Second honeymoons rarely, if ever, recapture the zest of lost love. Yet ever since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Russia and China have sought to rekindle the close relations that once supposedly existed between the USSR and Mao’s China before Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956. But that renewed Sino-Russian marriage always smacked more of convenience — aimed as it was at checking US hegemony — than of true romance. Now Russia’s invasion of Georgia has shattered even the illusion of attraction.
In 1969, the Chinese and Soviet armies exchanged fire across their disputed border. Recently, the two countries signed an agreement that seemed to put an end to their long border dispute. The agreement was a sort of follow-up to a visit to Beijing by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who made China one of his first official trips abroad after being elected.
During Vladimir Putin’s presidency, Chinese and Russian troops engaged in joint military maneuvers, and the two countries became dominant powers in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which, to some Western observers, looked like an effort to counterbalance NATO. There were also years of “Russia in China” and “China in Russia” cultural exchanges, meant to underscore that the two countries were tied together not just by geopolitical pragmatism, but by genuine cultural/historical ties as well.
But the fact is that 17 years of high-level bilateral cooperation have produced little of substance. Indeed, in the wake of the invasion of Georgia, China may be seriously rethinking its relations with Russia. It may not yet be ready to embark on a full-fledged policy of “containment,” but in the wake of the dismemberment of Georgia — and with Russia claiming a zone of “privileged influence” throughout the former Soviet world — China clearly views Russia as an emerging strategic threat.
For example, China has refused to endorse Russia’s recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and has encouraged the SCO’s other members to do the same. The reasons are not hard to find. As a general principle of foreign policy, China believes that national borders are sacrosanct. No power, not even the UN, should be allowed to change them without the consent of the country concerned.
More importantly, China views the break-up of the USSR as one of the greatest strategic gifts in its history. Instead of confronting a (usually hostile) Russian/Soviet empire on its border, a vast swath of buffer states appeared after 1991.
Their continued independence is now deemed essential to China’s national security. As a result, any more Russian efforts to establish even informal suzerainty over the Soviet successor states are, following the dismemberment of Georgia, likely to meet Chinese resistance.
The economic components of the Sino-Russian relationship — where real attachments are tested — are also dissatisfactory, at least from China’s point of view. China’s major interest in Russia is oil and gas. But, while Russia is firmly committed to being a major supplier of gas and oil to Europe, it is hesitant to play a similar role with China.
Moreover, Russia’s efforts to gain monopoly control of the gas pipeline networks across Eurasia pose a direct danger for China, because monopolists can not only gouge their consumers, but also shut off supplies for political purposes, as Russia has done repeatedly over the past two decades. So China’s national security interest is to ensure that the gas-supplying nations of Central Asia have outlets to sell their gas that are not under Kremlin control.