Russia and China have grown closer in recent years, evidenced by a recent, first-of-its-kind naval drill near Japan.
Those deepening ties have worried US officials, some of whom have said Russia should be wary.
Both Moscow and Beijing have ample reason to maintain good ties, however, largely because of a mutual foe: the US.
Russia and China conducted another first-of-its-kind joint military exercise last week, sailing warships around Japan in the latest demonstration of strengthening ties that have worried Western officials.
As those ships drilled in the Pacific, President Joe Biden’s nominee for US ambassador to China told lawmakers that Russia should be wary of its new partner, but experts have said both Moscow and Beijing have ample reason to maintain friendly relations.
“I think a lot of us, maybe 10, 20 years ago, would not have anticipated that China and Russia would begin to work together strategically, but they are,” Nicholas Burns told senators during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, saying those warming ties were “all the more reason why we need to deepen our own alliances and partnerships.”
China and Russia have steadily strengthened their relationship, particularly their military ties, since the end of the Cold War.
China’s participation in Russia’s Vostok exercise in 2018 was a milestone, and they followed it with joint bomber patrols over disputed areas of the Pacific in 2019 and 2020 and, this week, with a joint naval exercise in the same area.
On Wednesday, 10 Russian and Chinese warships transited the narrow Tsugaru Strait, between two of Japan’s major islands, for the first time and continued on a joint patrol in the Pacific, also a first. On Saturday, in another first, the warships sailed through the Osumi Strait off Japan’s southern coast into the East China Sea, where they parted ways.
China’s Defense Ministry said the patrol was meant to further develop their “comprehensive strategic partnership,” while Russia’s Defense Ministry said it was meant to “demonstrate the state flags of Russia and China” and “protect facilities of both countries’ maritime economic activity.”
The exercise was widely seen as a thinly veiled message to both Japan and the US. Both transits were “lawful, but unnecessary, and therefore designed to send an even more pointed signal,” Peter Dutton, an expert on Chinese maritime activity at the US Naval War College, said Sunday.
A shared adversary
China’s and Russia’s rivalries with the US and its partners have helped foster cooperation, but they have their own historical disputes, which, along with China’s ascendancy, should worry Moscow, according to Burns, who was senior director for Russia on the National Security Council in the 1990s.
“My numbers may be a little bit off, but I think there are 6 or 7 million Russians living east of the Ural Mountains in that vast expanse, and there are 300 or 400 million Chinese living below them,” Burns told lawmakers on Wednesday. “The Russians are going to have to worry, long-term, about economic domination of Russia by China.”
“The Russians ought to be worried about a Chinese nuclear-weapons buildup in the western part of China, about the hypersonic missile test” earlier this year, “and the fact that China is completely unconstrained,” Burns added.
China’s activity in areas of where Russia has traditionally had influence is likely already a concern among Russian officials, according to Christopher Bort, national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia on the National Intelligence Council from 2017 to 2021.
“They are able to work through potential competition, but, as many people have noted, it is going to be a problem, perhaps, for the next generation of Russia’s leaders,” Bort said earlier this year.
Other experts have said China has an interest in maintaining a good relationship with Russia, especially amid tensions with the US.
China has gained significant military hardware and expertise from Russia, and two decades of good relations have “bought China quite a bit of strategic space” to focus on the Western Pacific, “so it would be in China’s long-term interest to sustain that,” Toshi Yoshihara, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said earlier this year.
China’s advances may lead it to be more assertive on the international stage, but “Beijing will be careful not to be arrogant in relations with Russia – as long as it needs Moscow as the main geopolitical ally in countering the US,” said Artyom Lukin, a scholar of international relations at Russia’s Far Eastern Federal University.
“In the foreseeable future, I don’t see any conflicts or flash points that could fatally undermine the Russia-China entente. That’s primarily because they have a shared adversary – the US,” Lukin told Insider.
US military officials have expressed concern about China and Russia’s military cooperation but downplayed it as “superficial.” US officials have also cited the scope of US alliances and partnerships as evidence of Russia and China’s international isolation.
“Generally speaking, we don’t have an issue with military exercises. We do it all the time,” chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Monday when asked about the recent Russia-China naval exercise.
“We’re going to continue to work with our allies and partners in the region – and we have a lot of them – and we believe those alliances and partnerships are real, unique strengths that the United States has,” Kirby added.
Russia and China don’t have a formal alliance, but officials in both countries, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, have used glowing terms to describe their relations – a reflection of lessons learned from 20th-century clashes.
“At least as far as the present leaders in Moscow and Beijing are concerned, they are very mindful of this historical experience,” Lukin said.
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