Russia-China: Both countries have long eschewed Cold War-style blocs and alliances

Ted Snider

At the end of November, reports that Russia and China had secretly signed a defense agreement started to appear.
A November article on t-he website of Russia Ma-tters of the Harvard Kenn-edy School’s Belfer Center reported that, when Putin went to Beijing on Febru-ary 4, prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he and Chinese President Xi Jinping secretly signed an agreement “that their countries would come to each other’s aid militarily, but only in the case of a foreign invasion.” The article cites “long-time Russia watcher Owen Matthews.”
Matthews subsequently reported in a November 26 article that, in a “confidential annex” to their February 4 agreement, was “a mutual security guarantee that Russia had sought from China for decades but hitherto been unable to obtain. . . . Like Nato’s Article 5 — that an attack on one member is an attack on all — Beijing and Moscow pledged to come to each other’s aid militarily in the case of a foreign invasion of their territory and if special conditions were satisfied concerning the cause of such an invasion.” Matthews cited “a source with longstanding close ties to the top levels of China’s political and military leadership.”
The Washington Post amplified that story a bit by including it parenthetically in a December 2 opinion piece by Robert Wright. The article said that “every day there is some risk of a fluke turning this into a wider war, featuring direct NATO involvement. Even if such a war didn’t go nuclear, the devastation could be vast. ‘World War III’ might be an overstatement — but it might not (especially in light of a recent report that China and Russia have a secret mutual defense agreement).” The Post oped linked to the same story by Matthews.
The existence of such a confidential agreement would be an unexpected development in the relationship between the two countries, which have long eschewed Cold War-style alliances and blocs.
And it may not be true. Alexander Lukin, a leading expert on Russia-China rel-ations, told RS that “There is no proof. It’s probably mere gossip, and, as any gossip, it may be true or false.” He said that some C-hinese authors have argued for such an alliance. But he added that they do not claim it is “an official posting” of the Chinese government. Lukin has, in the past, been critical of western analysts who do not s-ufficiently differentiate “b-etween the official and do-minant views that both ref-lect and determine [Chi-na’s] foreign policies, and the unofficial and even ma-rginal opinions that have little influence on official policy.”
Lukin says the idea may have come from a May interview given by Yan Xuetong, a well-known Chinese foreign policy expert who has supported forming an alliance with Russia, but who, Lukin adds, “does not represent an official position.” Yan told the South China Morning Post that “China should consider providing security guarantees for neighbouring countries. This is not to help them invade others, but to provide security guarantees when others invade them.”
In a portion of the interview that was not included in the English translation, Yan went on to explain that “there is a misinterpretation of the concept of alliance in society. Many people think that alliance is when your allies go to war, you automatically participate in the war. This is wrong. ‘Allia-nce’ means that when your ally is invaded by others a-nd he conducts an anti-ag-gression war, you are automatically involved in the war. The alliance treaty is “I help you protect you”, n-ot “I help you invade others.”
But he did not say that there was such a treaty.
The distinction made by Matthews and Yan between an obligation that is triggered by being invaded but not by invading is consistent in tone with other Chi-nese partnerships. Even be-fore China cemented its cl-ose partnership with Rus-sia, it had an exceptionally close relationship with Pak-istan. But while Pakistan h-as more than once been at war with India, China has not once intervened with troops.
The reason is because China drew the very distinction Yan emphasizes. According to Andrew Sm-all in “The China-Pakistan Axis,” China would never rescue Pakistan from conflicts it brought on itself. But, according to Small, Chairman Mao Zedong (ruled from 1949-76) said China could intervene. Sources interviewed by Small said that China could intervene if India attacked Pakistan. In other words, China might come to the aid of its partner if its own existence was threatened by a foreign invasion; China would not come to the aid of its partner if it was the cause of the crisis.
In the case of the Ukraine crisis, China has not blamed Russia for causing it but rather has consistently pointed the finger at the U.S. and NATO. Xi told Biden personally that “the crux of the Ukraine crisis” included “the security concerns of both Russia and Ukraine.” He told Biden that, U.S. provocation had caused the problem. On June 23, XI again stressed the need to “reject the Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation” as well as “hegemonism.”
Nevertheless, both Russia and China have disavowed Cold War-style alliances. Though their extraordinarily close strategic partnership approaches a quasi-alliance relationship, it falls importantly short of a military alliance.
Only weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukra-ine, Xi said that the relationship between Russia and China “even exceeds an alliance in its closeness and effectiveness.” A Febr-uary 4 joint statement iss-ued by Putin and Xi asserted, perhaps for the first ti-me officially, that “Frie-ndship between the two S-tates has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of co-operation.” The statement adds that it is “a new kind of relationship” that is “su-perior to political and military alliances of the Cold War.”
This “ironclad” friendsh-ip has included Russia and China carrying out military exercises that have emplo-yed a joint command and control system that gave each other levels of access that are unprecedented for either country, indicating a very high level of strategic and military coordination.
As recently as October 27, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that “China will firmly support the Russian side, with the leadership of President Putin, to unify Russian people to overcome difficulties and interruptions, to realize the strategic goal of development, and to further reinforce the status of Russia as a major power.” He promised that “China and Russia will deepen exchanges at all levels.”
But, as far as is known, there is still no mutual defense obligations.
The question of the existence of a confidential mutual security guarantee may not, in practice, change much. An attack on Russian territory that existentially threatened Russia could trigger China’s own security interests: China has no desire to face a U.S. and NATO challenge stripped of Russia. China could be motivated to come to Russia’s aid in the event of an invasion, not by an agreement with Russia, but out of concern for its own security interests.
And, importantly, there is the little-discussed Article 9 of the Sino-Russian Treaty of 2001 known as the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. It states that “When a situation arises in which one of the contracting parties deems that peace is being threatened and undermined or its security interests are involved or when it is confronted with the threat of aggression, the contracting parties shall immediately hold contacts and consultations in order to eliminate such threats.”
Whether or not there is a confidential mutual security guarantee between Russia and China, there is a close and still evolving quasi-alliance relationship that has “no limits” and that already has a treaty to aid each other in eliminating threats to each other’s security interests.