Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are in the middle of a rapid-fire series of bilateral meetings. Beijing and Moscow’s relationship spans a number of areas including energy, defense, infrastructure, trade, and finance. A shared sense of geopolitical competition with the United States over issues ranging from nuclear weapons to sanctions to human rights propels bilateral ties as well.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of relations between the two countries, which they say has the “highest degree of mutual trust, the highest level of coordination and the highest strategic value” of any time in their history. Xi will travel to Russia on a state visit June 5-7. The pair recently met at the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in April. And they are set to see each other again at the upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit and will likely meet at the G20 summit in Japan later this month. The pair have met a total of more than 30 times since Xi took office.
The Sino-Russian diplomatic relationship also features a shared commitment to work on conflict areas and hotspots. According to the over-the-top phrasing of official Chinese media, “China-Russia coordination has become an indispensable and irreplaceable force in helping solve major global and regional hot-button issues, against the backdrop of a world that has been undergoing complicated and profound changes.”
In assessing that high-flying rhetoric, it is worthwhile to evaluate the specifics of how China and Russia are working together globally. Their cooperation spans the following areas:
Before the current round of negotiations began, China and Russia pressured South Korea over its plans to deploy the THAAD anti-missile system sold by the United States. Later, Russian and Chinese diplomats first proposed the “freeze for freeze” or “double suspension” proposal whereby North Korea would stop missile and nuclear tests while the United States and South Korea suspend military exercises. That proposal forms the basis for the current, stalled round of talks among the parties. Now, both China and Russia are seeking to keep the talks alive by advocating for sanctions relief for Pyongyang as enticement to continue negotiating.
Beijing and Moscow are trying to prop up the regime of Nicolás Maduro against a combination of its own internal weaknesses and external pressure—particularly from U.S. sanctions. In February, China and Russia vetoed a draft U.N. Security Council resolution put forward by the United States that called for free and fair elections and unhindered access for humanitarian aid. Beijing and Moscow opposed the resolution because they saw it as a precursor to U.S. military intervention in the country. More recently, both powers have started quietly hedging against the teetering regime, with an eye toward securing their interests if Maduro falls. As the situation continues to deteriorate, Venezuela has become a high-profile case where the interests of the United States appear pitted against those of China and Russia.
The Middle East
Both China and Russia continue to support the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. China is looking to play a major role in postwar reconstruction efforts while Russia seeks to maintain its military bases. Both powers provided aid to Damascus in the face of U.S. pressure and calls for Assad to step down (although Moscow’s aid was more high-profile). Diplomatically, both Beijing and Moscow have sought to elevate the Astana Process led by Russia, Iran, and Turkey over the Geneva Process preferred by Western countries. On Iran, China and Russia are working with European countries to maintain the nuclear deal, in part by cooperating to circumvent U.S. sanctions. On Israeli-Palestinian issues, both Beijing and Moscow have said they will boycott the Bahrain conference focused on the Trump administration’s forthcoming peace plan.
On Afghanistan—at least for the moment—Chinese and Russian preferences loosely align with U.S. aims. Afghanistan envoys from all three countries met in Moscow in April and agreed to advance a negotiation process that seeks to trade the removal of Western forces for a commitment that Afghanistan would commit to not harboring international terrorist groups. Both China and Russia have also consulted with Pakistan in an attempt to enlist Islamabad’s help on Afghanistan, and with Iran on countering Islamic State fighters in the country.
The Arctic is another area where U.S. officials have warned about the growing influence of China and Russia, most notably in Secretary of State Pompeo’s remarks to the Arctic Council in May. China has declared itself a “Near-Arctic state” and cooperates with Russia on shipping routes through the region. Beijing and Moscow are looking to integrate the Northern Sea Route, which runs along Russia’s northern coastline, with what China calls the Polar Silk Road. China’s growing involvement in and around the Arctic has created tensions with NATO countries—contributing to Beijing’s common cause with Moscow.
Serbia sits on Europe’s periphery. The country is not a member of the European Union, although it is currently going through an arduous and uncertain EU accession process. Both Russia and China want Serbia to tilt away from the West. Moscow and Beijing support Belgrade’s goal of isolating neighboring Kosovo—which declared independence from Serbia in 2008—and neither recognize Pristina as an independent country. At Serbia’s behest, both China and Russia opposed Kosovo’s vote to create its own army last year. More broadly, China and Russia act as a counterbalance to the West for Serbian leaders, with Beijing contributing economic support while Moscow provides military assistance.
U.S. officials point to Africa as a key area of strategic competition with China and Russia. Often, though, the two powers are either working in different countries or in separate sectors within a country. Chinese involvement in Africa is primarily economic, while Russia acts mostly in the security sphere. Nevertheless, the two powers coordinate in some places. They pushed hard to keep Omar al-Bashir in power in Sudan, with ultimately unsuccessful results. Separately, last December Beijing and Moscow abstained from voting on a resolution to extend the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic because it did not recognize a Russian effort to broker peace talks.
South China Sea and Ukraine
A central feature of the current Sino-Russian relationship is deference to one another on “core interests.” To that end, Xi and Putin are likely to touch on the South China Sea and the war in Ukraine in their meetings. However, instead of coordinating publicly, Putin will likely defer to Xi on the South China Sea, despite Russian interests in freedom of navigation and protecting its partner in Vietnam. Similarly, Xi is likely to defer to Putin on fighting the war in Ukraine, even though Beijing has significant interests there, especially in Ukraine’s military industry. This type of deference leads U.S. officials to conclude that China and Russia seek to build a global order based on spheres of influence.
Central Asia and regional organizations
Analysts who are skeptical of the prospects for Sino-Russian cooperation point to Central Asia as an inevitable area of tension. But, so far, Beijing and Moscow have calibrated their respective policies in the region to avoid major friction. They share similar fears about the region related to extremism and instability, while backing the region’s largely autocratic governments. Russia has been silent on China’s massive repression campaign against more than a million Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in western Xinjiang province, which borders Central Asia. More broadly, China and Russia are working together to build out a raft of regional groupings in Asia that exclude Western powers, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS grouping, and the Russia-India-China meeting. The goal of those groupings is to create a regional political and security architecture free from Western influences—including, in the Chinese and Russian views, liberal democratic governance.
Clearly, Sino-Russian coordination on foreign and security issues spans the globe. The two major powers clearly exert a strong joint influence when it comes to peace and conflict around the world—sometimes in ways that are consistent with U.S. interests but more often in ways that run counter to American aims. Sino-Russian cooperation could eventually fall apart if bilateral relations turn sour, but a breakdown is not visible on the horizon, much less imminent, so considering the impact of their joint policies is prudent. Going forward, keeping a close watch on the specific ways that Sino-Russian cooperation manifests in the real world will be essential to crafting effective U.S. approaches to solving conflicts, bolstering the rules-based international order, and prevailing in an era of great power competition.