Stories about the increasing synergy in Sino-Russian relations have proliferated over the last few months with Western, Russian, and Chinese analysts unable to agree on the genuine contours of the relationship. However, there exists a consensus that the partnership between Moscow and Beijing has reached a mature phase with broad economic, political, cultural, and security dimensions and stable, institutionalized mechanisms binding the two powers together. These dimensions and mechanisms took twenty years to develop and now form the backbone of what has since 2011 been referred to as a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Sino-Russian Relations and the Lessons of 1996
Sino-Russian Relations and the Lessons of 1996

In an attempt to look at Sino-Russian relations from a different angle, this article will discuss the origins of this “strategic partnership,” a term first used exactly nineteen years ago during the April 1996 bilateral summit held in Beijing between Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Several days after the conclusion of that meeting, Jiang and Yeltsin flew to Shanghai to meet with the leaders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan where they signed an agreement on “confidence building in the military field of border areas.” This led to the formation of the so-called Shanghai-5, a loose coalition that would eventually evolve into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Thus, the framework for both the bilateral and multilateral aspects of the Sino-Russian relationship were created nearly simultaneously. To assess the reasons for this development, we will examine the international balance of power in 1996, explain the domestic political situations in Russia, China and the United States, and determine whether that point in history holds any lessons for today’s policymakers.

1996: Peak of US Hegemony?

For the United States, 1996 marked the beginning of the Internet revolution, the start of the economic boom of the late 1990s, and an election year in which incumbent President Bill Clinton would go on to easily defeat Bob Dole (although this was still far from clear in April). For China, a country well on the way to recovering diplomatically and economically from the post-Tiananmen square sanctions, it was the year in which Premier Jiang Zemin, freed from the grip of an ailing Deng Xiaoping, secured his political power and began to assert himself internationally. For Russia, on the other hand, it was the time of an embarrassing peace treaty with a semi-independent Chechnya, a forced acceptance of NATO enlargement, and an infirm president who most observers thought had no chance of winning the presidential elections in June.

In the early months of 1996, the United States, in the midst of its unipolar moment, asserted itself aggressively in both Europe and Asia. In September 1995, NATO adopted the “basic principals” for accepting Eastern European countries as members. This triggered vociferous protests from Russia and indirectly led to the replacement of Russia’s pro-Western foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, with Evgenii Primakov, a former intelligence officer, diplomat, and strong proponent of Russia seeking an “omnidimensional” foreign policy. Although Kozyrev and Yeltsin had already begun to move away from emphasizing relations with the West, it’s widely agreed that Primakov’s assumption of duties in January 1996 marked a turning point in the direction of Russia’s foreign policy.

Meanwhile, Sino-U.S. relations were marred by the Taiwan Strait crisis. The crisis peaked in December 1995 when Washington, in what has been described as the largest display of U.S. power in Asia since the Vietnam War, retaliated to China’s missile tests near Taiwan by sending Carrier Group Seven, led by the USS Nimitz, through the Taiwan straits. Moreover, in early April 1996, in a move largely interpreted to be a reaction to China’s rise, the United States and Japan agreed to several measures strengthening their security alliance.

It was in this context that Jiang Zemin held his summit meeting with Boris Yeltsin in late April.

Bill Clinton’s aggressive foreign policy in 1996 was at least partially due to the upcoming election and the incessant criticism by his Republican opponents who, deprived of the opportunity to critique the economy, relied on the old method of painting the Democrats as soft on foreign affairs. The upcoming Russian election was even more important in explaining Yeltsin’s foreign policy. The president, dogged by his nationalist/Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov, was desperate to return from China with some good news. While reviewing his notes during his flight to Beijing, Yeltsin suddenly summoned Primakov and demanded that the phrase “constructive partnership,” used to describe the Sino-Russian relationship since 1994, be altered to something more dynamic. Primakov suggested that “strategic partnership” could be applied instead, but cautioned Yeltsin that the Chinese may not agree to such a sudden change in wording. Fortunately, Jiang Zemin placed as much emphasis on the upcoming summit as did Yeltsin and was delighted with the new designation. A giddy Yeltsin returned Moscow to promote a new era in Sino-Russian relations and coasted to re-election two months later. The two powers signed fourteen agreements during the Yeltsin-Jiang summit and declared their intention to develop an “equal, trusting partnership aimed at strategic cooperation in the twenty-first century.” This phrasing was taken a step further exactly a year later, as the 1997 Moscow Summit was highlighted by the announcement of the “Russo-Chinese Joint Declaration on Multipolarity and the Formation of a New Global Order.” The Sino-Russian challenge to the unipolar world had begun.

Yesterday’s Lessons for Today?

In a recent article for The Diplomat, James D.J. Brown warns that the United States should immediately reconsider its policy in Ukraine as its actions are driving Russia and China closer together. While Brown’s assessment is generally correct, the history outlined in this essay shows that domestic variables preclude Washington from changing its approach to Europe and, second, that even if NATO does as Brown suggests and immediately reneges on its intention to eventually accept Georgia and Ukraine, it would still not change the dynamics of the Russian-Chinese partnership. At this point, regardless of U.S. actions, domestic and international factors point to a deepening relationship between Moscow and Beijing for the foreseeable future.

In the United States, Obama is nearing the end of his term in office and is unlikely to change his approach to the Ukraine situation. Such a shift would prompt outrage in Congress and the media, eclipsing Obama’s other foreign policy initiatives. Moreover, Putin’s decision to offer sanctuary to Edward Snowden, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and numerous other real and perceived slights are still too fresh for the Obama administration to attempt reconciliation with the Kremlin. A rapprochement, while possible, would have to wait until a new president with a new mandate takes office in 2017. On the other hand, Obama still has another two years in office – more than enough time for China to make deep inroads into the Russian market, which has thrown its doors open to Beijing in the wake of Western sanctions. This will make Chinese businessmen and state-owned enterprises important stakeholders in the Russian economy. Moreover, the current political situation in Moscow and in Beijing is exactly the opposite of the situation in Washington. Putin and Xi exercise complete control of their respective political systems, reportedly share a good personal relationship, and most importantly are both likely to remain in power for a prolonged duration (until 2022 for Xi, until 2024 for Putin). The shadow of the future thus creates a strong incentive for them to continue cooperating with each other.

Moreover, Russia and China have been slowly enhancing their partnership for decades. Years of public diplomacy initiatives and trust building exercises have helped create a relatively positive image of China in Russia. At a time when the Kremlin-controlled media’s anti-Western rhetoric has reached a fever pitch, average Russian citizens are more open to China than ever before. Lastly, Chinese policymakers and diplomats, accustomed to working with Russians, are well-aware of Russia’s insecurities about being the junior partner in the Sino-Russian relationship and are extremely careful to use rhetoric that implies a cooperation between equals under the paradigm of “new great power relations.” They will continue to do so even as Russia gradually finds itself bandwagoning with China and supporting a Beijing-dominated system in Asia.

Brown is correct in his claim that Washington needs to mend fences with Russia so as to refocus on a revisionist China. Unfortunately, the opportunity to do so may have long since passed. Even if another Clinton finds herself in the White House in 2017, its unlikely that she will be able to turn the clock back to 1996.