Eugene B. Rumer
October 31, 2001 

Russian-Chinese relations, like most aspects of the international system, are not likely to escape the long shadow of the tragic events of September 11.  What previously had seemed to many observers like one of the more important strategic relationships in the world will undoubtedly be recast as a function of both countries’ reassessment of their foreign policy priorities, their respective relationships with the United States, as well as potential impact of the September 11 events on their domestic policy-making environments. 

To be sure, the notion of an emerging Russian-Chinese alliance, or partnership, was an exaggeration even prior to September 11.  Indeed, the two countries share considerable interests, but the relationship between them could be far more accurately described at best as a marriage of convenience, at worst as a latent geopolitical faultline in Eurasia. 

Even a quick look at the balance sheet of Russian-Chinese relations leaves little doubt that this is a relationship in flux.  The factors that draw the two countries together are quite well known:  Russia has weapons to sell and needs to sell them, China needs weapons to modernize its arsenal; both Moscow and Beijing have grown tired and irritated at Washington.  Their shared resentment of the United States is fed by a whole range of factors, too numerous to list here.  To name just a few, U.S. global presence from Taiwan to the Caspian, lecturing about human rights and propensity toward unilateral action in the Balkans and Persian Gulf, as well as the Bush Administration’s commitment to missile defense. 

Since the mid-1990s, Russia and China have also shared growing concerns about stability in Central Asia.  Both have watched the United States expand its presence in Central Asia with suspicion.  Both have been alarmed by the rise of the Taliban regime and the spread of militant Islam in the region.  Both have sought to foster regional cooperation under the auspices of the Shanghai forum, while trying to keep the United States out of it and minimize its influence. 

Less well known and often overlooked, but certainly increasingly prominent in the Russian debate about China is the growing concern among Russia’s foreign policy elite.  The source of this concern is the growing strategic imbalance between Russia and China and the uncertain geopolitical implications from this trend—Russia in decline, China on the rise—for the Russian position in the Far East.  Suffice it to say that the leading Russian foreign policy association—the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy—has launched a debate about Russia’s future in the Far East, inviting its members to discuss whether or not Moscow will be able to “hold on” to the region. 

Concerns about Russian position vis a vis China—regardless of any official pronouncements from Beijing--have spurred a number of leading Russian analysts to ponder the wisdom of the partnership, including the military-technical relationship with China.  These recent concerns overlay the long-standing Russian suspicions about China[1], which just as easily can be traced either to the relatively recent clashes of the late-1960s or the historic fears of the “yellow peril.” 

Have the events of September 11 changed this uneasy balance in Russian-Chinese relations and how?  There is undoubtedly a large amount of risk involved in any speculation so soon about the impact of an ongoing military campaign on Russian-Chinese relations.  That said, the risk is worth taking, if only to sketch out some of the possibilities. 

The first impression is that China has come out the big loser in the aftermath of September 11.  To the extent one could talk prior to that date about a nascent Russian-Chinese anti-U.S. partnership, the latter appears to be in an even bigger trouble than before.  Vladimir Putin’s decisive stance in support of U.S. actions has triggered a new dynamic in U.S.-Russian relations.  The Bush-Putin “agreement to agree” in Shanghai, regardless of the fine print was an important signal of the high priority the two presidents placed on developing good U.S.-Russian relations.  The prospect of a broad agreement on NMD-ABM nexus of issue hinted at by the presidents’ aides once again raises the possibility of Russia breaking ranks with China and signing onto a strategic partnership with the United States. 

In Central Asia, the situation looks very different as well after September 11.  Making the best out of a potentially very thorny situation, President Putin has endorsed U.S. deployment of troops in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.  U.S. troops are on the ground and by most accounts are there to stay for the long run.  The fabled Shanghai forum sponsored by Moscow and Beijing in a large part to keep the United States out of Central Asia has in effect collapsed—at China’s expense.  While Russia and the United States are collaborating in their common fight against terrorism and the Taliban regime, China has found itself on the sidelines.[2] 

China has been sidelined in other ways too.  The marginal role accorded so far in the war on terrorism to the United Nations and its Security Council—Beijing’s favorite forum for restraining U.S. global ambitions—has in effect marginalized China.  Russia, by contrast has gained from its bilateral relationship with the United States. 

Indeed, in the months to come, Russia could reap substantial benefit from its support for the war on terrorism.  A short list of what is on the table includes substantial debt forgiveness; help for rebuilding Chechnya; a renewed and bolstered relationship with NATO; a compromise on the ABM Treaty; favorable terms for WTO membership; and even—possibly!—a postponement of membership in NATO for the Baltic states, which until Sept. 11 looked like a done deal at least for one and maybe for all three. 

Clearly, president Putin stands to reap substantial political benefits from his bold move in support of the war on terrorism.  For Russia, the chief benefit would be a new level of political and strategic engagement with the West, tilting the balance in internal Russian deliberations about the country’s strategic orientation further away from China. 

The rewards president Putin and Russia stand to gain from the United States and its allies (Germany, for example is bound to play the biggest part in any effort to arrange debt relief for Russia) could conceivably embolden Putin to move against some of the most entrenched and powerful sources of opposition to deep structural reforms in the economy, in particular the defense-industrial complex, which has been an active proponent—and a major beneficiary of military-technical cooperation with China.  Should this happen, some of China’s strongest allies in Russian domestic politics would see their influence curtailed. 

It would be unrealistic and naïve to expect Russia to cut off its arms sales to China or make an abrupt shift in its political relations with it.  Clearly too much is at stake in this relationship for Moscow, and its position vis a vis China is still weak, leaving Putin and his team no room to antagonize Beijing.  However, the new rapprochement between Russia and the United States and its allies could well cast the relationship between Russia and China in a very different light.  The fabled “strategic partnership” would then become what one China expert has described as the “lowest common denominator” below which neither side can afford to sink, rather than a cooperative relationship built on shared interests. 

That said, even this relatively optimistic assessment of Sino-Russian relations after September 11 leaves many unanswered questions.  For example, how will Russia maintain its “hold” on the Far East in the light of the shifting strategic balance in the region?  What is in it for the United States and what if anything should we do about it?  Will the United States agree to a strategic compromise with Russia on such thorny issues as ABM-NMD and NATO?  It seems for a change a number of important keys to Russian behavior and Russian-Chinese relations are in our hands.  Will we be able to avail ourselves of the opportunities presented to us? 

[1] It is not uncommon for Russian strategic analysts to remark casually that of course, the missile defense system around Moscow has always been aimed at China, never at the United States.

[2] It is worth noting here as an aside, that in South Asia too, China seems to have suffered a setback.  Its traditional ally Pakistan has emerged as a pivotal U.S. partner in the war on terrorism, while India has reaffirmed its long-standing partnership with Russia and entered into a new relationship with the United States.  Although most of these developments had been in train prior to Sept. 11, the renewed U.S.-Pakistani relationship follows directly from it and reaffirms the trend which generally unfavorable to China.

The list goes on.  The war on terrorism has produced some strange bedfellows.  Perhaps, most notable among them is the de-facto realigning of the United States and Iran, both sworn enemies of the Taliban regime.  Should this very tenuous rapprochement put an end to U.S.-Iranian rivalry in Central Asia, U.S. position in the region would be further enhanced.