Inside Story

Russia and China: A NATO of the East?

As the two countries’ leaders meet, we ask if they can overcome past differences to form a united front.

China and Russia are hailing what they say is a new era of strong cooperation. Its symbol? The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit taking place in Beijing.

The one-time Cold War rivals have pledged to strengthen their cooperation on foreign policy, and to provide a different approach to resolving the world’s crises.

“Russia’s present policy on China, that I’d describe as containment through engagement, [of which] the architect is the [Russian] president, Vladimir Putin, … [is] a very pragmatic policy of having better and better relations with China and solving all the territorial outstanding issues … and … getting closer to China and ironing out differences when China is not as strong as it, say, may be in 10 years’ time.

– Pavel Felgenhauer, a defence analyst

They have often voiced unity in opposing perceived US global dominance and have also increasingly coordinated their positions over foreign policy issues. 

As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, they have worked together to block UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, arguing against any type of foreign military intervention with the ultimate aim of regime change.

They have also blocked US-led resolutions on UN sanctions on Iran over its alleged nuclear programme.

But at this Beijing summit, one of their top priorities will be finding a common approach to Afghanistan. And Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, has been invited to attend.

The SCO was created by China in 2001 to increase free trade and to address security issues around its borders. Its members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. And both India and Pakistan, who are currently observer states together with Mongolia and Iran, have signalled their interest in becoming full members.

The bloc has a total population of 1.5 billion and the region accounts for 11 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves.

“The basic foundation for [the] good relationship is that both countries understand that they’d like to retain major power status and they certainly would not like to see a unipolar world. They’d like to promote multi-polarity and therefore they need each other because, after all, the European Union and Japan are too close to the United States.

– Joseph Chang, a professor of political science at City University Hong Kong

In 1994, Russia and China agreed not to target each other with nuclear weapons. And they held their first joint military exercise in August of 2005.

But while they appear close on international issues, they have yet to finalise a massive natural gas deal, despite rounds of tough negotiations. Russia is eager to link gas prices to oil prices as it does in Europe, but China says that is too expensive.

Moscow is also unhappy with China’s alleged copying of Russian fighter jets and other military hardware. And recently Russia’s government announced the arrest of a Chinese man accused of seeking to buy its military secrets.

And despite their 2008 boundary agreements, tensions regarding the Russian-Chinese border periodically reappear.

So are Russia and China looking to build a new NATO of the East? And can they overcome their past differences to create a unified front to offset the US’ influence? And what would that mean for global security?

Inside Story, with presenter Ghida Fakhry, discusses with guests: Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University Hong Kong; Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at the think tank The Heritage Foundation; and Pavel Felgenhauer, a defence analyst and columnist at the Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

“We will strengthen our strategic cooperation on international issues, work together for the revitalisation of both our countries, and safeguard the peace, stability and security of the region.”

Hu Jintao, the Chinese president