During his state visit to Russia earlier this month, President Xi Jinping of China effusively hailed President Vladimir Putin of Russia as his “best friend and colleague.” Putin, not to be outdone, replied by affirming his personal respect for Xi, and suggested that Sino-Russian relations have progressed not only to an “unprecedentedly high level” in recent years, but are now increasingly based on a “truly comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction.”
But whatever Putin means by “strategic interaction,” and despite the undeniable progress in Sino-Russian relations over the past decade, it is easy to fall into the trap of exaggerating what some fear is an emerging Sino-Russian “axis” in world politics. Notwithstanding the Xi-Putin friendship and the growing congruence of both countries’ interests in undermining the US-led international order, relations between Russia and China remain at their core as brittle and prone to mutual suspicion and distrust as they have in the past.
It is, after all, only 50 years since the two Eurasian giants nearly stumbled into a cataclysmic war following a series of unprovoked Chinese attacks on Soviet troops garrisoned along the then-contested river boundaries in Russia’s Far East. Although Moscow stayed its hand from an all-out military assault on China, the border clashes of 1969 continue to rankle historical memories and military thinking in Russia to this day.
Such territorial jostling along the vast expanses of Eurasia has, in fact, defined Russo-Chinese relations historically, and will continue to do so in the future.
And therein lies the existential rub, especially for Russia. From the perspective of a strategic planner in Moscow, China – which contains a billion-and-a-half people – not only dwarfs Mother Russia in population, national power, and economic might. It has also – much more worryingly – become a near military equal, prone to intimidation and throwing its weight around its periphery at will. Witness, for example, Beijing’s swift and brazen conquest of the South China Sea, the unrelenting probing into Vietnamese, Philippine, and Japanese maritime spaces, and to its west, the frequent incursions, stand-offs, and aggressive territorial claims against India.