The idea that Russia, geopolitically a Eurasian power, could help to counter the political and economic clout of rising China, surfaces in international debates from time to time. It overlooks Russia’s regional and global interests in having a strong strategic partnership with a territorially revisionist, economically and militarily powerful China.
This idea resurfaced in New Delhi last October, when Russia and India agreed on the sale of Russia’s S-400 missile to India, its biggest arms buyer. India defied the threat of sanctions by the US, its main strategic partner, to sign the deal.
New Delhi had its reasons. China threatens India’s territorial integrity and competes with India to extend its influence in the Indian Ocean. The acquisition of the S-400 missile would enable India to track aircraft beyond its borders and project power in the Indian Ocean, where Beijing has grown increasingly assertive.
For its part, Moscow sees the sale helping Russia to keep its best customer since 1971 in hand.
But Russia has two irons in the fire. It offered China the S-400 in 2015 and started delivering the missile to China earlier this year. Delivery to India will start after two years.
Consequently, India and China will be able to hit each other with the same Russian missile. Evidently Russia has made itself useful to Asia’s two largest rivals.
The implications are that the Russia-India S-400 deal will not go against China’s interests – or against Russia’s interest in having close ties with China.
The international context of the S-400 deal
Unlike India, Russia and China share an interest in challenging the world primacy of the US. India and Russia made the deal at a time when Moscow and Beijing view their strategic partnership as being at its highest point in history.
Some sense of rivalry is undoubtedly present in the Russia-China tie. This is largely because China’s $ 14 trillion economy suggests that it stands a better chance of becoming a global power than Russia or India, whose economies are valued at $ 1.5 trillion and $ 3 trillion respectively.
Yet, the factors that bring Russia and China together are currently stronger than the competition between them.
First, Russia and China share an uncontested border. So there is no territorial hurdle to be crossed – as in the case of India and China - in order to develop closer economic ties.
Secondly,China’s need for gas and oil entails amicable ties with neighbouring Russia, which is one of the world's biggest energy producers.
Thirdly, Russia is neutral on the Sino-Indian conflict and has advised its settlement through dialogue. It has also counselled India to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which India views as a unilateral push to advance China’s interests and a threat to India’s sovereignty because it cuts across disputed turf in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir.
In the Indian Ocean, where India is being threatened by China’s expanding naval presence and its investments in India’s neighbouring countries, Russia is not at the moment a competitor of either India or China.
On the international front, unlike India and the US, Russia supported China’s claim to the South China Sea when the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China in June 2016. Elsewhere, in the Middle East, China has also supported Russia’s stance in Syria.
The role of economics and trade in shaping China-Russia ties
Since Moscow hived off Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Chinese investments in Russia have helped it to bypass sanctions imposed by the west. With Moscow’s consent, China has established its economic presence in Russia and Central Asia. It has built railways in Russia and constructed railway lines connecting Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to China.
As for trading ties,China is the top trading partner of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEAU). In 2016, India ranked in the 18th place in imports to the EEAU and the 15th place in exports from the EEAU. Unfortunately, India’s efforts to connect with Russia and Central Asia are hampered by the absence of shared borders with any country in the region.
President Vladimir Putin’s first attendance at the 2018 East Asia summit marked Russia’s decision to strengthen economic ties with ASEAN countries. But it is nowhere near becoming China’s main competitor in Southeast Asia. In 2017, the total trade between ASEAN and Russia was US$ 16.74 billion. Bilateral trade between China and ASEAN totalled $ 514.8 billion in 2017.
Military cooperation between China and Russia
Naval drills between Russia and China in the Baltic and Black Seas – which are part of Russia’s geographical frontiers – and the Mediterranean Sea - which does not border Russia - have helped China to stake a claim to be a European power.
In the Arctic region, where China has no sovereign territory, economic collaboration between Russia and China has taken off. The idea of a “Silk Road on Ice” was aired in 2015, when they agreed to collaborate on developing the northern sea route along the Russian Arctic coast into a competitive commercial sea route. In January 2018, an official white paper staked China’s claim to be a "Near-Arctic State”.
Last month, China and Russia conducted Vostok 18, the largest military exercise carried out by the Russians on their soil since the end of the Cold War. Three hundred thousand Russian troops and 3,200 Chinese troops impressed on the west that their countries are not militarily isolated. In Russia’s case the drills confirmed its stature as an Asian and Eurasian power. NATO and the US – or India and the US - have yet to organize a military drill on this scale.
In conclusion, Russia seeks to cultivate good relations with both China and India. But arms sales to India will not come between Russia and China. The outstanding fact is that an economically strong China can advance Russia’s global interests more than India – or indeed, more than any other country.