Synopsis: German Marshall Fund Workshop on Sino-Russian Relations After Maidan—A New Reality? (February 4, 2016)

In 2015, Sino-Russian relations figured into debates on international relations more than at any time since the end of the Cold War. There was notable divergence on the state of these relations. There was also concern about what should be done to limit the relationship from drawing closer with little consensus on how to proceed. From the point of view of US relations with allies, there was disagreement on what to do about clashing strategies. Japan’s leaders are convinced that overtures to Russia are needed to counter the greater threat of China. South Korean leaders are guided by calculations that overtures to China are needed to manage the threat from North Korea and also prevent polarization. US debates on which is the greater threat, China or Russia, did not appear to be resolved. Against this backdrop, a German Marshall Fund workshop in Washington, DC on February 4 explored the state of Sino-Russian relations from diverse perspectives, including persons from both of these countries.

Assessing Sino-Russian relations has become a matter of great urgency as Japan-US relations are riled by this issue. Some US commentators and officials are pinpointing Russia as the greater danger, while others urge new efforts to cooperate with Russia in the face of a more serious long-term danger from China. A wide-ranging exchange of views with international participants suggests the diversity of thinking on display at this time. In this synopsis, no names are attached to the views covered, as we attempt to capture both some presentations and the back and forth in questioning.

Is Russia’s “Turn to the East” Balanced or China-centered?

One hears a narrative by some Russians that in Asia Russia is “neutral” whether in South Asia balancing China and India, in Southeast Asia balancing China and Vietnam, or in Northeast Asia ready to balance China and Japan. Even if Russians shy away from the word “balance” in discussing policy involving China, the gist of the argument is that it is not casting its lot with China and retains the flexibility to strengthen ties with China’s neighbors. This is reinforced by the argument that Sino-Russian relations are driven by narrow national interests, even if Russia has been pushed in China’s direction since 2014. In this perspective, there is no strategic or ideological pact of two like-minded powers, as both continue to use the other to pressure the United States, Japan, and various other Asian states. The message from these Russians is that other states should see an opportunity to limit closer Sino-Russian relations because Russia is so inclined and will entertain overtures leading to more balance.

Outside analysts include voices that take this argument further, arguing that Russia is keen to lessen dependence on China because it is increasingly insecure in China’s embrace, feigning close relations but disappointed at how little China has offered in the aftermath of the 2014-2015 euphoric mood about this relationship. Russia’s real objective is to be a swing power; so its turn to China is limited, and its pursuit of the other powers in Asia can be expected to intensify. If, in a fit of pique in 2014 and of necessity, Russia drew closer to China, this does not alter its quest for multipolarity. Whether this is wishful thinking by those alarmed about China or those seeking a deal with Russia seen as beneficial to their own interests, it can be heard from some in the West and, especially, in Japan more than from commentators from Russia, who tend to assume enduring strong Sino-Russia ties allowing Russia flexibility.

Counter-arguments insist that the Sino-Russian relationship is much stronger than the skeptics assume and that leaves doubt about how much flexibility Russia has. One interpretation is that this is already a “quasi-alliance” with both a solid political foundation and growing ideological congruence. Overlap in thinking about maintaining domestic political legitimacy and transforming the global order are two driving forces of even greater weight in 2016 than previously. In the Ukraine crisis, China did not formally take sides, but it was understood to be on Russia’s side, opposing economic sanctions, blaming the West for violating the Westphalian and postwar orders, and providing critical support to keep Russia from becoming isolated. One concept introduced to capture the convergence in thinking is “cultural security,” as Russia has joined China in seeing the West increasingly as not only a military threat but also a civilizational threat. The two agree on the urgency of resisting “color revolutions” and on the roots of crises as varied as Ukraine and North Korea. The logic of humanism and humanitarian interventions runs counter to the legacy both nations have inherited from their traditional communist heydays. With such strong overlap in thinking, Russia has scant reason to turn elsewhere.

The case for strong and enduring ties between Moscow and Beijing is rooted in what the two are seeking in the international arena as well as the way bilateral relations have unfolded. This case is often linked to the argument that Russia is so heavily committed to China with so few alternatives that an unbalanced relationship exists. To defy China in any serious fashion would jeopardize the one anchor on which Russia can rest its foreign policy and legitimate its authoritarian turn at home. From this standpoint, irritants in bilateral relations fall short of threatening close ties.

The policy implications of how one views Sino-Russian relations drew attention too. If the relationship is temporary (boosted largely due to the Ukraine crisis) and also conditional (centered in Russian expectations for Chinese economic support), then it follows that other states have a good chance to wean Russia off reliance on China. Alternatively, if China is somewhat alienated by Russia’s direct challenge to the global order and doubtful about Russia’s economic strategy and model, then it will be unlikely to stick with Russia when other states strive for accommodations aimed at China. Diplomacy cannot but be guided by such assessments of this relationship. In contrast, if the ties that bind Moscow and Beijing are strong and long lasting, then efforts by one country or another to separate the two could backfire by undermining the unity of the US-led bloc in seeking to induce a change in behavior. Russian voices want to have it both ways: the Sino-Russia relationship is strong and needs to be taken seriously since it exacts a heavy price on the West, empowering conservatives in Russia who will make things worse, but the relationship can be limited by moves to reassure Russia or reward its pursuit of multipolarity. This logic insists that their relationship is not unbalanced and can be made less so if some unbalance occurred due to the West isolating Russia and driving it further into China’s waiting arms.

One Russian argument is that Russia still suffers from one-sided dependence on Europe; so its turn to China is only a matter of finding more balance. This argument refutes the notion that Sino-Russian differences are very serious, especially given a similar worldview opposed to US leadership and Western values. Faulting Russian leadership and business for dragging its feet since the 1990s in turning to China, this argument expresses gratitude for US policy since 2014 that has prodded Russia to act and even suggests that, if it continues, a Sino-Russian alliance may result. While Russia has already determined that it cannot benefit from the international system, China may come to that conclusion too, it is surmised. Recent pessimism about the economic integration of China and Russia, in this view, is not serious since the main force in this relationship is geopolitics. While some Americans and Europeans doubt that China is similarly inclined, many Russians see it poised to join against the West.

One presentation called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) a hybrid of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), a security bloc with regular military exercises and an energy and economic framework that serves as a model for managing shared interests and opposing extremism. It works because China respects Russia’s red lines and accepts co-leadership with Russia playing the leading role in security in Central Asia, facilitating China’s Silk Road Economic Belt. In this view, the alienation of Russia by the West is creating path dependency where the two states will be tightly locked together if the West does not change course, or, deepening conflict with the United States over the South China Sea or North Korea, which will lead to more Chinese support for Putin’s desire for an “authoritarian alliance.”

National Identity and Sino-Russian Relations

One theme was the increasing polarization of narratives about the West with China and Russia doubling down on their negative narrative and the United States as well as others broadening their notion of a “normative West,” appealing to what some see as swing states, e.g., India and Indonesia. After some years hesitating about how closely it identifies with the West, Japan is being driven back to the West, especially by China and security concerns, but it is striving to appeal to Russia to find common ground. Against a facade of realism in China and Russia, this interpretation holds that values are heavily impacting thinking on international relations. Unlike earlier, narrow interpretations of national identities—seen as causing the Sino-Soviet split—, the impression now is that—after rigid ideology was cast aside—, the legacy of communist identities is drawing Moscow and Beijing closer together as ideology regains a foothold, domestic legitimacy is predicated on demonizing the threat from those influenced by the West, and the world order is seen in increasingly polarized terms. If identity overlap is behind Sino-Russian closeness, it is likely to long endure.

Various participants touched on aspects of national identity. In listing forces behind close Sino-Russian relations, some talked of similar pessimism regarding the current international system or the political and cultural expansionism of the West. The securitization of national identity with an obsession for state sovereignty drew some comments. While China has been hesitant to support Russian arguments on self-determination concerning areas of Ukraine, it has found other justifications for throwing its support behind Russia, prioritizing international commitments of some sort over international norms. The implication is that relations between Moscow and Beijing will be increasingly coordinated to challenge the world order as tension keeps mounting in various hot spots. China needs a strong Russia, welcomes Putin’s antagonism toward the West, and will strive to assist Russia’s economy when that is not at much cost to itself. National identity overrides potential bilateral irritants.


With Russia looking to replace markets in Europe with those in Asia, primarily China, as well as to develop its Asian regions, and China turning to the west to use its labor and capital for infrastructure projects, economics are viewed as a force that is bringing the two closer. Their responses to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Russia’s alarm about the European Union extending to Ukraine (not NATO but a trade agreement) indicate that geopolitics are inseparable from geo-economics. Yet, as Russian hopes for Chinese economic ties did not materialize, the economic argument for closer relations seemed to be in doubt. Others thought that they saw an opening: Japanese foresaw an economic component to a breakthrough deal with Russia, and some in Europe debated lifting sanctions and offering new encouragement to Russia, welcoming its gas pipelines.

One line of argument is that Sino-Russian relations were poised in 2014 to climb to a new level, but that their marriage was not consummated because economic ties did not advance as promised. They made paper deals laced with secret contents, but within a year their high-sounding energy integration was floundering. Russia had to acknowledge that China would not replace the West and that it had little leverage on China’s economic decisions. Russia’s confidence as an energy superpower shattered, and China’s clout as a manufacturing superpower was called into question by its less active pursuit of supplies. Interpretations of these setbacks differed. Some proposed that they would cause great damage to the relationship, while making China as well as Russia more cautious about offending other economic partners. In contrast, some insisted that the overall economic situation would leave Russia even more in need of China and that the driving forces in Sino-Russian relations would not be nullified.

The decline in Russian trade with China by about 30 percent in 2015 was about the same as its overall decline in trade, as the prices of its commodity exports dropped and the value of the ruble fell. The sanctions on Russia and retaliatory sanctions led to more imports of Chinese food, but that had little impact on trade figures. The end of the high growth era led by China will hurt Russia and Sino-Russian economic ties, adding to pressure on Russia for economic reform in order to attract investment. The message at the workshop is that this is a long-term structural change, affecting the prospects of the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia as well as Central Asia—two arenas at the center of Russian-Chinese economic cooperation. After having its inflated expectations in 2014 and early 2015 of Chinese investment crushed, Russia needs to find a new model for its development before focusing on China’s new role.

Energy has been the cornerstone of Russia’s strategy in Asia, notably toward China. Its timing has been bad, losing out to Kazakhstan in the first oil pipeline to China and to Turkmenistan for the first gas pipeline. Russia’s announcements with China on plans warranted skepticism from the outset. Chinese banks have no risk hedging tradition unlike Western banks; so financing to roll over huge debts is problematic. In this viewpoint, Russia was too slow to secure equity investments from China, and now it is unlikely under conditions of greater uncertainty to draw commitments for projects that take a long time to mature. China’s own economic uncertainty adds to the doubts about Russia and to the mounting questions about the global economy.

Problems in Sino-Russian Relations

The euphoria of a year of increasingly close relations reached a high pitch in May 2015 with the agreement on drawing together the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). However, it was followed by more sober thinking by late 2015 that high expectations were not being met. One explanation is that this is Russia’s fault for failing to improve economic conditions conducive to investment and commerce. Another is that this is China’s fault for making one-sided demands not in keeping with Russian interests. A third argument is that neither is really to blame given the sharp drop in world energy and commodity prices, the sanctions that hamper financial deals with Russia, or the recently unstable economy of China. So far, the Chinese and Russians are saying little to blame each other or to suggest that the projects under preparation are actually at an impasse rather than delayed.

The critique of China’s plans heard from Russians is roughly as follows. China insists on using its own labor, technology, and materials on Russian soil for construction of infrastructure, which benefits China’s economy much more than Russia’s. Plans for relying on China to compensate for the West would favor a state-centered economy and natural resource development, which would tie Russia even further to China in the inferior position of a supplier to China’s industries and leave it more unbalanced in its economy and foreign relations. Since China is unable to replace the West in finance, technology, and innovation, Russia should see it as supplementing Western economic ties, not balancing the West. Other concerns are that as military technology cooperation intensifies, China will illegally use what it has learned and acquired from Russia to compete in arms exports. Another Russian concern is that China intends to exclude Russia as part of thinking about “Asia for the Asians.” Thus, even as Russians stress the positive state of relations, they voice concern, not least about hidden Chinese intentions in Central Asia, North Korea, and elsewhere.

Doubters found contradictions in Russian attempts to have it both ways: wonderful relations with China despite minor problems and ample flexibility for independent diplomacy. The idea that pragmatists have a strong voice in Russia was questioned, as were claims that leading officials have a balanced approach rather than tilting to China, even for a military alliance. The degree of Russian concern about China’s role in Central Asia was questioned too. China’s foreign direct investment (FDI) in Kazakhstan far exceeds Russia’s. A notion that Washington is so serious about “strategic triangle” balancing that it is yielding to Beijing on many issues since it wrongly sees Moscow as the real threat also was met with disbelief. The claim that Russia realizes it lacks funds and, thus, is welcoming China’s investment in infrastructure across Central Asia as filling a vast vacuum appeared to some to overstate bilateral trust.

Those who doubt the strength of the Sino-Russian relationship start from at least three assumptions. First, they do not see one as nearly as negative about the current international order as the other, usually arguing that China is a great beneficiary of the existing system and would be satisfied with reforming it, whereas Russia takes a more hostile approach. Related to this is Russia’s quest for a tripolar order with it having room to be a swing state—a quixotic ambition far beyond its capacity—, and China’s interest in a bipolar order, for which it has more possibilities and patience. A second assumption is that priorities conflict and Russia does not regard China as dependable in achieving some of its or working closely together economically (after failure to deliver on many promised projects) and geopolitically, given Russian hope for other major partners. Third, skeptics doubt that there is enough to bind the two together, given clashing interests in Central Asia and elsewhere and a dearth of real trust and networks capable of bridging divides. They do not take proclamations of high-sounding projects, such as combining the SREB and EEU, as convincing. The SCO and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) do not signify great synergies, nor are there other prospects for global and regional governance that draw the two together, even if they are opposed to many of the same things. Critics of claims for a strong bilateral bond also persist in regarding the two civilizations as having little in common; Russia as centered on the West regardless of recent rhetoric, and China as prioritizing the United States.

Those who view Sino-Russian relations as more robust and durable tend to have a more negative view of Sino-US relations and Chinese opposition to the existing international order, foreseeing that tensions between China and the United States are on intensifying. They find other dimensions of national identity that contribute to Sino-Russian convergence in thinking even if there is no cultural closeness. After optimistic assertions for the past two decades that this relationship is rather fragile, they warn that such thinking misses the driving forces in the relationship. At the same time, they found Russian assertions that it is balancing China with other ties or that it has safeguards against overdependence unpersuasive. In light of taboos seen in both Chinese and Russian writings on the relationship, there is a need to dig for what is really taking place, as opposed to some arguments largely deductive in form.

Japan and Sino-Russian Relations

Three different appraisals of this triangle could be discerned. From some Russians came the view that nothing much would happen between Tokyo and Moscow since Tokyo is unyielding in its territorial demands and there is not much that either side expects from a breakthrough. From some Japanese came the message that prospects seem to be improving for an agreement, and Abe is determined to push forward with rather high expectations. Others, including some Americans saw some obstacles not easy for Abe to overcome, questioning whether Putin is serious about an agreement and whether the international environment will be conducive to one.

One Japanese perspective is that the Asia-Pacific region is distinct from Europe and the Middle East where Russia and the West are at loggerheads or even Eurasia where Russia and China have found common cause. Indeed, this was an argument that Russia and China have a serious conflict of interest in East Asia, especially with regard to Japan. Russia’s goal is a diversity of partners in the region, while China is intent on Russia supporting its own hegemonic, Sino-centric regional aspirations. In looking back to Putin’s ties to Abe over three years—at a time of unusually strained Sino-Japanese relations—, this viewpoint held that Putin was eager to boost ties and expanding cooperation to include a strategic partnership with important meaning. If Abe intensifies his outreach to Putin, it is implied, Putin will reveal his true intention to pursue a balanced region rather than siding closely with China. Since this is the very argument being vigorously advocated in Japan, its airing at the workshop added a fitting dimension to a discussion about prospects for Sino-Russian relations.

It also became clear that Japanese debates are weighing the strength of relations between Moscow and Beijing and the likelihood that Putin would make a significant strategic shift as a result of talks with Abe. This means looking back on why over the past 15 years Sino-Russian relations have strengthened as much as they have, if the real intention of Russia is to achieve multipolarity in the Asia-Pacific region. Also if Sino-Russian ties are shaky in light of recent economic problems, why are Russia’s arms sales and transfers so substantial and what accounts for the recent investment in Russia’s Yamal LNG project by the Silk Road Fund? If Japanese are counting on the strong will of Putin and Abe to achieve a breakthrough in a long stalled relationship, should they be discounting the strong will of Putin and Xi, who have already claimed a more far-reaching breakthrough? Japan’s diplomacy, straining its relationship with the United States, pivots on how to evaluate the Sino-Russia partnership as well as Putin’s readiness to strain that relationship in favor of a deal with Japan.

Hovering in the background of the discussion about Japan’s diplomacy with Putin is the debate over whether the Abe administration misjudges Sino-Russian relations. Its determination to keep pursuing Putin, using the opportunity of hosting the Group of Seven (G7) in May 2016 to serve as a bridge between the current members and the one banished former member, has strained the G7 and US-Japan relations. Instead of framing the main issue as what will be the outcome of talks on the territorial question and the signing of a peace treaty (anticipating some compromise on two islands with Japan claiming two + alpha as some success in dealing with the other two, larger islands, and Russia claiming two – alpha as finally getting Japan to agree on the return of just two small islands in return for a peace treaty and substantial economic benefits), the Japanese case centers on geopolitics. If Putin has little interest in balancing China and is committed to a Sino-Russian quasi-alliance for national identity reasons, then Japan will have little to show for Abe’s pursuit other than conceding to territorial terms it had long rejected. Moreover, as they bargain in earnest, Putin will be loathe to offer much as he strives to break the unity of the G7 and to win economic benefits. This Japanese debate shows why an accurate analysis of Sino-Russian relations has great significance for policymaking in various regions of the world, but especially in East Asia, as tensions rise over North Korea, the South China Sea, and the growing polarization between China and a new US-Japan-centered regional framework.