Sino-Russian Rapprochement: What does it mean?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping tour the Kremlin following their talks, Moscow, June 5, 2019. (Photo by Alexey DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / AFP) (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

By Zach Martin

The Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies welcomed Dr. Hilary Appel, professor of government and George R. Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College, to speak for its penultimate lecture in its spring colloquium series “Russia and the World.” Professor Appel’s talk, “Sino-Russian Rapprochement,” discussed the relationship between China and Russia, and the implications on US relations with those countries and larger great power politics as a whole.

The conflict in Ukraine, the conflict in Syria, the war in Afghanistan, and trade with China. These are four of the nine top foreign policy issues the United States faces according to the Washington Post. Chiefly, these foreign policy issues involve the coordination between three nations, the United States, Russia, and China. The Russian-Chinese relationship could not be more important for the United States than it is today and with both countries sharing a desire to push back on the current US-led world order, it is imperative Americans attempt to understand the nature of the relationship between the Russia and China.

Appel began her talk by setting the scene. In the last few years US-Russian and US-Chinese relationships have deteriorated. The annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Syria have raised tensions between the US and Russia, while the trade war with China and disputes in the South China Sea have strained the relationship between the US and China. Appel stressed however, that while US relations have declined, there seems to have been a rapprochement between the two.

Appel pointed to Presidents Xi and Putin’s many gestures of friendship on display in the media. From photo ops at children’s ice hockey games to panda diplomacy, this public display appears as a stark contrast to the US president’s relationship with these world leaders. This increase in media attention peaked Appel’s interest. Are these just photo ops, or is there something else going on there? In Appel’s research, she argues that there is something significant going on in Russian-Chinese relations. While there is an abundance of photo ops, there is also significant areas of cooperation.

First, Appel spoke on growing economic cooperation between China and Russia. As Russian trade with the US and EU struggles because of tariffs, there has been a significant surge in bilateral trade with China. In 2019, this trade totaled $110b and after signing a free trade agreement in 2018, China is now the largest trade partner with Russia. This trade is not one sided, however. Russia is the largest source of crude oil imports, electricity, and arms. Together they have worked together to create the new international financial institution, the New Development Bank, long term cooperation agreements in Energy and Natural gas, and many of the contracts have been denominated outside of the US dollar.

Trade is not the only avenue in which Chinese-Russian relations have improved.  Appel spoke on growing military cooperation as a potential area of concern. Historically, long time trust was absent between Russia and China in sharing military technology. Russia took notice of lost market share in areas due to Chinese reverse engineering, but military cooperation seems to have improved in recent years. China has been seen taking part in joint military exercises with Russia around the world and in the Cybersecurity sphere as well.

While relations have been improving, Appel did touch on some of the main hurdles that China and Russia would face going forward. Russia and China share 4,200 kilometers of borders in the East and with the recent events of Covid-19 there have been tensions at the border. Russia worries they may be losing their cultural sway over the Russians living close to the Chinese border. Additionally, China’s new shipping frontier through the Arctic Sea presents challenges for Russia, with Chinese merchant ships attempting riskier passages through melting ice caps off their North coast.

While there are some hurdles for the two countries, they share many common values and interests going forward. Interests that the United States should take note of and may present foreign policy challenges in the future. Both Russia and China have a desire to push back on a US-led world order and ensure that their foreign policy interests are being protected in the global arena. Russia and China both wish to project power, after having extended periods of relative weakness, and both countries share approaches to governance at home with extended presidential terms and paranoia of internal threats.

Its critical that the United States take note of the improving relations between China and Russia. These countries share many goals and values that may provide the Unites States with difficult foreign policy situations in the future and the more we understand about the relationship between these two countries, the more we will be able to work together towards a mutually beneficial future for all.

Zach Martin is a junior majoring in Diplomacy and Global Politics and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies

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