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China And Russia Buddy Up In Face Of Western Isolation

International politics have always been very middle school: passive aggressive relationships crystallize over halls or seas, and the popular kids act congenial while not-so-secretly badmouthing one another and shoving underdogs into lockers.

Though this is obviously a crude simplification, the metaphor holds merit in regards to tensions between the US and the world’s other big players, China and Russia, who have recently partnered up in a number of intimate ways, decoupling from the US over political disagreement.

A hate-fueled love triangle

America’s foreign policy, as outlined by the Obama Administration, has made no secret of their strategic “pivot” from the Middle East to East Asia, as “continued engagement with Beijing will be critical to managing the security and economic issues of the 21st century.”

In other words: China’s doing well, so everyone wants to be friends. And it’s true: already, China’s economy is only second to America’s at 76% of its GDP, and growing faster. The Economist estimates it could overtake the US in size as soon as 2019.

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But now that the US has imposed punitive sanctions on Russia over their controversial actions in the Ukraine, Russia is taking the opportunity to continue their own pivot by cozying up with China even more.

Their ties are now stronger than they’ve been in all of history. China and Russia’s new and ongoing cooperations include:

  • On May 21, the two signed a $400 billion gas deal through which Russia will provide China 38 billion cubic meters of gas a year between 2018 and 2048.
  • They also are creating a joint credit rating agency to make trade easier, and as an alternative to Western CRAs.
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a deal between major banks, allowing bypass of the US dollar in favor of domestic currencies.
  • Chinese and Russian military are practicing joint naval exercises to emphasize their cooperation and mutual trust. Their joint active military personnel doubles that of the United States, though the US still trumps them in expenditure and air force power.
  • Russia has realigned from manned space cooperation with the US in favor of China’s space program.
  • Together, China and Russia are seeking greater control of the Internet to counterbalance US dominance.

Geopolitical friendships and motives

The motives here come as little surprise across the board.

Putin has called China Russia’s greatest friend — they are, after all, Russia’s largest single trading partner. And China has great use for natural resources, especially as their cities choke on thick, coal-induced smog.

But perhaps the nations’ single most commonality is their mutual disdain for the United States, both historically and currently, and their similar expansionist tactics.

Both countries have caused international tensions in 2014 by threatening their smaller neighbors: China’s territorial claim over the South China Sea is largely condemned by the West, as is Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The US’ indictments of Chinese officers for cyber espionage, charges which China has warned could weaken ties with America, have already caused notable strain.

As the Economist points out, both countries have a sense of historical greatness that the still-mighty but not almighty US appears to be thwarting. An article by RT blames the US and EU for getting caught in their own political bubbles, within which they may soon be outpaced.

Should the West be worried?

Many think Russia’s fallout with the US will hurt more than help, and that pivoting East out of spite is a foolish move, especially as China and Russia’s common border remains a source of internal mistrust and tension.

China is still working with the U.S. on a military-to-military basis, and has the upperhand over Russia, the oil deal over which it drove a hard bargain.

Since Russia’s economy has seen only meager growth as of late, it needs China more than China needs it — and both countries need the US market as a stable influence.

The takeaway

China and Russia do seem joined at the hip when it comes to their political strategies and goals, as evidenced by the partnerships that have strengthened their ties significantly.

But as close as they are in the metaphorical hallways of oil pipelines and sea vessels now, history has seen Sino-Russian relations clash even in spite of similar politics. It’s an on-again off-again kind of international affair with no guarantee of permanency — but which makes for a powerful pair nonetheless.

This article was originally published on June 24, 2014. 

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Jennifer Markert