Russia has just effectively annexed Syria

Geostrategic priorities of Russian foreign policy
Part V: The Russian-Chinese relationship

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Russia is again a factor in international politics. But it is often not clear what the Kremlin's goals are. Our Russia expert Jan Dresel explains this point by point: from the Ukraine to the relationship with NATO and China.

Russia and China differ in many respects, but they are united by their generally anti-Western stance. This could pose a threat in the future.

The relationship between Russia and China

In the first few years after the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the outbreak of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, one thing seemed clear: the Russian leadership wanted the trade blackouts with the EU states and the USA as a result of Western sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions through more trade with Balance China. It soon became apparent, however, that the Chinese were not exactly enthusiastic about the investment conditions in Russia. Trade between the two countries did not grow as strongly as the Russian side had hoped; numerous Western observers have already spoken of the failure of the Russian plans. What many at that time had less on their radar or at least did not take particularly seriously: Right from the start, the Russian-Chinese rapprochement was not only aimed at economic, but also effective cooperation on military and geopolitical issues.

Both partners were able to thrust into a vacuum that had become apparent at least since the Trump administration, which tended to be isolationist, was no longer ready to play the role of world policeman in every regional conflict far away from its own borders. This opened up new opportunities for other actors. For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which pursues not only economic but also specific geo- and security-political goals. Russia and China are using this organization to counter what they consider to be the excessive influence of the United States in Central Asia. After India and Pakistan joined the SCO in 2017, the organization is now the world's largest regional organization and represents around 40 percent of the world's population.

The geopolitical ambitions of the SCO became evident just a few years after it was founded through regular joint maneuvers. The organization likes to refer to them as "anti-terrorism exercises". What went far beyond that, however, was the Russian-Chinese cooperation as part of the major Russian maneuver “Vostok 2018” two years ago. According to Russian sources, nearly 300,000 soldiers took part, of which China contributed around 3,000. The fact that the Chinese armed forces also sent around 900 tanks and other military vehicles as well as 30 planes and helicopters to Russia shows the importance of “Vostok 2018” for the military cooperation between the two countries. These numbers, as well as the frequency and regularity of the joint maneuvers, suggest multi-dimensional military cooperation.

What concrete conclusions should the West now draw from all of this? On the one hand, not to panic. There will be no formal military alliance between Russia and China in the foreseeable future, as the concept of national sovereignty has a high priority in both countries. Nevertheless, some Russian China experts are now speaking of a loose "entente" for both countries. At the same time, representatives from Russia and China repeatedly point out problematic aspects of bilateral relations and emphasize that both peoples must learn to understand each other better. Building bridges between these two different and independent nations is a challenge. However, the western countries should take the rapprochement between Russia and China seriously. Because the joint activities, especially in the military field and in the field of foreign policy, could one day also be directed against the West. At the same time, it is necessary not to let the direct thread of conversation with both countries break in order to prevent them from becoming further alienated from the western world.

© 2021 Hanns Seidel Foundation