The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend: Russia-China Relations in the Face of U.S.-China Tensions

On July 23, 2020, U.S. Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo, called upon the international community to unite against a new threat – the “global tyranny” of China. In his speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, he proposed the creation of a new alliance of democratic governments to counteract Chinese activities and, importantly, did not exclude bringing Russia into such an alliance. Later, the press secretary of the Russian President, Dmitriy Peskov, declared that Moscow is not inclined to be a part of such an alliance. He emphasized that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is an ally and partner of Russia, and that Moscow does not form alliances against anyone.

In their public rhetoric, Russian officials have constantly criticized American policymakers for their hawkish approach towards China. On the other hand, Russian experts tend to support the view of those American analysts who consider China, rather than Russia, as the main enemy and competitor of the United States. A shift in Washington’s focus from Moscow to Beijing may in fact benefit the Kremlin, as it could provide an opening for improved Russia-U.S. relations and even divert U.S. attention away from Russia’s growing influence in Eastern Europe. However, this does not necessarily mean that Russia will become an ally of the U.S. in deterring the professed Chinese threat. The reasons standing against such an alliance are as follows:

The Alignment of Political and Economic Spheres

First, a certain similarity between the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia makes for favorable conditions for cooperation on a variety of important political issues, and in recent years such cooperation has shown active growth. For example, the PRC has consistently supported Moscow’s position on the Syrian conflict. At the end of February 2020, China supported Russia at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on the situation in Idlib, and in July of this year, China and Russia jointly blocked a UN Security Council resolution on the supply of humanitarian aid to Syria.

Beijing’s solidarity with Moscow’s position can be explained by the fact that such actions do not entail serious political or economic risks for China, while at the same time it gives the PRC the right to expect reciprocal help – for example, to back China’s policy vis-à-vis Hong Kong. Such support does indeed exist, at least at the level of individual Russian officials. Such as when Mikhail Markelov, adviser to the head of the United Russia faction in the State Duma, supported the passing of the Chinese National Security Law in Hong Kong.

Secondly, Russia has a significant economic dependence on China. In 2018, trade between the two countries grew by 27.1 percent and exceeded 107 billion USD. The first two months of 2020 saw an additional 5.6 percent growth. Not everyone in the Russian elite is prepared to fully commit to being in China’s economic orbit, yet its already strong dependence also makes it clear that Russia cannot withdraw from its economic partnership with China at this time. Moreover, given current global economic conditions, that dependency will likely deepen further still.

Close “Information Security” Ties

In recent years, Russian cooperation with China in information-communications technology has increased sharply. As early as 2015, the Russian Ministry of Communications and Mass Media published a report on the joint meeting of the Subcommittee on Communications and Information Technologies of the Russian-Chinese Commission, created to prepare regular meetings of the governments of the two countries, in which the two sides discussed cooperation in the field of telecommunications, information technology and network security, postal communications and radio frequency coordination.

In June 2019, the “Joint Declaration of the Russian Federation and the Peoples Republic of China on the development of a comprehensive, strategic partnership entering a new era” appeared on the Russian President’s website. The document calls for broadening collaboration in the field of security through “expanded contacts on international information security.”

The two sides also agreed to “strengthen exchanges in the field of legal regulation of activities in the information space, to jointly promote the principle of management of the information-telecommunications network, the ‘Internet’.” In this instance, they are not speaking only of cyber security, but also about regulating site content, including blocking undesirable resources. Russian cybersecurity experts have repeatedly noted that strengthening censorship and digital control has become one of the top priorities of the Russian authorities, and it is obvious that the Kremlin is interested in borrowing Chinese experience in this area.

Partners or Rivals?

Of course, as in the relations between any two countries, Sino-Russian relations have had their share of contradictions and disagreements. At the policy level, for example, the PRC is in no hurry to recognize the annexation of Crimea undoubtedly due to their own territory issues in the South China Sea and their strict adherence to the principle of territorial integrity. For instance, China continues to insist on its rights for almost 90 percent of the South China Sea within the so-called nine-dash line.

Central Asia is another competitive zone in Sino-Russian relations.  Last September, Russian media conceded that Russia was losing ground in Central Asia and the Caucasus. In their words, the significance of China as a trade partner and investment source in the region shows notable growth.  For example, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan are part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and Armenia, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Tadzhikistan, and others are working to develop close ties outside the former Soviet Bloc. China has become the most valued source of direct foreign investment to the region while Russian presence in this area is in decline.

Old Habits Die Hard

Yet, despite these territorial discords and adjustments to new norms, Sino-Russian cooperation in the economic sphere, and above all in the field of “information security” is now so prolific that it is difficult to imagine that Moscow would be prepared to forego it in favor of rapprochement with the U.S. It is no less difficult to imagine any rapprochement, at all, given that anti-American discourse is a key element not only of Russian foreign policy, but also domestic policy, primarily domestic propaganda.

Paradoxically, even today, when senior officials in the Trump administration refer to China, rather than Russia, as the main threat to the U.S., the anti-American intensity of Russian political rhetoric is even stronger than that of their Chinese counterparts. Therefore, a rapprochement between Moscow and Washington would be possible, it seems, only in the event of serious political changes in Russia itself, in particular, a rejection of the current authoritarian course with its focus on confrontation with the West.