April 13, 2011

China’s Current and Emerging Foreign Policy Priorities

By Richard Weitz

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the Commission’s deliberations regarding the important relationship between China and Russia.

Since the end of the Cold War, the improved political and economic relationship between Beijing and Moscow has affected a range of international security issues. China and Russia have expanded their bilateral economic and security cooperation. In addition, they have pursued distinct, yet parallel, policies regarding many global and regional issues. Yet, Chinese and Russian approaches to a range of significant subjects are still largely uncoordinated and at times in conflict. Economic exchanges between China and Russia remain minimal compared to those found between most friendly countries, let alone allies. Although stronger Chinese-Russian ties could present greater challenges to other countries (e.g., the establishment of a Moscow-Beijing condominium over Central Asia), several factors make it unlikely that the two countries will form such a bloc.

“Best Ever” Relations

The relationship between the Chinese and Russian governments is perhaps the best it has ever been. The leaders of both countries engage in numerous high-level exchanges, make many mutually supportive statements, and manifest other displays of Russian-Chinese cooperation in what both governments refer to as their developing strategic partnership.

The current benign situation is due less to common values and shared interests than to the fact that Chinese and Russian security concerns are predominately directed elsewhere. Although both countries have experienced a geopolitical resurgence during the past two decades, Chinese and Russian security concerns are not directed at each other but rather focus on different areas and issues, with the notable exceptions of maintaining stability in Central Asia and constraining North Korea’s nuclear activities.

Most Chinese policy makers worry about the rise of separatist movements and Islamist terrorism in western China and about a potential military clash with the United States in the Asia-Pacific region, especially regarding Taiwan and the contested maritime regions of the South China and East China Seas. In contrast, most Russian analysts see terrorism in the North Caucasus, maintaining influence in Europe, and managing security relations with Washington as the main security challenges to their country. Neither Chinese nor Russian military experts perceive a near-term military threat from the other’s country. The Russian government has even provided sophisticated navy, air, and air defense platforms to the Chinese military, confident that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would only employ these systems, if at all, against other countries. In addition, China and Russia have resolved their longstanding border disputes as well as contained their rivalries in Central Asia, the Korean Peninsula, and other regions. 

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