The new Beijing – Moscow Axis

A shared rivalry with the U.S. has reunited the two powers, as in the early days of the Cold War. But this time, China is the senior partner

By Yaroslav Trofimov

When President Sukarno of Indonesia inquired about China’s economy in 1956, Mao Zedong replied candidly that the country remained poor and agrarian and didn’t have much to export “apart from some apples, peanuts, pig bristles and soybeans.”

What Mao’s modesty concealed was his desperation to industrialize, especially for military purposes, and his hope that the Soviet Union would help him to achieve that goal. Beijing frequently acknowledged Moscow as a mighty “Big Brother,” and the pecking order between the two countries was clear. Just months after ascending to power in 1949, Mao had spent several humiliating weeks holed up in a shabby dacha outside Moscow, restricted in his movements and treated as a minor vassal while he pressed for meetings with Stalin.

Seeing China as its new dependency, Moscow sent thousands of Soviet engineers and workers and trainloads of manufacturing equipment during the 1950s. By the time relations between the two Communist regimes broke down in the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union had erected a network of industrial plants across China, enabling its protégé to produce planes, tanks and ships. Moscow even provided Beijing with nuclear-weapons technology.

Now, a half century later, the tables have turned, and the two nations are forging a new bond with the U.S. as their common rival once again. China today is an export-driven economic giant with ambitions for world leadership, embodied in President Xi Jinping’s quest for a global “community of shared destiny.” Russia, for its part, has been ostracized by the West for President Vladimir Putin’s adventurism and remains deep in the economic doldrums. The former superpower has been forced to adjust to life as China’s junior partner and occasional supplicant.

Western sanctions that followed Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine have given geopolitical urgency to the Kremlin’s pursuit of Chinaa neighbor long seen with fear and distrust. Gone are the days when the U.S. could leverage these anxieties: Russia’s establishment has concluded it has no choice but to cast aside its suspicions. For Moscow, Beijing has become an indispensable partner a source of the capital, technologies and markets that it can no longer easily find elsewhere.

“China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate in the annual intelligence community assessment this week, warning that threats to U.S. national security from the renewed collaboration will expand and diversify in the years ahead. Though aligned, the two nations are not formal allies and do not always see eye to eye on foreign policy. China doesn’t recognize Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula just as Russia doesn’t endorse China’s claims to contested islands in the South China Sea and continues to sell weapons to China’s regional rivals, India and Vietnam.

Yet over the past year, President Donald Trump’s determined effort to roll back China’s world-power aspirations and to restrict its trade and access to technology has nudged Beijing closer to Moscow. Despite its many structural weaknesses, Russia is increasingly valued by Beijing because of its diplomatic clout, remaining military might and weapons know-how. “We share a strategic understanding on how to prevent U.S. influence on this continent,” said Guo Xuetang, director of the state-run Institute of International Strategy and Policy Analysis in Shanghai. “China doesn’t want a two-front war, and neither does Russia. So China defends the east, and Russia defends the west.”

Just like Mao, Mr. Xi chose Moscow as the destination of his first foreign trip in office, in 2013though he received a very different welcome, with the Kremlin’s ceremonial Horse Guard riding out to meet him. Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi are roughly the same age, and they have developed a strong personal rapport. State media in both countries featured the two leaders making blinis together, topping them with caviar and downing shots of vodka last year.

Since Mr. Xi took office, the two countries have broadened security and economic cooperation.

Last September in Siberia they held their biggest joint war games to date, with 3,000 Chinese troops driving armored columns on Russian soil. In January, Russia’s Central Bank said that it had moved 14.7% of its currency reserves into the Chinese yuan, selling American dollars as part of a strategy to reduce Russia’s exposure to further U.S. sanctions. Ties between Russia and China these days are “at their best period in history,” Mr. Xi has repeatedly said, and Mr. Putin has described the relationship in equally effusive terms.

“For the foreseeable future, we are going to be very close partners, de facto allies with China, even though there will never be a formal alliance,” said Sergei Karaganov, a former Kremlin adviser and the honorary chairman of Russia’s influential Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. Russia depends on China’s economy and partly on its military heft, he said. “Meanwhile, without relying on Russia, China would not have been able to remain steadfast in what is unfortunately becoming its inevitable confrontation with the United States.”

The brief previous period of friendship between Moscow and Beijing in the 1950s was based on shared Communist ideology and ended once Mao began to chafe at Soviet domination following Stalin’s death. During the Cold War, exploiting this rivalry was one of America’s major strategic achievements, famously marked by President Nixon’s breakthrough visit to China in 1972. A joint effort by the U.S. and China to assist anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s effectively precipitated the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Though there is no overt ideological alignment between Russia and China today, the two governments share a hostility to dissent, deep suspicion of Western interference and a strong desire to impose tighter controls over their own societies. Mr. Xi has presided over a push to stamp out corruption and bolster the Communist party’s role in the economy and the society at large a campaign akin to Mr. Putin’s earlier effort to tame Russian oligarchs and crush political opposition. China was inspired by Russia’s legislation cracking down on non-governmental organizations, while Russian officials have expressed admiration for China’s comprehensive internet censorship and “social credit” plan to rank citizens based on their loyalty and behavior.

Even as the relationship has blossomed, however, the two nations grow less equal with each passing day. In fact, when viewed in historical terms, the Russia-China dynamic represents one of the world’s most dramatic reversals in the balance of power.

Russia was one of the imperialist predators that hacked away parts of China in the 19th century. As recently as 1991, China’s economy was smaller than Russia’s, despite its vastly larger population. China’s GDP is now about eight times Russia’s, according to World Bank figures, and the gap widens every year. China’s economy has slowed, growing just 6.6% last year, but it still far outstrips Russia’s 1.8%.

These divergent economic trajectories have translated into different approaches to the international order. Russia’s demographic and economic stagnation means that it only has so much time left before its military might its only remaining claim to being a global power starts to erode, too. Moscow has thus sought rapid change, sometimes too recklessly for China’s tastes: overrunning the borders of other sovereign countries, assassinating foes abroad and trying to undermine Western institutions that are constraining its influence, such as the European Union and NATO.

“China and Russia have different attitudes. Russia wants to break the current international order,” said Shi Ze, a former Chinese diplomat in Moscow who is now a senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, a think tank affiliated with the country’s foreign ministry. “Russia thinks it is the victim of the current international system, in which its economy and its society do not develop. But China benefits from the current international system. We want to improve and modify it, not to break it.”

Many in Moscow’s foreign-policy establishment are coming to terms with the strategic implications of this imbalance. Already, Russian leaders go out of their way to praise China’s “One Belt, One Road” program even though the ambitious infrastructure initiative is certain to boost China’s influence in areas that Russia has long jealously guarded as part of its own backyard, such as Central Asia and Belarus. “It’s very difficult to remain a one-sided superpower, strong militarily but not economically,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow think tank that focuses on security issues. “China’s military might will grow alongside its economy, and ours will slowly degrade.”

Aware of Russian sensibilities, Chinese officials are diplomatic in describing the relationship. “True, Russia’s GDP is currently similar to the GDP of Guandong province,” said Ding Xiaoxing, who heads the Eurasia Institute at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, the think tank affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security. “But you can’t judge the national power of Russia just by its GDP: One-fifth of the world’s resources lies in Russia, it is the world’s biggest country, and it has one of the world’s strongest militaries.”

As Russia’s economic ties with the West fray, it has turned to China as a new market, with a massive cross-border natural-gas pipeline going into operation as soon as this year. Driven by Russian natural-resource exports, bilateral trade surged by 27% last year, reaching $107 billion. Chinese direct investment in Russia remains paltry, however. “It is still a simple trade relationship. The market openness is very limited,” said Feng Yujun, director of the Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. Russian officials, he added, “are still not that comfortable with switching from being a big brother to being an equal partner.”

The U.S. remains incomparably more important than Russia to China’s economic development, Mr. Feng said. America’s soft power in China also eclipses Russia’s influence, at least so far. For every Chinese student in Russian universities, 10 others are pursuing degrees in the U.S. and, because of the prestige of U.S. education, these graduates usually land much better jobs. An average Chinese, while familiar with Hollywood icons, would be hard-pressed to name a contemporary Russian actor or singer.

“No matter how badly our political relations slide, the Chinese people have a great intimacy with the U.S. For the past 150 years, there is no other power that inspired China so much,” said Zhu Feng, director of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University. “But the Chinese and the Russians are totally different people. We have always believed that the Russians are very lazy, drink vodka, enjoy their princely territory…. That lack of intimacy is a very big barrier.”

A bigger obstacle to closer cooperation is Moscow’s fear that China will move one day to seize areas in Russia’s Far East that Beijing ceded in the mid-1800s. (Stalin ethnically cleansed them of large Chinese and Korean populations in the 1930s.) Though the Far East accounts for some 40% of Russia’s land mass and much of its mineral wealth, it is inhabited today by only 8 million people fewer than the nearby Chinese provincial city Harbin.

In the late 1960s, as Mao broke away from Moscow, open warfare erupted along the Far East border, with Chinese soldiers invading disputed islands on the Amur River. Hundreds died; the Military Museum of Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing still showcases a trophy Soviet T-62 tank captured in 1969. The border issue was finally settled in 2008 with the transfer of most disputed areas to China. Russian media at the time was filled with scaremongering stories about how millions of Chinese migrants would soon colonize Siberia and the Far East.

In part because of these fears, very little infrastructure connects the cities of Russia’s Far East, such as Khabarovsk, with booming China next door a self-imposed isolation that has stunted the region’s development. At the same time, the collapse of the Russian ruble (which has lost roughly half of its value against the Chinese yuan since 2014) means that many of the Chinese traders and workers who had migrated across the border are now moving back.

“It makes no sense to be a Chinese guest worker in Russia now,” said Leonid Bliakher, a professor at Pacific National University in Khabarovsk. “The incomes in northern China are comparable to, or even higher, than what they could be earning here.” Now it’s Russians who cross the other way to find work, hawking matryoshka nesting dolls, rye bread and chocolates in wrappers emblazoned with Putin’s face to Chinese tourists in Harbin.

Even the Russian security services, traditionally paranoid about the Far East’s vulnerability to China, concluded after 2014 that they shouldn’t worry about the threat from Beijing, at least not for now, said Alexander Gabuev, China expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Instead, they are increasingly working with China against a common foe: the West. “The similarity of these two regimes and their behavior isn’t any worse as a ground for closeness than the similarities among the democracies,” Mr. Gabuev said. “The principle now is: not always with each other, but never against each other.”

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