Large war games distract from the complexity of China-Russia ties

Russia and China may have shared interests, but they are not on the verge of a traditional alliance.

Vostok games - 2018 Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the audience during the military parade of the participants of the Vostok-2018 war games Zabaikalsky region, Russia, September 13, 2018 [Kremlin/Reuters]

Earlier this week, Russia held its largest ever set of war games in Siberia. The Vostok exercises, which also involved participation from Chinese and Mongolian militaries, involved more than 300,000 Russian troops and more than 1,000 aircraft, as well as numerous tanks and ships. Beijing, meanwhile, sent over 3,000 troops, as well as aircraft and other vehicles, making it China’s largest joint exercise with Russia in years. The games took place amidst a time of increased tension between Russia and the United States – along with similar irritants with many states in Europe – caused by Moscow’s interference in the US election process and also lingering disputes over Russian activity in Syria and Ukraine. Tensions also have been building between the US and China, with the Trump administration’s trade conflict with Beijing intensifying and Washington’s public labelling of China as a “strategic competitor in its latest key national security strategies.

The Vostok games have been another marker for analysts to push the notion that China and Russia have grown into quasi-allies, with shared interests in opposing US hegemony and the dominance of the West in international institutions. There is some truth to the notion that Beijing and Moscow’s interests are increasingly aligning. Russia’s diplomatic freeze-out from Washington and many of its key European allies, coupled with its desire to benefit from China’s rapid economic and military growth, has furthered Moscow’s embrace of Beijing. China, meanwhile, has looked to Russia as a strong partner to offset the pressure from the US and its alliance network in Asia, especially with Japan – where relations have been tense as a result of their territorial row around the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

Earlier this year, during Russian President Vladimir Putin‘s visit to Beijing, the two sides appeared to formalise their strategic partnership – claiming in a joint statement that they would: “build up cooperation in all areas, and further build up strategic contacts and coordination between their armed forces, improve the existing mechanisms of military cooperation, expand interaction in the field of practical military and military-technical cooperation and jointly resist challenges to global and regional security.” The economic side of the relationship has also been growing, and bilateral trade is expected to surpass $100bn this year, with both sides aiming to double that figure by the end of 2020. Headlining this economic surge is a mammoth $400bn gas deal struck between the two sides in 2014, which has been underwritten by a $55bn investment from Russian gas giant Gazprom.

But while there are a growing number of strategic convergences for Russia and China, there must be caution about conflating these alignments with the notion that two are on the verge of a traditional alliance. In reality, the strategic mistrust between the two sides remains a potent divider in the long-term, despite the current warmth. First, in geo-economic terms, Moscow remains quietly wary of Beijing’s intentions in Central Asia with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Officially, Russia is supportive of BRI as an engine to help develop infrastructure and enhance supply chain connectivity through the region. Behind this endorsement, however, are lingering concerns that China may be looking to unseat – at least partially – Russian dominance in the region. Likewise, Russia also remains concerned about the surge of Chinese investment in its Far East, which carries economic benefits but also potentially disadvantages Russian businesses, and its increased interest in the Arctic region.

Another area to watch in the coming months is the impact of hedging on the relationship. A telling example of this is the relationship between Japan and Russia – which has been gradually improving under the stewardship of Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The two sides remain locked in a decades-old territorial row over the Southern Kuril islands (referred to as the Northern Territories in Japan) north of Japan’s island of Hokkaido. Despite both sides claiming a desire to resolve their dispute, Japan and Russia remain far apart on any deal over the isles. But that has not muted the relationship’s momentum as both Tokyo and Moscow appear to realise the benefits of improved relations as a hedge against great power influence – China in Japan’s case and the US in the Russian case. Russia’s desire to improve relations with Japan – despite its reticence to make concessions on the Kurils – is another indication that Moscow prefers to balance and hedge in the Far East rather than syncing fully with Beijing.

A final key element here is the relationship with Washington. There is no coincidence that the current coalescence of Sino-Russian interests aligns with both states being at odds with the US and – by de-facto – many of its friends and partners. While US tensions with Russia and China will almost surely be long-term issues to manage, it should not be assumed that improvements and new approaches will not change the trajectory of these dynamics in the coming years. The US approaches bilaterally to Moscow and Beijing, as well as its presence in the Asia-Pacific, will be a key benchmark in the evolution of Russia-China ties.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.