The Possibility and Prospects of a “Diplomatic Revolution” between China and Russia

Release Date : 2024-05-17

Tsai Tung-chieh, Distinguished Professor at NCHU Graduate Institute of International Politics

As the 19th century British statesman Lord Palmerston famously said, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies,” thus highlighting the core principle of foreign policy on the one hand, and implying the dynamic nature of international relations on the other. Nevertheless, due to the longstanding emphasis on “values over benefits” and the consolidation of the hub-and-spoke alliance in the US-led international order since the Cold War, there is a tendency to “forget” the aforementioned principle, and to assume that existing alliances are difficult to change, which inevitably brings about a certain kind of judgmental obstacle.

In retrospect, even if there were obvious oppositions that resulted into several conflicts, it has been proved that national interests always and at any time may transcend the influence of emotions and values. Take Europe as an example, during the Franco-Spanish War in the 15th century, King Francis I decided to join hands with Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I in order to win the war. It was not only “the first non-ideological alliance between Christian and non-Christian countries,” but also a prime example of an early maneuver of realist diplomacy. Similarly, during the Great Northern War in the early 18th century, Sweden was forced to seek the support of the pagan Ottoman Empire to clamp down on Russia. The most recent example of this “flip-flopping” occurred after the Second World War, when the United States took less than half a year to turn its war ally, the Soviet Union, into an “evil enemy of the global order,” and then let go of its past grudges to fully embrace Japan.

With China-Russia relations at an all-time high, the US-dominated camp has long seen them as “allies” regardless of the facts. Since the establishment of the so-called “strategic partnership based on equality and trust” between the two sides in 1996, and especially after Vladimir Putin was became President on May 7, 2000, and made his first presidential visit to China on July 17, visits to Beijing have become almost an annual ritual. In addition, in the 25 years from 2000-2024, with the exception of 2001-02, 2009-10, 2014 and 2020, the release of the Joint Statement of the Heads of State has not only become another routine, but the word count of the statement has even gone from the initial 2,000 to 3,000 words to an all-encompassing statement of 12,000 words in 2024. What’s more, from the launch of bilateral military exercises under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2005 to the promotion and expansion of joint maritime exercises since 2012, the China-Russia relation has indeed become stronger and stronger.

Among the 19 Joint Statements in the Putin era, the following items may be of interest:

First, on the Taiwan issue, in the five Joint Statements of 2000 and 2003-2006, Russia declared that it would continue to “pursue a one-China policy, recognizing that the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legitimate government representing the whole of China, and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory,” and that it opposes “any form of Taiwan independence, including de jure Taiwan independence, does not accept two Chinas, one China, one Taiwan, opposes Taiwan’s membership in the United Nations and other international organizations that can only be participated in by sovereign states, and does not sell weapons to Taiwan.” And in 2005-2006 publicly declared that it “understands China’s efforts to achieve peaceful reunification in accordance with the Anti-Secession Law.” However, the Taiwan issue disappeared from the statements in 2007-2021, and it was not until 2022-2023 that Russian once again “reaffirmed its adherence to the one-China principle, recognized Taiwan as an inalienable part of China’s territory, and opposed any form of independence of Taiwan,” and in 2024 it specifically stated its recognition of Taiwan as an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.

The second is the nature of the China-Russia alliance. The 2021 Joint Statement on the 20th anniversary of the China-Russia Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation stated for the first time that “China-Russia relations are not a military-political alliance similar to the one in the Cold War, but a new type of international relations that transcends that model of relations between states and does not seek expediency, does not carry ideological overtones, takes into account the full range of each other’s interests, does not interfere in each other’s internal affairs, is characterized by independent values, and is not directed against a third country.” The 2022 Joint Statement on International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable emphasizes that “the new type of interstate relations between China and Russia transcends the military-political alliance model of the Cold War era; there is no end to friendship between the two countries; there is no forbidden zone of cooperation; the enhancement of strategic cooperation is not directed against a third country, and is not subject to the influence of a third country or changes in the international situation.” The 2023 Joint Statement on Deepening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for the New Era and the 2024 Joint Statement on Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for the New Era in the Context of the 75th Anniversary of China-Russia Diplomatic Relations are similar in the sense that “China-Russia relations are not similar to military-political alliances of the Cold War, but go beyond the mode of relations between the two countries, and are of a non-alliance, non-confrontational, and non-targeted against a third country character”. Neither the wording “not similar” nor “beyond” negates the nature of the alliance between the two sides.

The third is another key to the 2024 Statement, which mentions that the two sides will “accelerate consultations on the text of the (draft) Intergovernmental Agreement on the Navigation of Russian and Chinese Vessels in the Waters Surrounding the Heixiazi Island Region(Tarabarov Island and Bolishaoy Ussurisky Island), and that the two sides will initiate a constructive dialogue with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on the navigation of Chinese vessels out to the sea via the lower reaches of the Tumen River,” in conjunction with the joint Chinese-Russian fleet’s crossing of the Bering Strait in September 2022. The announcement by the Chinese General Administration of Customs in May 2023 that “in order to implement the strategic plan of the state to revitalize the old industrial base in Northeast China, it has decided to further expand the scope of cross-border transportation of domestic trade cargoes in Jilin Province, and to add the Russian port of Vladivostok as a transshipment port for cross-border transportation of domestic trade cargoes,” is undoubtedly a major strategic concession from Russia to China, and it may allow China to successfully project its influence into the Sea of Japan and even the Arctic region, with obvious implications.

In short, despite the potential geopolitical conflicts that exist between China and Russia from Central Asia to the Far East, as well as each other’s conflicting interests as the longest bordering countries, the two countries have always been short of becoming a true alliance for a long time. However, with the US as the best matchmaker providing the necessary condition of a “common enemy,” and the Ukraine crisis adding fuel to the fire, the possibility of China and Russia gradually abandoning their long-standing ambiguous relationship and forming an “alliance” in the true sense of the word is getting higher and higher, and its international impact is definitely not to be underestimated.

Translated to English by Chen Cheng-Yi