Russia-China relations: Strategic intimacy or soft competition? - with Alexey Muraviev

Guest: Alexey Muraviev, Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies, Curtin University

Host: Bob Carr, Director, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney

Russia-China relations have a complex history. Recently, with the Trump administration’s hardening China policy, often contradictory Russia policy, and perceived abandonment of US allies and partners, Russia and China appear closer than ever.

Where do their interests converge and diverge? Is their relationship characterised by ‘strategic intimacy’, ‘soft competition’, or both?

Alexey Muraviev joins Bob Carr to discuss the development of Russia-China relations and the implications for the Indo-Pacific region.

The two principal pillars of Russia-China relations are the formulation of a common strategic agenda, including mutual non-acceptance of a US-led international rules-based order; and refusal to enter into formal alliance arrangements or partnerships that may be perceived to be aimed at third parties. To this end, China does not want to restrict its freedom of action by aligning with Russia or any other power; neither Beijing nor Moscow are willing to be a ‘junior partner’.

Russia needs China – economically, political and strategically – to counteract deteriorating relations with the West. China also needs Russia, for its nuclear capabilities, diplomatic experience and strategic reach. Russia is the only major military power with which China has close relations.

Bilateral relations may be described as having ‘strategic intimacy’ or strategic interdependence when it comes to engagement on political and military matters on the operational and tactical levels, including information sharing in highly sensitive areas such as ballistic missile defence and access to advanced military technologies.

Russia and China are also in a state of ‘soft competition’. There is tension between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s attempts to present itself as a ‘strategic transit state’ to Asia and Europe. China’s reverse engineering of Soviet-made technologies and reselling of these technologies at cheaper prices is also a source of tension. This soft competition is being carefully managed by both sides to ensure it does not overshadow their strategic interdependence.

Russia and China diverge in their approaches to sovereignty and territorial integrity. China did not support Russia’s annexation of Crimea, out of concern this would set a precedent for China’s sovereignty over Taiwan or Hong Kong. In September 2016 President Vladimir Putin effectively signalled that Russia was prepared to take sides in the South China Sea dispute in China’s favour, with the hope that China would in turn take a stance on Crimea. This has not changed China’s position.

Russia is playing its own independent game in the Indo-Pacific by reanimating ties with old Soviet allies and forging relationships with new partners. India’s ongoing strategic relationship with Russia is a significant consideration. Russia has also strengthened ties with countries with which the Soviet Union did not have close – or any – relations, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and Pakistan. Russia is unable to bring to the table the same level of infrastructure expenditure as China, but it has a long-standing strategic interest in the region dating back to the mid-18th century. Russia is also looking for new markets in light of trade tensions with the US and Europe. Russia is presenting itself as a ‘third way’ – an alternative to both US and Chinese methods of engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

Theme music by Sam J Mitchell.

October 04 2018