In 2013, Russia and China began separate aggressions in Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Russia tried to coerce former Ukrainian President Yanukovych to sign a trade deal with them rather than the EU, then annexed Crimea and supported separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass region. Eight years later, Russia is now invading Ukraine since early February 2022, bombing cities such as Kiev, Odessa, Mariupol and recently Zaporizhzhia.
“They (Russians) are our next of kin. How can they do this?... We have their blood and they have ours… We have no electricity, no idea what’s happening around us. My son is fighting in Donbass and I haven’t heard from him for four days. I don’t even know if he’s still alive.” – Elderly women, Zaporizhzhia.
Meanwhile, China began rapidly increasing its military spending to enforce claims in Indo-Pacific waters. China has long contested possession over Taiwan, the South China Sea against the Philippines and Vietnam, and the Senkaku Islands with Japan under the ‘Nine Dash Line’ whilst artificially expanding islands (i.e. the Spratly Islands). Due to this both nations are infamous as ‘aggressors’ and ‘disruptive towards regional security’.
“In our own country, we were not free to fish... Two (Chinese military) speedboats would drive you away. I would tell them this is Scarborough Shoal, this is in the Philippines. The Chinese would say no this is Chinese Territory. Go back.” – Bobong, Filipino Fisherman
“They (China) often send coast guard ships and semi-armed ships to surround, even capture our ships... Even set fire to ships in the area where our fishermen often go.” – Dr. Tra Cong Truc, Vietnam National Boundary Commission
Despite happening on different ends of the world, these are heavily linked issues. They both involve the United States (US) who tries to counterbalance against its traditional Cold War and modern economic rivals simultaneously. In recent years, the US could maintain somewhat peaceful relations with Russia and China whilst prepared for economic aggression and military expansion from either.
However, with the ongoing Russian invasion killing and injuring hundreds of Ukrainians whilst demanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to cease cooperation and involvement, the US may be forced to split focus between Europe and Asia. The timing is unfavourable for the US just launched its Indo-Pacific strategy late last year, sending Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on diplomatic trips to several Southeast Asian countries.
It will be difficult for the US to continue efforts in one region while military crisis spreads in another. This has caused concern among East European and Indo-Pacific countries, fearing Russia and China will exploit the US’ dilemma to further their respective aggressions.
The US cannot realistically shift its focus and resources to one issue completely. Hence it has conducted several efforts to maintain stability and security against both Russia and China. The US along with NATO allies have imposed sanctions to debilitate Russia’s economy and isolate it from global financial systems including the banking transaction system ‘SWIFT’. Without it, Russia will struggle to access its ‘war-chest’ of funds which are significantly kept in euros and dollars, as well as trade smoothly in international markets.
The US has also been preparing against China across the Pacific for years with several new joint-international initiatives. Among them are: The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) including India, Japan and Australia; and the newly launched AUKUS, a military pact with the United Kingdom and Australia. What makes these new treaties and alliances new is their deeper inclusion of regional Asian countries.
In fact, Anthony Blinken’s diplomatic travels last year to Malaysia and Indonesia indicate the US’ desire to further ally with the Indo-Pacific with more concrete agreements. The connective tissue among all these countries includes concerns of open trade and regional security being disrupted by an increasingly aggressive China.
Yet, it cannot be assumed that Russia and China support each other’s actions in the Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific. China is maintaining the image of ‘Communist Solidarity’ and rhetoric of supporting Russia’s Ukrainian invasion by refusing to call it one. In reality however, Chinese banks domestically and in other countries like Singapore have restricted purchasing of Russian commodities after the sanctions from NATO.
China is seemingly neither willing to follow sanctions, nor aid Russia in lightening them. There is a disparity between how Russia and China display their partnership, and the reality of their partnership.
Russia-China relations are mysterious. Other countries even have think-tanks specifically to understand them. What is clear is that it may not stem from shared communist principles, but instead mainly having the US as a common rival. It is more pragmatic and Machiavellian, or cunning.
However, relations without a foundation beyond ‘anti-Americanism’ have limits, that is the low levels of trust between both authoritarian states. Economically, Russia-China trade agreements are restrictive and forbid each other from crucial sectors. For example, European energy powerhouse Russia refuses to get involved with Chinese energy companies, and China rejects Russia from importing regional fish as it exports their own.
They are also politically opposed, disagreeing on who is the ‘bigger sister’ of the communist world. Russia is the elder of the two, previously being the Soviet Union almost 30 before the People’s Republic of China existed, but China leads among communist countries today due to its immensely large and growing economy. In all, Russia-China relations are not as strong as they appear on TV.
We cannot deny how linked Russia’s Ukrainian invasion and China’s Indo-Pacific campaign are. The US, Russia and China all have dilemmas in how they must balance their priorities, and how valuable their partnerships are whilst facing increasing scrutiny from Europe and the rest of the world.
It does however provide a unique opportunity for the international community, especially countries in Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific. If they can convice China to distance from Russia’s invasion, and to join in condemning them by not softening sanctions, Russia’s attack may become stifled economically. Then the US and Indo-Pacific’s efforts to maintain regional security against China may not be compromised.