The Heritage Foundation in a Backgrounder on September 12, 2013, published recommendations by Dean Cheng and Ariel Cohen on how to manage U.S.-Russia-China relations. Since the end of the Cold War, Sino–Russian relations have expanded and deepened, resulting in arms deals and increasing economic ties. Russia has the potential to become a major energy supplier to the growing Chinese economy, which is demanding ever-increasing amounts of energy. While both countries desire to constrain U.S. power and Western influence, they still view each other as regional competitors in Central Asia. If a close Sino–Russian strategic relationship develops, it could limit the capacity of the U.S. to act abroad and undermine economic freedom, democracy, and human rights in Greater Eurasia. Excerpts below:

As the Obama Administration focuses on the Middle East and Europe and the U.S. cuts its defense budget, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are striving to deepen their relationship. The leaders of the two major Eurasian powers have conducted a series of high-priority, high-level official reciprocal diplomatic visits. In the aftermath of the planned NATO forces withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a forum to discuss regional security and economic issues, is assuming a higher profile. Their military and economic relationship is expanding, and their rhetoric is often directed at countering American power.

The Sino–Russian rapprochement coincides with the U.S. unipolar moment following the end of the Cold War, and has continued into the 21st century. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Beijing believe that American power represents a geopolitical challenge to them both. The prospect of formal or informal alliance that brings together the economic and political power of China and Russia would be a major problem for American interests, just as its Sino–Soviet predecessor was in the 1950s during the Cold War. For this reason, such an alliance has long worried American policymakers and analysts. Indeed, a long-standing concern throughout the Cold War was the prospect that the United States would need to confront China and the Soviet Union simultaneously.

However, while Chinese–Russian cooperation is continuing and even expanding, the two nations are linked more by shared aversions than by shared interests. While Moscow and Beijing agree on the need to counter American power and have complementary economies, they are also geopolitical competitors.

The U.S. should maintain an engaged American diplomatic, political, and economic presence in Asia and strong bilateral relations with Russia and China, using these to exploit their differences and ensure that they remain competitors. In particular, the U.S. should develop bilateral security cooperation programs with Central Asian countries aimed at strengthening the security environment after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 and preventing al-Qaeda and the Taliban from taking over Kabul and projecting power into Central Asia.

An…essential part of the expanding Sino–Russian relationship has been security, which also has economic elements. Russian arms sales to China were a major component of the early period of rapprochement. In the wake of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the Western embargo on military sales to the PRC, China relied on Russian military technology to modernize its forces. Consequently, since the end of the Cold War, China has become one of the largest importers of Russian weapons. Between 1991 and 2010, Russia supplied more than 90 percent of China’s weapons imports, with China accounting for nearly 40 percent of Russian arms exports.

China also took advantage of the Soviet collapse to acquire certain items of space technology. In 1995, Chinese space experts arranged to purchase a complete life support system for a manned spacecraft, a stripped-down Soyuz capsule, and a Sokol spacesuit, which Russian cosmonauts wear during the ascent and descent phases, but not for spacewalks. They also apparently purchased a docking module so that Chinese spacecraft could, in theory, dock with Russian (and therefore American) spacecraft. Later, two Chinese specialists received training at Cosmograd.

Sino–Russian security cooperation has extended beyond equipment purchases to include some degree of security policy coordination. Under the aegis of the SCO, the PRC and Russia have engaged in a number of joint military exercises dubbed “Peace Mission.” The 2005 Peace Mission exercise was the largest joint exercise for the PRC up to that time, involving some 7,000 Chinese and nearly 2,000 Russian troops, as well as helicopters, long-range bombers and fighters, and a variety of naval forces.] Four subsequent, smaller Peace Mission exercises have involved not only Russian and Chinese troops, but also units from the other SCO members.

In 2012, Russia and China held their first purely bilateral military exercises, involving naval combatants and naval aviation from both nations.

For example, the economic relationship between the two states, while far more robust than during the Cold War, reflects the asymmetric roles that each plays in the other’s economy.

In some ways, China’s economic links with Russia resemble its ties with Southeast Asia. The Chinese economy simply outmatches the Russian economy at an estimated four times the size of the Russian economy.

The dilapidation or lack of Russian infrastructure has also limited the scale of economic interaction. China would likely expand purchases of various Russian natural resources if it could access them more easily. In January 2012, the China State Grid Corporation, China’s largest power generation company, linked part of its network to Russia’s as part of a longer term effort to import some 100 billion kilowatt-hours over the next 25 years. Energy, not military affairs, is the principal area of cooperation between Russia and China. According to the International Energy Agency, China’s natural gas consumption is projected to grow by 700 percent between 2008 and 2035, and its oil consumption is expected to increase by 8 million barrels per day (mbd) to 17.5 mbd by 2030.

Limits on Political Cooperation. The Russian decision to impose some limitations on what it will sell to China, but not necessarily what it will sell to India, reflects a larger ambivalence in the Russian view of the PRC. For example, growing trade and economic ties between the two countries have aroused concerns about China’s political influence on the Russian Far East.

The SCO typifies this ambivalence. Below the lofty rhetoric, the two sides see the SCO as much as an arena for competition as a forum for cooperation. Russia enjoys historical ties (and attendant insights into key leaders and factions) to the Central Asian republics and has pushed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) as a means of maintaining influence over the region. Meanwhile, the PRC has exhibited uncharacteristic flexibility in resolving border issues with the Central Asian states. In border negotiations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikstan, China made significant concessions in exchange for support against separatism and extremism of Turkic groups in China, especially in Xinjiang.

Expanding economic relations have supported these initial openings. China offers an obvious market for Central Asian hydrocarbon resources without the need for Russian infrastructure and attendant charges for access to pipelines and the like. At the same time, Chinese investment in Central Asia is growing. For example, in December 2012, the Chinese government established a $10 billion fund to support road, rail, and energy projects in the Central Asian republics. Along these lines, China has offered to help to build a paraxylene complex in Kazakhstan to meet global demand for this key hydrocarbon, an essential feedstock in the production of various plastics.

Russia has sought to counter China’s economic advantages by employing its long-standing ties with (and intelligence penetration of) the various Central Asian republics. Coupled with an effort to preserve Russian military access to the region, including through the CSTO, Moscow hopes to keep the region aligned more with itself than with Beijing. The CSTO does not include China or the United States, a reminder that these efforts also insulate the region from U.S. influence.

Growing Tensions?

The ongoing efforts to cooperate have tended to limit tensions between China and Russia. Their relationship has also benefited from the settlement of border disputes, which removed a major potential irritant. However, the two countries still have disputes, as demonstrated in 2012 when Russian coast guard vessels fired on a Chinese fishing boat, killing one Chinese sailor[45] This led to Chinese protests and demands for an apology and highlighted the reality that boundary disputes, while ameliorated, remain a source of tension.

Along these lines, Russian planners still hedge against growing Chinese military power. The massive Vostok 2010 military drills, conducted in the Russian Far East maritime province bordering China, simulated an operation to repel an unnamed aggressor with tactical nuclear weapons.

In July 2013, Moscow launched its largest military maneuvers since the collapse of the Soviet Union, involving 160,000 troops, along with 130 fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft and some 70 ships. These exercises involved radiation and chemical warfare decontamination, naval rocket and artillery fire, and naval rescue operations. The fact that the maneuvers were conducted under the direct supervision of President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Shoygu reflects their great importance, and was clearly a signal to multiple international audiences, including the PRC.[47] Strategic planners in Moscow recognize that Russia needs to keep its powder dry against their great Asian neighbor.

Indeed, Russian officials are sufficiently concerned with the deteriorating military balance of power to question openly the long-term trajectory of Sino–Russian relations, especially in the security sphere. Some Russian scholars have publicly ascribed their nation’s shift to a nuclear first-use policy to the need to compensate for Russia’s conventional weakness “in the East and the West.”

Ultimately, Russian decision makers fear a replay of the early 1970s and creation of a Sino–American link to constrain or limit Russia. Today’s Russia is a far cry from the Soviet Union. Such an alignment between Beijing and Washington would not only limit Russian influence, but could seriously constrain Moscow from exercising its sovereign rights.

There is some concern in various American quarters that China and Russia could coalesce into an anti-American alliance. General James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, observed in 2011 that these two nations by virtue of their capabilities pose a “mortal threat” to the United States.

The integration of the Chinese economy and burgeoning population with the massive natural resources in Russia would pose a formidable threat to the United States. This line of concern is especially pressing given Chinese economic growth trajectories.

However, the relationship between Moscow and Beijing seems characterized more by common antipathies than shared sympathies. Both China and Russia are concerned about the potential U.S. military and political presence in Central Asia, so each acts to limit that presence, individually and cooperatively. At the same time, each appears concerned about losing influence in that same region to each other. Moscow and Beijing are going through another iteration of the “Great Game” of central Asian influence, even as they cooperate to minimize the American role.


Since the days of Nixon’s opening to China, it has been in America’s interest to shape relations between the largest country and the most populated country on the planet to prevent their alignment against the U.S. This analysis indicates the fault lines in China–Russia relations that the U.S. could exploit.

To this end, the Obama Administration should:

 Recognize the limits of shared interests with both Russia and China as well as between them.Washington should not assume that these two states automatically agree with each other and should therefore seek to deal with them separately. Only in a handful of instances will all three share common interests, such as in limiting the depredations of seaborne pirates. Most of the time, it is essential to recognize that Russia and China are at best aligned, but not allied. Consequently, cooperation with either country should be on a case-by-case basis, recognizing the limits of their shared interests. In particular, there is little reason to believe that Russian and Chinese armed forces are engaging in joint military planning. Episodic high-profile joint exercises are not the same as the kind of joint planning that typifies U.S.–NATO, U.S.–Japan, or U.S.–ROK military cooperation—although the U.S. should keep an eye on their interactions in case such closeness eventually evolves.

 Pursue a policy of engagement with both Beijing and Moscow. Efforts to isolate either country could actually push them closer together. However, Washington should not compromise its security and economic ties with its own allies to pursue relations with Beijing or Moscow. To this end, the United States should seek to exploit the Russian concerns that China is a long-term threat in the Far East and Central Asia. The U.S. can best achieve this by ensuring that the United States is publicly known to be consulting equally with Beijing and Moscow on issues that likely affect all of them, such as Afghanistan and Central Asian security after the 2014 U.S. withdrawal. This approach may allow divergent interests and differing viewpoints to be highlighted.

 Promote the rule of law and encourage transparency and good governance in all of Central Asia as well as in Russia and China. Promoting the rule of law is best achieved by promoting civil society and working with state and civil society counterparts in all of these countries. By utilizing soft power policy tools, including social media, public diplomacy, and international broadcasting, the United States can communicate key messages to the various audiences, both about the state of politics in their respective nations as well as alternative perspectives on the relative interests of the key players. Whether it is the Magnitsky list or the case of Chen Guangcheng, the United States should not shirk from supporting human rights and the rule of law, which will ultimately have both political and economic effects.

 Develop bilateral and multilateral cooperation programs with Central Asian countries. U.S. cooperation with Central Asian countries should include security-related efforts, such as programs that support the government of Afghanistan after the NATO withdrawal and efforts to prevent al-Qaeda and the Taliban from projecting power into Central Asia. The U.S. should assist the armed forces and security services of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to develop institutional capabilities. In addition, the United States in conjunction with Japan, Korea, and India can also offer assistance in developing infrastructure, education, health care, and free and open media in the Russian Far East as well as in the Central Asian republics. Facilitating the effort to convert the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) into a regional trade network could help many of the Central Asian states to develop their economies and reduce their dependence on Moscow and Beijing. Similarly, helping to resolve tensions among Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan would reduce the opportunities for outside meddling by the larger neighbors. Offering these countries additional choices would allow them to thread an autonomous path between China and Russia and perhaps even align with the United States.


A close Sino–Russian strategic relationship could erode the unencumbered capacity of the U.S. to act abroad and could also undermine economic freedom, democracy, and human rights in Greater Eurasia. China and Russia are employing a mix of hard and soft power tools aimed at frustrating the United States in Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. China has come a long way from the feebleness of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Russia has partially recovered after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both great powers will continue to focus their attention on area-denial/anti-access strategies. The Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia” suggests that Washington’s rhetoric is taking China’s rise seriously. Now is the time for a U.S. response to growing Sino–Russian ties that can protect American interests and allies.

—Dean Cheng is Senior Research Fellow in Chinese Political and Security Affairs in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, and Ariel Cohen, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.


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