The Unlikely Prospect of Long-Term Sino-Russian Cooperation: Points of Divergence in the Emerging Security Environment

By: Kyle Stramblad

Approximate Reading Time: 15 Minutes

Excerpt: The 2017 National Security Strategy states that the United States is in a Great Power competition with China and Russia. In January 2019 the Director of National Intelligence unveiled the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the United States Intelligence Community which states that, “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s, and the relationship is likely to strengthen in the coming year as some of their interests and threat perceptions converge.” However, concerns over long-term Sino-Russian cooperation are largely exaggerated based on several sources of growing divergence. The confluence of historical territorial strains over Outer Manchuria, Chinese and Russian demographic shifts, Chinese immigration into Siberia, conflicting interests with China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, and water scarcity issues in China are all areas of divergence that make the prospect of long-term Sino-Russian cooperation an unlikely development in the emerging security environment.

Revisionist China

Within the context of international relations, a “revisionist state” is a term that is used to describe states that are dissatisfied with their position in the international system. China is a revisionist power, as is evidenced by its territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, India, Bhutan, not to mention the 1950s annexation of Tibet. 

There is a growing popularity within Chinese online literature that emphasizes territorial expansion into the East and South China Seas, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Siberia which advocate for colonialist practices as a means of revitalizing China. The foreign policy implications that these trends may have on the stability of the Asia-Pacific region are troubling. The expansive nature of China’s territorial disputes is reflected in the following maps.

Figure 2: China’s Territorial Disputes

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Figure 3: Himalayan Border Disputes (India, Bhutan, Tibet)

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China is seeking to alter the current balance of power in order to recreate a Sino-centric order which Beijing believes is Asia’s historic norm. Evidence for this claim includes Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2017 State-of-China speech which identified South China Sea territorial expansion as the key achievement of his first term and outlined his foreign policy vision of a strong China recovering from its “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of colonial powers. Given current Sino-Russian cooperation, it is ironic that one of the colonial powers which annexed Chinese territory during the so-called Century of Humiliation was Russia.

Historical Sino-Russian Territorial Strains in Outer Manchuria

Figure 4: Outer Manchuria was a territory ceded by China to Russia in the 19th century.

Outer Manchuria consists of territory in Northeast Asia that was formerly controlled by the Qing Dynasty and which now belongs to the Russian Federation. After losing the Opium Wars, the Qing Dynasty was forced to sign a series of treaties that gave away land to European powers. Russia acquired Outer Manchuria from China via the Treaty of Aigun in 1858 and the Treaty of Beijing in 1860. As a result, China lost territory and access to the Sea of Japan. Strategically significant centers such as the city of Vladivostok, the contemporary home port of the Russian Pacific Fleet and the largest Russian port on the Pacific Ocean are located within the territory referred to as Outer Manchuria, making this contested territory of vital importance to Russia. In China, these treaties are known today as the “Unequal Treaties,” which were drawn up in a time of China’s weakness when it was forced to make concessions to foreign powers. This term has come to be associated with the concept of China’s Century of Humiliation.

Russia has a history of conflict with East Asians. From the Mongol invasions in the 13th century which destroyed numerous cities that include Moscow and Kiev, to 20th century defeat in the Russo-Japanese War; Russia’s relations with its Asian neighbors are complicated. Sino-Russian relations in the 20th century were marked by the diplomatic conflict known as the “Sino-Soviet Split” which culminated in the Sino-Soviet border conflict in 1969. Although military clashes ceased that year, the underlying territorial issues were not resolved until the 1991 Sino-Soviet Border Agreement. Article 6 of the 2001 Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship states that the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation have no remaining territorial claims.

Despite this treaty of friendship and cooperation, there are indications of potential divergence between China and Russia. When President Xi Jinping took office, he declared his “Chinese Dream” to be “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” To achieve this goal, Dr. Graham Allison of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government believes China intends to restore the predominance it enjoyed in Asia before the West intruded by reestablishing control over the territories that the Communist Party considers to be “Greater China” and by recovering China’s historic sphere of influence along its borders and in its adjacent seas. Given Russia’s historical territorial acquisition of Outer Manchuria in the 19th century, it is understandable why Moscow remains concerned about China’s long-term strategic designs in the Russian Far East.

Chinese and Russian Demographic Shifts

Figure 5:Peter Zeihan explains China/Russia Population Pyramids

Alongside Chinese historical territorial claims to the Russian Far East, China is also experiencing demographic pressures that could further fuel its need to expand into Russian territories. The population of China (1.38 billion) dwarfs that of Russia (144 million) at nearly a 10 to 1 ratio. With around 8 million people living in 2.6 million square miles of territory, the Russian Far East is among the most vacant places on Earth, at a population density of 3.1 people per square mile, and it is growing emptier, as a national demographic collapse is underway in Russia. Meanwhile, across the border, the Chinese are rapidly outstripping the carrying capacity of their territory, while the Russian Far East is endowed with abundant natural resources such as oil, gas, coal, timber, and water, but lacks the labor and capitol to extract and develop these resources.

Russian Demographics: Peter Zeihan, geopolitical strategist and author of Accidental Superpower, explains that after the Cold War, the Russian Federation experienced a 60% drop in its national birth rate. Today, Russia is experiencing high death rates related to alcoholism. Life expectancy among working-age males, has dropped significantly. A RAND study on Russian demographics suggests that, “The Russian fertility rate has declined to among the world’s lowest, while its abortion rate is the highest. As a result, for the first time in Russian history, the annual number of deaths has exceeded the number of births.” Compounding these challenges is a rapidly aging population. These trends comprise a national crisis for Russia. Therefore, if the Russians are going to use military force to shape their future, the clock is ticking before they lose the military force structure to effect change. To stem the tide of depopulation and to secure Russian territorial claims in Europe, Russia has been annexing areas with high ethnic Russian populations, to include parts of Georgia, the Ukraine, and possibly the Baltic states in the future.

Chinese Demographics: China has a much different demographic issue. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) One Child Policy has resulted in a serious imbalance in the Chinese population pyramid that will create issues with the government’s ability to care for a rapidly aging population. Additionally, China is suffering from a significant gender imbalance where men outnumber women by 34 million as a result of cultural preferences in Asia. The consequences of this gender imbalance are far reaching, and could cause tensions in the emerging security environment as China seeks to alleviate the societal pressures caused by having millions of men who cannot marry. China may seek to alleviate demographic pressures by encouraging Chinese male emigration and potential military expansion into territories that support strategic Chinese interests overseas.

Chinese Immigration into Siberia

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Figure 6: Why China Will Reclaim Siberia – “Siberia is as resource-rich and people-poor as China is the opposite. The weight of that logic scares the Kremlin.”

Despite the 2001 Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship, the Kremlin remains concerned about Chinese immigration into Siberia. Estimates on the number of Chinese migrants presently in Russian Siberia range up to 500,000 in a region with a population of only 36 million Russians. Fears about Beijing’s long-term designs are resulting in strong anti-Chinese sentiments throughout the Russian Federation. A recent Russian film titled, A Deadly Friend, became an internet hit in 2015. The film claims China is preparing to invade the Russian Far East in a quest for territorial expansion. Chinese tanks could reach the city of Khabarovsk within 30 minutes overwhelming the second largest city in the Russian Far East after Vladivostok. Growing Chinese dominance in the region has some commentators calling it a geopolitical time bomb.

Chinese immigration into Siberia presents a source of tension between Moscow and Beijing that is an important facet of the emerging security environment. To a certain extent, there exists a symbiotic relationship between the Siberian Russian population and Chinese immigrants. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chinese immigrants have provided cheap labor and products to the Russian economy in Siberia. However, Siberians complain of the low-quality Chinese products and are fearful of Chinese immigration, competition, and Chinese organized crime. These dynamics are creating tensions between local Siberians and Chinese immigrants.

Although China signed a diplomatic border agreement with Russia, Moscow remains concerned about the prospect of a Sinification of its Far East. Is Chinese “manifest destiny” into Siberia part of a broader effort to reverse the Century of Humiliation and secure access to natural resources? While many Chinese wish to reunite these annexed territories, China’s relations with Russia are more nuanced than its relations with the rest of Asia as it cannot afford to lose a strategic partner at a time when it is deeply engaged in border disputes on multiple fronts throughout Asia. Therefore, the reclamation of Outer Manchuria will likely remain a long-term goal. This strategy is aimed to avoid straining Sino-Russian relations at a time when China is focused on higher-priority territorial disputes throughout Asia, such as Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Russians are concerned about Chinese designs in the Russian Far East. Russian logic is that Beijing could decide to invade on the basis of Chinese historical and demographic claims. This philosophy is exactly the same as the one Russia adopted when it annexed Crimea. Russia is therefore contradicting its own policy by opposing China’s claim over the Russian Far East.

The local Russian population in the Russian Far East is nervous. The 2001 Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship has done little to reduce the fear that exists between the people who live in Russia and China’s border provinces. Meanwhile, Chinese children are being taught in school that the Russian provinces on the other side of the border, are Chinese. Chinese school textbooks teach them that they were stolen from China during the Century of Humiliation and that these territories will return to China one day in the future, just as Hong Kong and Macau did.

China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative

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Figure 7: Sino-Russian Conflict Over the One Belt, One Road Initiative

Sino-Russian tensions are also on display in Central Asia where Former Soviet Union countries that have traditionally been in the Russian sphere of influence are gravitating towards China on the basis of its ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative that aims to revive and expand the ancient Silk Road trade routes linking China with Europe. Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union cannot compete with China’s Belt and Road initiative. Competition and cooperation between China and Russia are clearly visible in Central Asia.

Chinese companies have invested heavily in Central Asia, building roads, bridges and tunnels across the region, making China the dominant economic power. China has already overtaken Russia in terms of trade with the five Central Asian states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). China has also redrawn Central Asia’s energy economics, becoming a key consumer of Kazakhstan’s oil production and Turkmenistan’s gas exports. Recently China signed billions in gas and uranium deals with Uzbekistan.

Presently, China holds the upper hand in the relationship with Russia, and this power asymmetry will continue to grow at Russia’s expense. Russia and China have more to gain from cooperation than outright competition. As China becomes more assertive in global affairs, its long-term ambitions with respect to Russia are unclear. China will determine the course for the Sino-Russian relationship while Russia will remain a reactive partner. The Sino-Russian relationship is complex, with mutual mistrust on both sides. Despite ambitions for cooperation, the likelihood of substantive results is uncertain, particularly in the Russian Far East and Central Asia.

Beijing accommodates Russian sensitivities regarding the Belt and Road initiative, which promotes China’s economic dominance in Central Asia. Beijing coordinates most security issues in Eurasia with Moscow, although growing Chinese concerns about instability in Central Asia have increased Beijing’s attention to the region, which may cause friction with Moscow.

Water Scarcity in China

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Figure 8: Future Shocks: The Coming Water Wars

Water scarcity presents a looming crisis for China. Another developing trend that will have significant impact on the emerging security environment is the growing water scarcity in Asia. As depicted by the population density chart in Figure 8, China and India are the world’s two most populous countries comprising 40% of the world’s population. The preponderance of fresh water resources supporting human life in China and India are supplied from snowfall and glacial melt coming off of the Hindu Kush and Himalaya mountain ranges. Competition for access to these water resources have already resulted in the Sino-Indian border conflict (see Figure 3).

According to the United Nations, by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water stressed conditions. With the existing climate change scenario, almost half of the world’s population will be living in areas of water stress by 2030. The main causes of the decrease in fresh water supply is population growth, which is further stressing already limited freshwater resources. The emerging security environment in the next decade will likely see conflicts over water access as one of the central trends in the politico-military environment.

China is home to 20% of the world’s population but only has 7% of the world’s fresh water. According the Chinese media, more than 80% of the underground water in the river basins of China is unfit for drinking or bathing because of contamination from industry and farming. Water is the biggest environmental issue facing China. As recently as 20 years ago, there were approximately 50,000 rivers in China. But now, according to China’s First National Census of Water, more than 28,000 of these rivers are missing. To put this number into context, China’s lost rivers are almost equivalent to the United States losing the entire Mississippi River.

80% of China’s water resources are in southern China, while the North China Plain is home to 42% of the Chinese population and only 8% of the country’s water resources, meaning that the northern provinces suffer from acute water scarcity. Chinese President Xi Jinping has made water development of the Beijing/Tianjin/Hebei region in the north a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) priority. The water resources of the people living in Northern China are less than the annual water consumption of Saudi Arabia.

The impending water crisis in China will have ramifications far beyond China’s borders. Former Premier Wen Jiabao said that water shortages threatened the very survival of the Chinese nation. A water crisis in China could further fuel Chinese territorial expansion as the CCP seeks to secure water resources that will pacify its population and ensure regime stability. Bordering countries that have access to water resources include Russia to the north, and India, Bhutan, and Nepal to the South. China might soon find itself forced into wars of survival with neighboring countries based on the water scarcity trends that are presently looming on the horizon. Given the current overpopulation in southern Asia and ongoing competition over scarce water resources, China is more likely to turn its attention northward towards Mongolia and Russia. Considering that Mongolia has limited water resources, Russia will present the most likely target if the water resources within the present Chinese borders can no longer support its population demands.

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Figure 9: Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin toast at the economic forum in Vladivostok.


Given the unprecedented levels of Chinese-Russian defense and security cooperation, it is understandable why some East Asian experts are warning of a Sino-Russia strategic alliance. China and Russia coordinate their international policies, they hold combined military exercises, and they maintain extensive military-technical cooperation; yet the two countries officially deny any intent to create a formal military alliance. Despite improving ties, serious rivalry still drives China-Russia relations.

While concerns over Sino-Russian cooperation vis-à-vis the United States are understandable, the likelihood of a long-term Sino-Russian alliance is largely unfounded based on several sources of growing tension. The confluence of historical territorial strains over Outer Manchuria, Chinese and Russian demographic shifts, Chinese immigration into Siberia, conflicting interests with China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, and water scarcity issues in China all make the prospect of long-term Sino-Russian cooperation unlikely.

Dr. Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the United States Naval War College, suggests that a “Eurasian entente” between China and Russia is not historically determined and a Sino-Russian “Axis of Autocracies” that works to undermine the United States liberal world order is not a forgone conclusion. Despite recent examples of collaboration between the two powers, a sustained alliance between China and Russia is not inevitable.

The United States Intelligence Community’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment focuses on the convergence between China and Russia as they seek to reshape the international system and undermine the United States-led world order. From this perspective it is true that China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s. However, long-term trends are also underway that will introduce systemic shocks and opportunities for divergence that test the Sino-Russian partnership. Without a common enemy, China and Russia are more predisposed to be rivals than allies. These points of divergence present opportunities for the United States and deserve a close examination by national strategic planners.

Kyle “Jäger” Stramblad is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College. Email:

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the United States Government.

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