The China-Russia Strategic Partnership


hu.medvedev.jpgLehigh University International Relations Department Chair Rajan Menon recently published an informative report for the Century Foundation called “The China-Russia Relationship: What It Involves, Where It Is Headed, And How It Matters For The United States.”
The report provides a useful framework for conceptualizing the relationships among China, Russia, and the United States.
Menon makes a persuasive case that while the “strategic partnership” between Russia and China is based in large part on a shared aversion to unchecked American power, a full-fledged anti-American alliance is unlikely to develop.
The report refutes assertions by the British historian Niall Ferguson and others that Russia and China are engaged in a classic balance of power alliance to counter American influence.
Such an alliance is unlikely for several reasons. Neither Russia nor China believes that an alliance could effectively balance American influence given the United States’ extraordinary military and economic advantages, China agrees with Joe Biden that Russia is a weak and declining power, and Russia envisions itself as part of the West and views China’s rise with jealousy and suspicion. Furthermore, geographical proximity makes Russia and China natural competitors in Central Asia and the Russian Far East.
The bottom line is that both Russia and China benefit more from their relations with the West than from their relations with each other.
Menon’s analyses of the United States’ bilateral relationships with Russia and China are strong because he avoids a U.S.-centric perspective and explains how Beijing and Moscow perceive their interests and their relationships with Washington. His acknowledgments that the United States’ unilateral decision to abandon the ABM treaty and its obsessive commitment to NATO expansion have been counter-productive are particularly welcome.
One quibble I have with Menon’s argument is his statement that “While talk of a Russian-American cold war is ubiquitous in Russia and the United States, there is no parallel categorization about the Beijing-Washington relationship, either in Beijing or Washington.”
While you wouldn’t know it from last week’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue “love fest,” there is in fact a large and influential group of China hard-liners based primarily at the Pentagon and in the armed services that views China as an emerging military superpower and conceives the U.S.-China relationship in zero-sum terms. While these views have been crowded out in recent years, they most certainly exist and could resurface in the event of a crisis.
Menon correctly identifies one of the main reasons that the China hard-liners in Washington have been sidelined. The enormous trade and investment flows between the two countries ensure that there are strong domestic constituencies in both countries with a stake in the relationship. The lack of these constituencies is one of the biggest obstacles to stronger U.S.-Russian relations. Menon says

The problems…are compounded by the ease with which the relationship with Russia can be damaged because of the lack of influential constituencies within America that have a strong stake in shoring it up, let alone expanding it. The pro-China business lobby in America has no pro-Russian counterpart, and while there are university professors and op-ed writers who argue strenuously that the relationship with Russia is important and should be strengthened, who has lost money betting on their lack of influence?

One other interesting insight from the article is that while much is made of Russia’s dependence on arms sales to China (which make up about 10% of Russia’s export earnings), China is at least as dependent on Russia in this area. Because of Washington’s ban, Russia is the only place that China can buy state of the art weaponry.
The full text of Menon’s article can be found here, and is well worth a read.
— Ben Katcher


10 comments on “The China-Russia Strategic Partnership

  1. PissedOffAmerican says: » Israel » Article
    “Because of Washington’s ban, Russia is the only place that China can buy state of the art weaponry”
    Mar 2, 2006 Arms sales to China resume
    Israeli arms developers are once again marketing their wares in China despite the 2004 crisis that developed with the US over a sensitive arms deal, Defense Ministry Director-General Ya’acov Toren revealed on Wednesday.
    “The military industries have returned to working on defense exports with China and other countries,” Toren told reporters in his first press conference since taking office in September 2005.


  2. PissedOffAmerican says:

    From 2005….
    An excerpt…
    “The memorandum lays out broad parameters for the rules governing future Israeli arms sales to sensitive countries, particularly China, but specifics will have to be ironed out over the next few months. The joint U.S.-Israeli statement said that, “in the coming months, additional steps will be taken to restore confidence fully.”
    “Among those steps will be Israel’s adherence to, but not formal membership in, some elements of the Wassenaar Arrangement, a decade-old voluntary export control regime whose 34 members exchange information on transfers of conventional weapons and dual-use goods and technologies. In particular, Pentagon officials said that their Israeli counterparts had offered to implement controls on dual-use sensors and lasers that would conform to Wassenaar guidelines.”
    “U.S. and Israeli officials are still negotiating how tightly Israel will adhere to other elements of the Wassenaar regime. Under the agreement, Israel is supposed to pass legislation and implement organizational changes that will bring it closer to compliance with Wassenaar’s strictures. Israel is also expected to follow transparent procedures similar to Wassenaar and has agreed to consult closely with the United States about potential sales.”
    “Still, Israeli officials did not pledge to notify the United States in advance of exports or obtain U.S. approval for such sales.”


  3. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Interesting that no one has touched on Israel’s “past” sales of arms and advanced weapons technology to China. Ben makes the assertion that “Because of Washington’s ban, Russia is the only place that China can buy state of the art weaponry”. Unless I have it wrong, Washington lifted the full “ban” around 2006, and allowed Israeli arms sales to China as long as we get to put our stamp of approval on the sale.
    And noting Israel’s complete and utter disdain for agreements, alliances, treaties, and basic morality, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Israel is still engaged in illicit and covert arms sales to China.


  4. Mr.Murder says:

    The elephant in the room: a US General destroyed the Indian Ocean fleet in a war games simulation using Iran’s logistics, weapons, and tactics.
    Most of their weaponry comes from China or France.


  5. rich says:

    Yes, ambiguity is in play. But if DC believes in Realpolitik to the degree it publicly asserts, we might reach a different somewhat different conclusion than the poster. Both countries have significant leverage due to oil/energy resources &/or money/debt. With another Sibel Edmonds story pointing out bin Laden was in our employ right up until 9-11 — paid to foment unrest & destabilize Islamist Central Asia & China — neither Moscow nor Beijing can be too pleased with us.
    Those muddied waters aside, where there is a mutual interest in hamstringing U.S. interests, Russia and China will find a way to do it.
    Isolating Iran becomes an impossible task. And this is the starting point, not a conclusion, as I’ve posted many times here. Why would either Security Council nation help us isolate the remarkably weak Iran, and force it to knuckle under to U.S. strategic interests?
    Both nations will continue to gather resources and technology wherever they find it, _and_ push to counter U.S. over-reach wherever it damages/ impinges on their interests. The unlikelihood of a full-bore alliance does not mean that both nations won’t protect their vital national interest in the face of harrassment, covert ops, destabilization efforts and other acts of war.


  6. ... says:

    ben thanks for your post and johnh thanks for your insightful comments… i would just like to challenge the comment “given the United States’ extraordinary military and economic advantages”.. it would seem that the usa’s economic advantage isn’t as clear as it once was and that china’s holding so much of usa debt changes the relationship in all of this to one where china has a stronger position then some in the usa foreign policy area are willing to acknowledge…


  7. PeterG says:

    The hard-liners tactics of pummeling the opposition into submission, especially during the Bush years, has been counter-productive and indeed turned most of the rest of the world against us. It’s time to give peace a chance…by engaging our opponents and working for win-win situations…rather than constantly being fearful that some emerging power will use that power to conquer the rest of the world. I know that the history of Hitler, Castro, Saddam and others give us pause to pursue a peaceful course in this manner, but hopefully with greater world communication through the internet and attempting to understand each other in a more genuine way, that the time is right to approach, and hope for, peaceful dialogue between countries and a means of a better way forward.


  8. JohnH says:

    Ben–once again I have to state what should by now be obvious: energy supply and consumption. Russia has vast natural gas and uranium reserves. China is a major consumer. The two have a mutual interest in developing a secure, reliable market. And they have a mutual interest in making sure that the West does not insert itself unnecessarily as a “protection service” for resources flowing from Central Asia.
    Dave Huntsman may point to some in the West being wary of Chinese ambitions in its own backyard. But China is also wary of US ambitions (always unmentioned, of course) to control energy resources and distribution routes and open markets military supplies and protection services right in China’s own backyard (about as far away from the US as you can get).
    Though Russia and China may not be natural allies beyond mutually beneficial commercial interests, US activities in the area naturally push otherwise reluctant parties closer together to protect those commercial interests.
    It’s a mystery to me why the US seems intent on playing its cute “great game,” thereby encouraging development of a stronger Chinese-Russia axis than would otherwise develop naturally. US involvement in the region therefore seems counterproductive, not to mention expensive.
    But, of course, the wisdom of US intentions are not open to public debate and discussion in today’s Washington.


  9. Dave Huntsman says:

    there is in fact a large and influential group of China hard-
    liners based primarily at the Pentagon and in the armed services
    that views China as an emerging military superpower and
    conceives the U.S.-China relationship in zero-sum terms. While
    these views have been crowded out in recent years, they most
    certainly exist and could resurface in the event of a crisis.
    You almost paint the ‘hardliners’ view in anachronistic terms; as
    if it is old-fashioned, and without current reasonable basis.
    I do think the PRC strives for ‘dominance’ in Asia; and if true,
    that assumes non-dominance – non-freedom of actions – for
    all other players. And, is it fair to assume that those who are not
    wary of Chinese ambitions in Asia are also those who, to not put
    too fine a point on it, are willing to sacrifice the prosperous,
    democratic nation of Taiwan?


  10. WigWag says:

    This is a good post.
    I would add a couple of points: (1) While China is rising and Russia is falling in terms of military status and economic vitality, in many respects Russia is still far more advanced than China. According to the CIA Factbook, in 2008 Russia’s per capita GDP was almost double that of China ($15,800 as opposed to $8,000). Russia ranks 58 on the list of per capita GDP; China ranks 106th). (2) Russia possesses 20 times the number of nuclear warheads as China and has far more ICBMs and nuclear submarines to deliver them. Although China has a growing navy, the Russian Navy is still far larger.
    There are many similarities between the two nations. Both have significant and perhaps growing problems with restive Muslim minorities; both have regions defined by language and ethnicity that would like to break away, and both are very concerned about exercising influence in their “near abroads.”
    Ben Katcher is incorrect when he says, “Russia is the only place that China can buy state of the art weaponry.”
    Export bans enacted by the American Congress prevent most defense related exports of military equipment to China from the United States. Russia is China’s largest supplier of military hardware, but Israel is China’s second largest supplier. Some experts predict that before the decade is over, Israel will surpass Russia as China’s largest supplier of weapons systems.


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