The recent announcement of further joint Russia-China military exercises scheduled for 2015 has fueled fresh speculation about the possibility of a growing alliance between the two countries.
The development of close ties between Russia and China is not a foregone conclusion. For most of the latter half of the Cold War, the pair had frosty, or even outright hostile relations. Russia's biennial Vostok military exercises have often been set against a hypothetical foe that resembles China.
Even as relations have thawed between the countries over the last decade, and Russian relations with the West have deteriorated markedly in the last year, it's not clear that the new closeness between Russia and China will mature into a strong alliance.
There are a lot of unknowns, so let's start with what is known. Russia has been doubling down on its opposition to the West in the wake of the Great Crimean Heist and the Ukraine conflict. Moscow won't back down from this perch for quite a while; likely until Putin leaves office, which won't happen until 2018 at the earliest.
China's stance — a little more ambiguous and harder to nail down — is the more important unknown in the equation.
A RAND report breaks alliances into three categories: tactical, historical, and natural. Tactical alliances are the one-night stands and casual hookups of the geopolitical world. They're typically very much about addressing a mutual interest and have no real life beyond that. The second kind is the historical alliance: the steady, long-term relationship that extends past any specific event, threat, or topic. The third kind of alliance is the natural alliance: international relations soul mates. Natural alliances are about a shared view of the world and the way it works and should run.
All the flapjaw about increasing Russian-Sino cooperation is basically probing the nature of their alliance. Is it tactical, historical, or natural? Are the countries just hooking up or have they fallen deeply in love? Given the on-again, off-again relations between the countries over the last century or so, the odds of a historical alliance are low. Granted, both have non-democratic state capitalist political-economic systems, but even Communism wasn't enough to keep them together in the Cold War, when they broke up over who was more Marxist-Leninist.
Figuring out whether these countries now share a worldview means looking at norms, interests, history, and all the kind of messy, complicated things that make any short answer incomplete. But these days, it's mostly about global institutions.
Let's take the (imaginary) country of Dirkastan whose elected government was just overthrown in a palace coup. If you ask the Western intelligentsia hive mind whether that's a good or bad development, the consensus would be that the coup is alarming and bad. Certainly there are a lot of exceptions in real life, but I'm just talking about the gut reaction; overthrowing a popularly elected government by force is generally frowned upon as a matter of principle. From a Chinese perspective, the answer might sound more like "Why do you care? Is it any of your business?" and perhaps also, "You also realize that's a made-up country, right?"
Given the on-again, off-again relations between the countries over the last century or so, the odds of a historical alliance are low.
The West generally harbors a raft of ideas on human rights, democracy, diversity, gay rights, and women's rights, and so on, that it believes represent fundamental, universal, ethical and moral truths. These ethical stances are held so strongly that the West will often say, in essence, that these particular moral imperatives outweigh any notional right to self-determination. For countries that don't belong to the same ideological church, Western pushiness on these topics is often seen not just as a cynical pretext for meddling in the affairs of other countries, but a way to act all high and mighty while telling other countries how morally and ethically inferior they are.
This tension is actually a large part of what animates the asymmetric argument about whether or not the West is overthrowing governments via "color revolutions" and developments like the Arab Spring. From the West's perspective, it is seen less as a naked political power grab and more as lending helping hand to countries in the course of their natural development and growth. In Moscow and elsewhere, it's seen in exactly the same light as sponsoring a coup during the Cold War.
Getting back to Dirkastan, now that a new government is in charge, we could ask how important it is to have good relations with Dirkastan. The Western observer might answer that good relations are important, since the West sides with liberal democracy, free trade, and civilization good relations show Dirkastan is at least amenable to being on the right side of history. The Chinese observer, however, might answer: "Where the hell is Dirkastan?" The closer Dirkastan is to China, the more important the Chinese-Dirkastani relationship becomes.
This ties back into something that animates the conflict between the West and Russia: spheres of influence. Should countries have more say in the affairs of their neighbors than countries farther away? In the Western Hemisphere, the West's answer was yes and formed the basis of the Monroe Doctrine. But a long string of events after World War II saw the West become less and less inclined to buy into strong geographical sphere of influence arguments. This has particularly come to a head in Ukraine, where the roots of the current fighting can be attributed, in part, to the country pursuing a European rather than a Russian future.
China has been fairly sympathetic to sphere of influence arguments, but may not be quite as committed to them as Russia. China has been busy in Africa, supporting Ebola relief efforts and sending peacekeepers to South Sudan. Chinese money and diplomats have been cropping up elsewhere in the world, starting a gigantic canal in Nicaragua, and establishing an outsized presence in Iceland. While these could be dismissed as completely cynical developments, they suggest a slightly more interesting trend.
Insofar as the West has a sphere of influence, in the last two decades, it has grown to cover the entire globe. Consider all the back and forth about the US acting as the world's policeman, for instance. This is, in part, an unavoidable outgrowth of globalization. The West's influence extends everywhere it has economic interests, which, as it turns out, is everywhere. As China steadily integrates into a globalizing economy, it will find its merchants and traders farther and farther afield; embassies and diplomats are sure to follow.
The changes in China's global posture reflect an underlying dilemma it faces in contending with existing global institutions and norms. If the best response to these challenges is seen primarily as political, then China might be more amenable to sphere of influence arguments. Political influence can be seen as a zero-sum competition. In this thinking, if Vietnam pursues closer relations with the US, it comes at the expense of its ties with China. Thus, Western efforts to pursue democratization around the world basically diminish China's global influence and security.
However, China might also choose to view its response to evolving global norms in economic terms. In that case, engagement does not have to be zero-sum; it can be mutually beneficial. For instance, the new canal in Nicaragua could deliver benefits to both China and the US in ways that would be difficult to imagine from a strict sphere of influence perspective.
A strong economic relationship will not automatically forestall conflict or even war, but it means that increased engagement from one side doesn't have to be paid for with the other's loss of influence.
Should countries have more say in the affairs of their neighbors than countries farther away?
So the future of China's relationship with the West hinges on whether Beijing prioritizes politics or economics when responding to shifting global influences. There's no easy answer for China on this, either. The political reality in Beijing is that managing rapid changes and massive development in a country of 1.35 billion people is enormously difficult, particularly when some of the outlets and pressure valves of democracy aren't available to the ruling elite.
One way that Beijing can maintain political control is by stoking nationalist sentiment and whipping up historical grievances, something China does well and often. However, the risk here is that such sentiment can get out of hand, and can potentially push Beijing into a corner. Or, if not into a corner, at least onto a staunchly anti-Western path that will ultimately lead to closer relations with Russia.
China's government might also consider the fact that keeping the populace fat, rich, and happy can also be an important way to keep a lid on things. This approach relies heavily on the more economic positive-sum approach to engaging the West and its markets, and could end up positioning China as a sort of moderator between the West and Russia.
There's really no chance for China to actively side with the West against Russia for a whole host of reasons in the near term, mainly the devastating impact such a move would likely have on the country's energy supply and economy. But in the longer term, the geographical relationship between China and Russia contains some seeds of future conflict.
Both China and Russia are making political and economic inroads into Central Asia. Russia feels it has something of a historical claim, since those countries were under Moscow's direct control in the days of the Soviet Union. China, meanwhile, has been pushing for a New Silk Road right through Central Asia, as part of its efforts to build new global economic networks. Similarly, Russia may never be able to shake the lingering fear that comes with realizing that Siberia, while incredibly resource rich, is underdeveloped and sparsely populated, and sits right across the border from a resource-hungry country with a massive population.
So, what does it all mean? For now, it looks like the two are probably just hooking up. But who really knows what their pillow talk is all about?
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan