: China is rapidly expanding its production capabilities, meaning they are less dependent of Russian weaponry and technology. Russia has accused China of intellectual property theft of their military technologies.
Diplomacy: the two countries signed the 20-year Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation in 2001.
In 2021, they signed a five-year extension.
Monetary policy: after the 2008 global economic downturn, the trade partners agreed to use their own currencies for bilateral trade activities rather than USD.
Four years later, they set up a central bank liquidity swap to circumvent US sanctions.
Now, under the cloud of war, we wonder: just how close are China and Russia? Is there a chance that the vastly more expansive Chinese military will fight alongside Russian troops? Will the west's sanctions efforts meant to undermine Russia's economy be undone by China's financial support? Let's study Chinese-Russian relations to find out if we really need to worry.

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How They’re Alike

In many ways, China and Russia are very much alike. They've both spent decades in splendid isolation; Russia behind the Iron Curtain after the Second World War and China behind its closed borders after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. In fact, Empress Dowager Cixi and Tsar Nicholas II present another parallel: their indecisiveness and powerlessness against the turmoil roiling their nations led to their respective downfalls, within a few years of each other.

China and Russia have longstanding ties.
These Russian soldiers in Manchuria during the Boxer Rebellion hint at Sino-Russian longstanding ties. Source: Wikipedia
Today, both countries are ruled by leaders who, to some degree, hold backwards-looking views. In a sense, you might say that Presidents Xi and Putin wish to restore the glory of Empire, but with a modern twist. Because of their parallel histories, both leaders eschew allies. In China, the distaste for alliances was born during the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901). That was the time when eight western nations attempted to carve up China amongst themselves. Their endeavours were thwarted by the Boxers; Chinese fighters who practised martial arts - at the time called Chinese boxing. Hence, the name of the rebellion. Around the same time, Russia was brewing its Bolshevik Revolution (also called October Revolution, 1917). This is a complex piece of history that essentially boils down to Russians being fed up with war. They wanted their sovereignty re-established under Soviet rule; not a prolonged battle and eventual capitulation to the Central Powers (Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria and the Ottomans, among others). These modern-historical events shaped both countries' attitudes and philosophies towards war, western powers and the dangers of alliances. They don't mind diplomatic, economic and military relations but neither country wishes to pursue a binding alliance. Considering the arc of history that informs their positions, it's no wonder they scoff at the west's - specifically the US's Cold War mentality. Their geopolitical wariness stretches back at least 50 years longer. It's also no wonder that both countries decry the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation; NATO. This treaty was ratified in 1947, in the wake of the Second World War, to provide military support to any member under attack. Initially, the treaty covered 12 countries; it has since expanded to more than twice that number. Furthermore, an additional 20 countries have enlisted in NATO's Partnership for Peace programme, which emphasises military cooperation. Incidentally, Turkey is a NATO member. That's rather strange, seeing as they're nowhere near the North Atlantic. Maybe it's time for that organisation to change its name to better reflect its purpose? Russia and China, excluded from - and unwilling to foster larger military cooperation, contend that NATO is now in a position to intimidate and dominate the world with its superior military strength. They would prefer that the UN Charter guide global political matters. The Charter of the United Nations is a wide-ranging treaty that mandates its members to maintain international peace and uphold the law, among other points. Its focus is on peace, security, cooperation, freedom and human rights. China and Russia's preference for a peace treaty over a military alliance speaks volumes about their diplomatic aims. Now, knowing these countries' recent history, it's easy to understand why NATO and Russia are at loggerheads. Who wants a 30-country-strong military force setting up camp along their borders?
Half of the world's military power is under NATO control
NATO is a military alliance that now holds more than half of the world's military power. Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

The Scope of Sino-Russian Relations

Though some pundits are verging on labelling relations between these two countries an alliance, it's better described as a strategic partnership. That's an important distinction. They recently signed a five-year extension to their already two-decades-old Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation, nowhere does that document state that either country has an obligation to support the other's every move. So what, exactly, is their relationship? Theirs is a fascinating blend of weakness and strength, with each quality distributed evenly between them. Russia has more land but China has more people. China's largest city, Shanghai, is more than twice as large as Russia's capital city and wealthier by far. In fact, China is by far a wealthier country than Russia; even their military spending outstrips Russia's by nearly 3:1. But they need each other. Despite vast lands and riches, Russia's economy has never been extravagantly rich. Despite plenty of natural resources - oil, minerals and timber, to name just a few, they've never achieved the diplomatic relations with other wealthy nations that could see them secure a place on the world's stage. By contrast, China's remarkable economic feats and diplomatic strategies over the last 30 years have earned this reclusive nation a seat at practically any diplomatic table. However, those feats were engineered on the backs of their massive population, not because of any riches from the land. China Needs Russia's harvests and resources to keep that economic engine humming. They need sea access from Russia's eastern ports so they can reduce shipping times for all of their exported goods. These two countries need each other to counter what both perceive as US hegemony, bullying the world with their brutal economic power and their aggressive war machines. Russia and China routinely take turns launching provocations to keep the US focus split, trying to make predictions of what each country will do and scrambling for countermeasures before any are needed. Considering that the US encouraged China out of its self-isolation (starting in 1972), and the US and Russia were one-time allies, it seems unfair that both nations would turn on that global superpower. There are reasons for that turnabout; China and Russia didn't jointly decide to suddenly start hating the US.

China and Russia conduct joint military drills but they're not likely to fight in battle.
China's training with Russia's military forces doesn't mean that Chinese troops will join Russia in battle. Photo by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash

The War’s Impacts on Sino-Russian Relations

The US-led reaction to the 2014 invasion of Crimea is what cemented Sino-Russian ties. Before then, they only loosely abided by their Friendly Cooperation treaty; neither was particularly friendly or cooperative. However, the US-driven twin condemnations of Russia over its moves on Ukraine and China speculating on Taiwan led them to take their treaty a lot more seriously. Many see world matters as black and white. You're either on the side of good or evil. These views allow for neither nuance nor context. So, while the majority of nations voted to condemn Russian actions in Ukraine this year, China (as well as India and a few other countries) abstained from voting. This too brought China a great deal of criticism. And suspicion. Many in the West believe that China is secretly propping up the Russian economy. They fear that China will 'lend' Russia its million-man army and resupply its depleted weapons cache. It hasn't happened so far, a month into the war, and it's not likely to. For China, Russian relations are not an all-or-nothing proposition. They can disapprove of Russian provocation in Ukraine while not abetting the economic distress of the Russian people. They can purchase Russian weaponry without the arms sales having a condition attached that dictates they must support Russian military action. And, above all, China knows that it cannot afford to shoulder any of the condemnation currently heaped on the Russian leader. Western powers denounce what they believe is China's geopolitical ambitions. Could it be that they've gotten it wrong? Throughout the Russo-Ukrainian war, China has spoken for peace, even offering to broker the peace talks. And, while they've rattled sabres rather ferociously in the South China sea and delivered ultimatums over any outside military interference with Taiwan, they've not taken up arms or made any military incursions. Could that mean that China does not stand behind Russia's sudden aggression in Ukraine? Much of the Sino-Russian relationship depends on whether the west will continue what those leaders see as bullying. As long as western powers continue to dominate, we can expect continuing cooperation between the two nations - but not necessarily agreement on every matter. With China and Russia now sorted, we need to understand UK-Russian relations.

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