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The big problems in the Russia-China relationship can’t be solved by a gas deal

Partners, for now
Partners, for now
Saeed Kahn/AFP
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Wednesday, Russia and China signed a $400 billion dollar natural gas deal. According to Vladimir Putin, Russia's agreement to sell 38 billion cubic meters of gas to China is "the biggest contract in the history of the gas sector of the former USSR." Putin's Soviet reference can't help but remind observers of the days when Russia and China were both real Communist powers, on the same side against America and its Western allies.

The deal does get to American fears that Russia, pushing away from Europe after the Ukraine crisis, could team up with China against the Western world. Moscow may want to communicate that as well: Russia Today, the Kremlin's English-language propaganda channel, ran a piece calling the deal "the beginning of the de-dollarization and de-Americanization of the world."

But the idea of a world-changing Russia-China alliance is poppycock. The natural gas deal doesn't augur an anti-American alliance in the near term. Even in the long term, no such alliance is likely. Russia and China have a marriage of convenience, not any kind of more durable partnership. And sometimes, that turns into conflict: the two nations see each others as both potential partners and potential threats.

There was that time Russia and China fought a war

In 1969, the Soviet Union and China fought a little war. China struck first, attacking Soviet positions on the Ussuri River on China's eastern border with the Soviet Union. The Russians struck back, at one point threatening to nuke China if it didn't relent. It was the only time China's nuclear arsenal has been put on full alert.

The Sino-Soviet border conflict grew out of Cold War antagonism. China wanted to send a signal that the Soviet Union couldn't coerce as it did with other Communist countries. The Soviets were worried that China might be threatening the Soviet Union's eastern flank. But the underlying insecurity it reflects remains, in a different form, today. Neither Russia nor China trusts the others' intentions, so they're unlikely to be able to form a real alliance.

Geography matters here. Russia and China have a pretty long border:



Now, geography isn't destiny: the US and Canada are great chums. But both Russia and China aspire to being dominant military powers, and so are perpetually suspicious of nearby countries with similar ambitions. They can't both simultaneously dominate their geopolitical neighborhoods, but they both want to, and that puts them into conflict.

This manifests in very concrete competition between the two countries. Professors Younkyoo Kim and Stephen Blank have compiled a long list of competitive steps, including Russia's refusal to sell China some better weapons. Other examples include joint US-Russian naval training in East Asia, Russian diplomatic overtures to China's archenemy Japan, and internal debate among Russian analysts about whether a military partnership with the West will become inevitable in order to counter China's growing military clout.

"Chinese and Russian approaches to a range of important topics are still largely uncoordinated and at times conflicting," the scholars conclude. That means "the two countries are unlikely to form a true alliance" in the foreseeable future.

Even Russia and China's greatest area of cooperation suggests they won't be allies

"The real core of Russia's relationship with China," write Dartmouth professors Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, is "extensive military coproduction arrangements and major arms sales." Basically, Russia sells a ton of weapons to China.

But even this close link doesn't mean they're cooperating, for one simple reason: India. India and China are strategic competitors in Southeast Asia. And yet, in the past four years, Russia has sold significantly more weapons to India than China. If Russia were really taking China's side, you can bet they wouldn't be arming China's competitor.


Arms from Russia make up 75 percent of Indian purchases. The figure is 64 percent for China.

As Brooks and Wohlforth say, "Russia's fundamental interest in these exports is not checking U.S. power but rather a desperate need to slow the decline of its military industrial complex."

Moreover, there's been a recent slowdown in Russian sales to China. Part of that is about the growth of China's domestic arms industry, but it's also about growing Russian suspicion of Chinese military strength. Russia has cut off some sales of sophisticated ground weapons because it doesn't want China to have a leg up in a land war with Russia.

Russian arms sales to China reveal their relationship for what it is: a shifting partnership where the two states work together when it's in both their interests, but neither hesitates to cut ties when it's not.

Neither Russia nor China have really strong reasons to be allies

Beyond the propaganda value of talking about an anti-American alliance, it turns out that neither China nor Russia really has it in their interests to form a military alliance.  A non-aggression pact, mutual defense treaty, or any other kind of alliance would only be useful if either country was at imminent risk of invasion (they're not), or if they wanted to work together in some act of aggression abroad. But neither has shown any interest in helping out with the other's border conflicts.

A Russia-China alliance only really makes sense as a full-scale challenge to the American-led world order: an enemy-of-my-enemy is my friend kind of deal. Again, both state medias like to talk about challenging the world order, but there's little evidence either China or Russia wants that. True, both countries would like to be the big dog in their respective spheres of influence. And neither would mind being more politically, militarily, or economically influential than they are now. But it's one thing to be regionally expansionist, as Russia and China are, and another thing altogether to want to remake the world security order.

That's part of why, since the end of the Cold War, Russia and China haven't built deep diplomatic partnerships or economic links. One of the closest things to a formal bond in those realms, the multilateral Shanghai Cooperation Organization, has never amounted to much of a politico-military organizing group.

So the gas deal is economic and political pragmatism, pure and simple

The gas deal doesn't alter these fundamental realities. It makes much more sense as a pragmatic step on both sides, one that furthers the concrete interests of both sides without committing them to a broader strategic relationship.

Russia, for its part, gets money. It also gets to show the US and Europe that it has an alternative to European gas sales, an important stick in the ongoing conflict over Ukraine.

China gets natural gas at a good price. That $400 billion price tag may seem high, but the per-cubic meter rate is pretty good by global standards. So China gets to diversify its heavily coal-dependent energy sector at a bargain rate, which isn't thrilling news for Russia's rapidly worsening economy. If the gas wasn't at such a good price, China probably would have scuttled the deal.

In other words, short term political and economic motivations explain everything that needs explaining here. Russia and China sometimes have overlapping interests, but they're not allies. And it's hard to see how they ever could be.