Zhao Huasheng: China-Russian Strategic Partnership: From Continental to Marine

  • Zhao Huasheng: Professor, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, China Forum Expert

    In the China-Russia strategic cooperative partnership, the concept of maritime strategic partnership has not yet been formed. This is not a defect for China-Russia cooperation in the past, but it seems to be a deficiency for the current and future China-Russia relations.

    Theoretically, the strategic partnership between China and Russia can cover all fields; in reality, though, this does not mean that the cooperation between China and Russia in all fields has reached the height of strategic partnership. It is in this sense that putting forward the concept of maritime strategic partnership is still of substantial significance to China-Russia relations.

    The international and regional cooperation between China and Russia has traditionally been in the Eurasian continent. China and Russia are both vast countries, stretching across the Eurasian continent. They are neighbors and geographically connected. They naturally form a huge Eurasian plate, and their mutual interests are mainly concentrated in the Eurasian continent. Therefore, it is natural that the international and regional strategic cooperation between China and Russia starts from and is based on the Eurasian continent. The major bilateral cooperation projects, such as the SCO, the connection between OBOR and the EEU, the Greater Eurasia Partnership, are all linked by the Eurasian continent and unfold in it.


    Although China and Russia have traditionally been seen as continental states, they are bordered by oceans, have long coastlines, consider themselves maritime states, and both are committed to becoming great oceanic powers. From the 1990s, the Chinese government formulated a series of policy documents on maritime development, including China’s Oceans in the 21st Century. Transforming China into a maritime power is also an established strategic goal of China. At the international level, China put forward the initiative of building the Maritime Silk Road in 2013 as well as the proposal of building a maritime community of shared future in 2019. As early as 2001, Russia formulated “The Maritime Theory of the Russian Federation to 2020”, which included the development of the world’s marine resources, the protection of Russia’s maritime interests and the consolidation of its position among the world’s greatest maritime powers.

    China and Russia have conducted cooperation related with oceans, including the Arctic cooperation, building of the Maritime Silk Road, joint military exercises in the Pacific, Indian, the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans, the joint aircraft cruising in the Sea of Japan, etc. At the same time, there has been public opinion in the academic circles to promote the strategic maritime cooperation between China and Russia. However, there is no concept of the strategic maritime partnership between the two states.

    Under the framework of China-Russia strategic cooperative partnership, China and Russia should form the concept of maritime strategic partnership, which is needed both for practical cooperation and long-term development of bilateral relations. Marine strategic partnership is not the same meaning as marine strategic cooperation. Strategic cooperation points to specific cooperative behavior, while strategic partnership refers to the status of mutual recognition as strategic partners. The concept of maritime strategic partnership will form an overall cooperation framework, integrating continental and oceanic cooperation together and opening up more space for the strategic cooperation between the two countries.

    China and Russia have the conditions and possibility to form a strategic maritime partnership. China and Russia have overlapping interests in the maritime area, maybe there could be contradictions in some issues, but no serious conflicting interests. Politically, the two states maintain high-level relations, which serves as the necessary political foundation. Both China and Russia regard maritime development as an important strategic direction. Geographically, China faces the Pacific Ocean and is adjacent to the Indian Ocean, while Russia mainly lies along the Arctic Ocean and has a close view of the Atlantic Ocean. The sea lines of China and Russia are connected to form a complete oceanic continuum. Maritime cooperation is a natural extension of continental cooperation for China and Russia. The two countries have a complementary structure in many aspects of the maritime field. They can make use of each other’s conditions to expand their respective maritime development space and produce greater benefits. Obviously, there will be more and more maritime intersection between the two countries, and more and more areas for cooperation. This will create potential for sustainable development of maritime strategic partnership.

    The 21st century belongs to the ocean century. The oceans are becoming the political, economic and security gravity of the world, especially the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, as well as the Arctic Ocean region. The Pacific and Indian Ocean regions are home to four of the six largest economies in the world today: the United States, China, Japan, and India. The Arctic region is becoming a new hotspot of international politics, security and energy exploitation. The ocean regions determine the future distribution of international power and the future development of the world to a considerable extent. In international maritime affairs, neither China nor Russia will be absent, but the two countries can enhance their respective positions to have greater influence through cooperation, which is a more effective way to realize their national interests than working alone.

    The basic connotation of the China-Russia strategic maritime partnership concept is that the two countries act as strategic partners to carry out overall, comprehensive and long-term cooperation with each other in maritime areas. Its main regions are the Pacific, Indian, and Arctic oceans, but it can also extend into the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. As part of the strategic partnership between China and Russia, the maritime strategic partnership is consistent with its nature. It is not confrontational and does not target any third country. Its basic goal aims to facilitate development of the two countries.

    The major functions of marine strategic partner of China and Russia are to extend their ocean space for development, enhance their development ability, boost their international status and expand influence in marine affairs, better safeguard their interests and marine safety as well as jointly maintain security and stability of oceans, promote the effective governance of the international marine affairs. It will also build a sound foundation for the maritime relations between the two countries, respect for each other’s maritime interests and security, providing a constructive channel and mechanism for the two countries to solve possible problems and contradictions in marine affairs.

    The content of marine strategic partnership includes resources development, environmental protection, joint research and investigation, scientific and technological innovation, energy cooperation, infrastructural construction, new channel construction, combat against piracy and terrorism, ensuring the safety of international maritime traffic, marine military strategic and security cooperation, maintaining an international maritime regime that is compatible with a just and fair international order, and so on. However, the marine strategic partnership of China and Russia is open for cooperation in any area, along with the development of the bilateral cooperation, its range of cooperation will grow larger and wider. In order to promote the maritime strategic partnership, China and Russia could set up special agenda and mechanisms.

    At present, the main cooperation tracks of China-Russia maritime strategic partners are cooperation in the Arctic and the building of the Silk Road on the ice, the maintenance and construction of international maritime regime, maritime strategic security and military cooperation, and promoting cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.

    The Arctic is the region where maritime economic cooperation between China and Russia is most concentrated and where there is the greatest potential and possibility for economic cooperation between them. It is also the region where China and Russia are engaging in building the Silk Road on ice. It almost covers the whole range of the current marine economic cooperation between China and Russia, including climate change, energy development, environmental protection, science and technology innovation, the infrastructure investment and construction, etc... With the global warming, time available for navigation in the Arctic will be extended, this will increase the China-Russia cooperation in business use of the Northern channel. It may even change the basic structure of international shipping routes, from which both China and Russia are expected to benefit.

    Russia is an Arctic country, while China is a near-Arctic country. Russia has some concerns about China’s deep involvement in the Arctic. However, China does not pose a threat to Russia’s interests on the two issues it most fears: military security and territorial disputes. So, China’s deeper entry into the Arctic does not actually conflict with Russia’s fundamental interests.

    The maritime regime is an important part of the international order, and its status is becoming more and more important. Just as the current international order is chaotic, the current international maritime regime is in disarray. Maintaining and building the international maritime regime is indispensable to building of the international order in the future. In this regard, China and Russia share similar basic political principles which are derived from their consistent or close political positions on the building of the international order. The fundamental point is that both countries respect state sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as settle maritime disputes by peaceful means, on the basis of the UN Charter and international law.

    Strategic security and military cooperation occupy a special important position in the China-Russia maritime strategic partnership, which has clearly been demonstrated in the past through military cooperation between the two countries. Both China and Russia are facing serious security threats from sea, some of which are from the same source. Judging from the current trend, the threat will be long-term and increasingly acute. Maritime military cooperation between China and Russia can enhance their respective military defense capabilities and more effectively safeguard their security. A strategic maritime partnership between China and Russia does not guarantee that the two countries will be “comrades-in-arms” in the event of a military conflict, but at least it will help the two countries remain “friends” and provide political understanding and, perhaps, support.

    The Indian Ocean region is an important direction of China-Russia maritime strategic partnership not only because of the importance of the Indian Ocean region itself, but also because of the situation after the implementation of the Indo-Pacific strategy by the U.S. The Indo-Pacific strategy unites four important countries in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, namely the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. Based on the Quad mechanism, the four countries try to build a comprehensive cooperation framework across the two oceans, including politics, security, economy, science and technology, environment, public health, infrastructure construction, connectivity, etc. The emergence of such a framework can have a deconstructive impact on the existing multilateral mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific. It also enables the United States, Japan, India and Australia to have a dominant mechanism in the affairs of the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.

    There is no doubt that the main target of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is China, and the United States does not conceal this. Geographically, the Indo-Pacific strategy also presents a semi-encirclement to China from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. Under such circumstances, it is an important question whether China and Russia can cooperate and jointly deal with the situation. Due to the exclusive nature of the Indo-Pacific strategy, both China and Russia officially oppose it. However, since the Indo-Pacific strategy is aimed at China first and foremost, the feelings and reactions of China and Russia could be different.

    Russia has an instinctive sense of alienation towards the Indo-Pacific strategy and is generally suspicious and opposed to it. This is because Russia has realized that the Indo-Pacific strategy is also a strategic challenge for Russia, it has a negative strategic impact on Russia’s position in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and Eurasia, as it could marginalize Russia in affairs in these regions.

    Nevertheless, Russian public opinion has not reacted strongly to the Indo-Pacific strategy, which is understandable, because Russia is not its focus. The Indo-Pacific strategy is mainly a dispute between China and the United States. Although Russia is not a bystander, it is not at the forefront of the conflict. From this perspective, some Russian academics regard the Belt and Road Initiative as the counterpart of the Indo-Pacific strategy, while others take the community of shared human destiny as its counterpart. Its meaning is self-evident, that is, the contradiction between China and the United States is the main line of the Indo-Pacific strategy, and Russia takes a back place. Objectively speaking, this kind of thinking of Russian academia is natural.

    However, this does not prevent China and Russia from dealing with the Indo-Pacific strategy in a coordinated way. From the grand strategy perspective, the cooperation between China and Russia in the Indian Ocean is helpful to ease the overall strategic pressure on Russia, so it is also in line with Russia’s grand strategy interests. Moreover, even if Russia completely avoids the edge of the Indo-Pacific strategy, it will not reduce the pressure of the United States on Russia, but will only make the strategic position of the United States more active, and the position of Russia more passive. Therefore, it is a reasonable strategic choice for China and Russia to jointly cope with the Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States.

    The response of China and Russia is not a tit-for-tat confrontation with the Indo-Pacific strategy but an enhanced cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. In other words, the basic way for China and Russia to jointly respond is not to confront the Indo-Pacific strategy but to increase their own development in the Indian Ocean region in a coordinated way. While there are justified reasons for China and Russia to oppose the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, since it itself puts both China and Russia on the opposite side, but there is no need for China and Russia not to accept the Indo-Pacific concept. It should be noted that with the development of globalization, the increasing convenience of transportation and communication, and the expanding scope of regional cooperation, it is natural for the Indian and Pacific regions to be closer and closer economically, politically and in terms of security. It is likely that the Indo-Pacific concept will be used more and more often in the future. China and Russia should not resist the Indo-Pacific concept just because it is used by the U.S. They should not let it become the “patent” of the U.S. and give up the development under the Indo-Pacific concept. China and Russia can also have their own Indo-Pacific vision and should also cooperate under this concept, and there are even more reasons for them to do so in terms of geography and economy as well as politics and security.

    The cooperation between China and Russia in the Indian Ocean region has its certain favorable conditions. Both China and Russia have cooperative relations with local countries and maintain presence in the region in different degrees and varied forms. India and Pakistan are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China and Russia have jointly formed several trilateral dialogue mechanisms with local countries, such as “China-Russia-India” and “China-Russia-Iran”. Both China and Russia have high-level cooperation platform with ASEAN, close relations with Pakistan, and both have transport corridor projects to the Indian Ocean. Although Russia’s presence in the Indian Ocean region is not as extensive and comprehensive as that of China’s, it holds close military relations with the local countries, including India, Pakistan, Iran, also some southeast Asian countries and African countries. It should also be noted that China and Russia each have the most important framework to connect with the Indian Ocean region, that is, China’s OBOR and Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership. With all these formats, China and Russia can develop extensive cooperation in the Indian Ocean region and form closer ties with the countries in the region, which is the best way for the two countries to jointly response to the Indo-Pacific strategy.

    (This article was first published on RIAC, Aug 9.)


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