Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


What a striking view on 10th June 2018's newspapers: photos of a tense scene in La Malbaie (Canada) while Xi and Putin are smiling in Qingdao (China), with the caption “G7 versus Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO): two meetings on the same day”. How many people in the world had fun with the contrasting images of the feuding democratic states and the orderly proceedings of the China-Russia bloc?

During Trump's presidency, both China and Russia have found themselves in a more difficult relationship with the United States (US). For the first time in history, the two large powers are characterized as “revisionists”, strategic competitors”, and “rivals” in a series of US strategy documents: the 2017 National Security Strategy, 2018 National Defense Strategy, and 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

The three largest powers in the world are in the hands of strongmen and the world is in uncharted waters as the US appears ready to take on China and Russia. Whether or not China and Russia form an anti-US military alliance, they will anyway cooperate to confront US hegemony. 

Current situation

In two separate events dating back to last September – the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) held in Vladivostok and the Vostok 2018 Exercise – Russia and China signalled to the West that they are working closer together to counterbalance US “unilateralism”.

Vostok 2018, a massive Russian military exercise, involved 300,000 troops, 1,000 planes and several warships. China sent 3,200 People's Liberation Army (PLA) military personnel to take part in the exercise, along with 1,000 military vehicles and equipment, and 30 fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.

Such a show of force followed the Canadian G7 event which a newspaper had covered by titling “The 7 Split Nations. The Lone US”. Is the power of the G7 diminishing? Will the internal divisions further reduce its influence with SCO accounting for more than 40% of the world population versus 10% of the G7?

G7 and SCO meetings took place after the US threatened Beijing with a trade-war and tried to play the Taiwan card, while punishing Russia with Syria bombings and diplomat expulsions. Meanwhile, Russian President Putin secured his next six years, his fourth term in office, with 77% of the vote and President Xi succeeded in ending a two-term limit on the PRC presidency.

The identification of China and Russia by the Trump administration as revisionists and top rivals, ahead of North Korea and ISIS, may lead to a situation in which Russia and China are simultaneously challenged, or even threatened, by the US to an extent that Moscow and Beijing are forced to form an alliance.

Historical background

China and Russia share a land border of more than 2,600 miles, an interminable stretch of birch forest separating mainly the Russian Far East from Chinese Manchuria.

China and Russia were initially very close in the 1950s following the Communist party taking power in Beijing, leading to a lot of cooperation between the two socialist powers with the Soviet Union supplying China with money and technology.

But, after this short “honeymoon” (Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1949-1960), a prolonged “divorce” (or confrontation in 1960-1989), divided the two countries to the extent Beijing was even nervous of a possible attack from their northern neighbours.

Nowadays the two countries find themselves in a balanced state of affairs as they deal with each other as they are, not what they want the other side to become. In particular, in the past decade, relations have been largely restored amid large sales of weapons and energy between the two countries.

Part of the rapprochement is also probably due to a respect in Beijing for Putin, who is seen as someone who is restoring a strong government whereas former Russia leader Gorbachev destroyed it.

Putin and Xi held a high-profile summit in Moscow in July 2017 amid joint displays of military power between the two countries. It is therefore a cliché to depict Sino-Russian relations as a “marriage of convenience”, living with one another without sentimentality but with sensitivity to the lessons of history and each other's vital interests. According to Russian and Chinese political elites, current liberal interventionism in the West has caused many instabilities and miseries in the Middle East and much blow-back against the West in the form of terrorism, refugees, and anti-establishment populism.

For China and Russia, the current harsh posture of the US derives largely from a strong sense of disappointment and dismay over the failed effort to “change” the two large powers with a neoliberalist agenda (democracy and free market economy). Unless the West significantly moderates its liberal interventionism, the understanding between Moscow and Beijing, which is ideology free, will not be abandoned.

How about the future?

Leading news agencies and newspapers in China covered Xi attendance at Vostok 2018 and at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, which coincided with the manoeuvres. This made it possible to praise the Russian-Chinese “comprehensive strategic partnership” while paying attention to the military aspects. The common refrain was that China's invitation to the Vostok 2018 Exercise was to strengthen mutual trust through joint exercises.

Putin's speech at the Vostok 2018 Exercise was translated into Chinese in real time. The Chinese military personnel inclusion this time around contrasted sharply with previous Vostok exercises, which had been deliberately designed in part as a show of strength to forestall any potential Chinese military activity on Russian soil.

Whether or not a comprehensive alliance will be formed, for Beijing and Moscow an ideal world order would be the democratization of interstate relations in which multiple centres of different political, economic, and civilizational entities would co-exist. This diverse world would accommodate current efforts to construct multilateral institutions such as the SCO, BRICS, China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), while continuing to work with West-led multilateral institutions such as the UN, World Bank, IMF, G20, G7, etc.

A Beijing-Moscow alliance would anyway require some fundamental changes in the thinking and practice of their current foreign policy paradigms: such alliance should also consider the nature and scope of the threats posed to each of them. Many, if not all, of these threats could be managed by diplomatic and non-military means. A case in point is the North Korean issue solved by diplomatic manoeuvres, notably by the two Koreas and almost all the major powers, thus testifying the validity of the long-time position of Beijing and Moscow that the Korean issue should be resolved through diplomatic and political means.

But putting China and Russia in the same category of the US “main rivals”, may have unintended consequences for the Trump administration, which has not abandoned its plan to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing. Even at the lowest point in US-Russia relations, Trump does not seem to have given up on winning Russia over. To drive home his Russian-friendly-and-China-phobia strategy, Trump signed on 16th March 2018 the Taiwan Travel Act that encourages the US to send senior officials to Taiwan and vice versa.

China and India

One of the key components of the December 2017 US National Security Strategy is the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy, which makes a lot of sense given the sensitive and unstable relationship between China and India. In the post-Cold War decades, India became a favourite of the West as it was the largest democracy in the world with a thriving economy. As a result, the India factor in the FOIP strategy, which is seen as formulated around the quadrilateral security dialogue among the US, Japan, Australia, and India, seems natural for the Trump administration to contain a rising China.

In fact, India and China have plenty of issues between themselves. The Tibet issue, though being managed, persists. India still lives in the shadow of its 1962 war with China. The Kashmir issue and the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) remain irritants for India. And, India has yet to join China's BRI. Finally, India's ruling elite remain suspicious and even hostile toward China.

Their recent informal summit on 28th April 2018, nonetheless, represents a first step toward a more pragmatic relationship after years of mutual suspicion. One of the concrete results of this summit was a “strategic guidance to their militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs”.

China and Russia

China and Russia are publicly heralding a new age of diplomacy between the two countries, at a time when both are being targeted by the US with punitive measures. Putin and Xi recently discussed the implementation of agreements reached in the areas of energy, aerospace, and nuclear power, as well as the interface between China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Russia's Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

Most promising for Russia is a further pivot to the East to create comprehensive partnership in Greater Eurasia. Russia has supported China's BRI which can provide foundation for future partnership. The BRI, also known as the “Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road” is a development strategy adopted by the Chinese government. The planned integration of the Chinese-led BRI with Russia's Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) will develop a trade and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient Silk Road routes while the EAEU groups Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia in an inward-focused trading network.

The personal touch in the Putin-Xi relationship may guarantee an acceptable political relationship between the two countries even if problems between Russia and China exist and some of them are controversial and contentious. The trust between the two leaders, nonetheless, is enabling the two sides to overcome differences and solve problems for the common interests. As strong leaders, Xi and Putin will preside over vast countries with enormous challenges: Russia needs to move beyond its resource-cursed economy, while China searches for a balance between efficiency/speed and equality/fairness.

As for Vostok 2018, such exercises are significant to the PLA: only large-scale exercises can truly reveal the capacity of a military in terms of strategic planning, power projection, command, control and communication. Since the PLA has not been involved in wars since 1980, its capacity building and operational readiness can only be verified through military drills. Russian Military Doctrine and Lessons Learned from wars in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria can be useful to the PLA.

China and Russia did not just reap military rewards from Vostok 2018. If Carl Von Clausewitz is right in saying that “war is but the continuation of politics by different means”, then a joint military exercise looks like a natural extension of the political rapprochement of the countries involved.

China and Russia in the financial market and in the international scenario

China and Russia are suggesting that the days of the US dollars as the international reserve currency may be numbered. There have been efforts to replace the dollar as the reserve currency for some time: China even blamed the dollar's international role as one of the causes of the financial crisis in 2008.

Russia is already using local currency in trade with China and Iran, while China has been active in setting up trade deals in its own currency, the renimbi. The role the US dollar plays as an international currency could eventually result undermined unless it is a little bit like the way English has become the “lingua franca” of international business. In fact, Chinese businessmen speak in English with German, Italian, French and Spanish counterparts: it is to be seen if the same applies to the dollar: currently a safe, dependable and easy to change currency.

As for international politics, both China and Russia believe that the election of Trump and the rapid increase of US containment of Russia and China are opening up possibilities for the creation of a new order. Yet the establishment of a new world order will take time and in the meantime serious conflicts and crises could occur. In order to prevent a large scale war, Russia intends to act as a key security provider through its foreign and defense policies. Russia wants to deter an arms race, and create preconditions for dialogue with Washington.

Neither major European allies nor Asian allies of the US support further escalation of the Russia-West and US-Russia confrontation. Hence Russia's policy must be tactically as flexible as possible for eventual crises, but also be more strategic, peaceful and comfortable for Russia.

As for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which has Chinese and Russian as the official languages, the alliance stresses the “Shanghai Spirit” of mutual trust, mutual benefits and consultation. The SCO took the courageous step of including last year both India and Pakistan, which are often at loggerheads. Unlike NATO, it looks inward to address internal threats such as terrorism, extremism and fundamentalism, rather than looking outward for enemies. Does this come as a relief to the West, whose worst nightmare is a China-Russia alliance? Anyway, if Vostok 2018 worries the West, it should also provide a moment for soul-searching as to why China and Russia are getting ever closer.


Is this the end of the 500 years long dominance of the West: firstly Europe, then the US and its allies in politics, the economy and ideology? The threshold moment of Western military supremacy and political and ideological ascendency occurred in the middle of the 20th century when the West's opponents, the USSR and then China obtained nuclear weapons.

This was followed by the US failure to win the Korean War and its subsequent defeat in Vietnam. There was a brief period, after 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart. Yet, after political losses in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, the US military pre-eminence was over while Russia, back again on the world scene, opposed NATO expansion, its intervention in former Yugoslavia as well as the war against Iraq and Libya. Russia intends to keep the US at bay through a strategy of “pre-emptive deterrence” by making ineffective and expensive any US attempt to regain military superiority.

Russian success in Syria has influenced the Middle East more broadly by encouraging regional powers to diversify their foreign policy and security relationships. The sense of victory and regaining of great power confidence, paired with West's angry reaction, have so far rallied Russian society in establishing a historically unique partnership with China.

Russia and China can start dialogue and invite other allies or have a series of unofficial dialogues with the US and other countries to strengthen international strategic stability. Once the foundation of the future world order is built through mutual deterrence and dialogue between leading powers, a discussion of the principles can start: cooperation; respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; and the freedom of political, cultural and value choices.

For effective bilateral ties, Putin and Xi will anyway have to address the seeming disconnect between the two populations that persists no matter how strong strategic and political ties between the two leaders seem to be. There may be limits to successful bilateral relations if political trust between elites is not accompanied by mutual interests at the societal level, particularly if developmental disparities continue to grow between the two countries.


The American tariff showdown with China and continued sanctions on Russia have pushed Beijing and Moscow closer together. And President Trump's protectionist course for the US also gives Xi and Putin the chance to portray themselves as heroes of bilateral cooperation and globalization.

In fact Russia and China claim “to oppose unilateralism and trade protectionism and build a new type of international relations and shared human destiny”. In the West, closer ties between Russia and China have previously been thought of as superficial alliances of convenience, frayed by history and tensions over regional hegemony. But in the current geopolitical climate Beijing and Moscow have more to gain by working together. With the assistance of Russia, China is a much stronger power; without Russia, China is a country without powerful allies. And on the other side, China can help ease some economic pain in Russia.

Driven by strengthening personal ties between Putin and Xi, the breadth and depth of China-Russia relations have spilled over into multiple spheres of governmental and institutional policy-making. This has included both countries' central governments, as well as regional and municipal governments, in addition to the increasing role played by state and private companies and various sectors of civil society.

As a matter of fact, government departments and even some Russian state-owned companies are currently frantically trying to build staffs of sinologists in order to somehow establish relations with the country's first trading partner, at least while the West is still regularly introducing fresh bouts of sanctions. Undoubtedly, Chinese and Russian state-led activism in supporting this process has, thus far, brought some degree of success.

But how about the US? Are they trying to balance one power against the other at a moment when the Chinese-Russian rivalry is far more subtle than it was in Nixon's time? The very economic development that China promotes will make societies along the path of the new Silk Road - particularly in the sterile dictatorships of Iran and Central Asia – harder to manage, and thus to rule. It is precisely the universal values that Trump disdains that can now pay geopolitical dividends. A populist-nationalist agenda that confines American interests to North America will only marginalize the US on the other side of the world.

Taking also India into account, the dragon-bear-elephant “dance” may lead to substantial outcomes in geopolitics constituting the first step toward a more equitable Eurasian league. It remains to be seen if it will give rise to new dynamics not only in the China-Russia-India trio but also in the US-China-Russia-India quadrilateral game in a fluid and hopefully balanced international environment.

One last word for Europe. The European Union (EU), a global economic and trade giant, regretfully is not a global political player. In fact, despite its aspirations to being a worldwide strategic player, the EU is considered only a start-up enterprise since its foreign policy is unable to move from the tactical to the strategic level. To have a say in the international scenario and help to boost peace, security, dialogue and cooperation among the leading powers, the EU must become more federal and united. The EU Member States must eventually realize that, in our complex and conflictual world, size matters and that on their own even the largest EU countries are just small fish in a pond inhabited by whales like the US, China, Russia and India. Europe cannot afford anymore to be missing from the global context which badly needs the European values represented by democracy, rule of law, justice, freedom and respect for human rights.