Summary: The idea that Russia and China are going to become close allies fails to account for the constraints and geopolitical imperatives of both countries. Neither can be content in a situation where the U.S. has untrammeled power in the world. But that does not change the geography that makes the interests of Beijing and Moscow so different. In this case, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.
The United States is the world's dominant power, and is without peer. But Russia and China are arguably the next two most significant world powers on the list. Russia's economy may be in shambles, and it is in the process of updating its military and rearming for 21st century conflict - but even so, Moscow boasts a formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons and just demonstrated in Syria how effective a limited deployment of Russian troops can be. China now has the second largest GDP in the world, and convulsions in the Chinese economy have global ramifications, as the crisis of the exporters has demonstrated.
U.S. relations with Russia and China have become tense in recent years. The American "reset" of relations with Russia froze with the Ukrainian revolution of February 2014. The U.S.-China relationship is less hostile: there has been ostensible progress on economic issues, on isolating North Korea and levying sanctions against Pyongyang, and even on issues related to climate change. But China's saber rattling in the South China Sea is a challenge for America's Asian allies and a nuisance to the U.S. Nor can the U.S. be comfortable with Chinese President Xi Jinping's moves to affirm his status as Chinese dictator. On the surface, it would make sense for China and Russia to marry their fortunes together. An alliance would create exactly the type of Eurasian force that U.S. policy is designed to thwart. But here, geopolitics asserts itself.
Areas of Increased Cooperation
That Russia and China might seek to increase cooperation to the point of becoming allies is not a red herring argument. On both a macro and a micro level, relations between Russia and China are arguably better today than they have been at any point since World War II. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Sino-Russian relations have improved markedly. The 1991 Sino-Soviet Border Agreement settled many territorial disputes between the two countries - the last of these disputes was addressed in a 2004 agreement that dealt with the eastern section of the border. In 2001, China and Russia signed a Treaty of Friendship, a 20-year agreement that not only provides the basis for peaceful relations, but also has been interpreted as an implicit defense pact.
The countries' ties have accelerated in recent years in three areas: energy, finance and infrastructure/technology. Russia and China flirted with energy cooperation in the past, but in 2013 the two sides signed a number of deals, including a $270 billion oil deal and a joint venture between Rosneft and China National Petroleum Corporation that constituted Russia's first attempt to break into China's gasoline market. Overall, according to the Bank of Russia, Chinese foreign direct investment into Russia increased by a factor of five from 2009 to 2014.
The 2008 financial crisis hit Russia hard and would turn out to be a harbinger for more serious problems to come. Russia once bragged it could survive if oil prices dipped as low as $70 a barrel, which now seems like wishful thinking. The recent March "rally" in oil prices to $40 then just made a catastrophic situation a little easier to swallow. Meanwhile, Moscow's underestimation of the crisis in Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions tacked on after Russia formalized its rule of Crimea drove Russia to look east more than it had in the past. In May 2014, Putin signed a bevy of agreements, though many of these have not moved forward at the anticipated pace. More important for Russia is financing - and this also has picked up. Just last month, Gazprom secured a $2.17 billion loan from the Bank of China, and according to the Bank of Russia, new Chinese loans to the non-financial sector and households in Russia in 2014 totaled $11.6 billion - almost four times as much as Russia's next biggest lender.
On the more mundane level of diplomacy, Russia and China also have seen some of their interests converge. Both have reacted negatively toward recent North Korean nuclear provocations and even signed on to U.S. sanctions against North Korea. But both also see a strong U.S. presence in South Korea, which can be expected to increase over the next decade, as a threat. China is still not quite sure what to do about Russia's Ukraine problem. On the one hand, China has affirmed Ukraine's sovereignty. On the other hand, China does not want to condone the Ukrainian revolution for fear of implicitly lending legitimacy to separatists in places like Taiwan or Tibet. But by and large, China and Russia find themselves, if not on the same side of many issues, pleasantly indifferent to the other's position.
Despite these converging interests, geography and history keep China and Russia from becoming meaningful allies, or enemies for that matter. China and Russia have the sixth-longest international border in the world at roughly 4,209 km (2,615 miles). But that figure is misleading, as is simply looking at the border on a flat map. Russia's major population centers are in the west - the view from Moscow looks out across the North European Plain, not towards the Urals.
The bulk of China's population lives on the coast and drops precipitously west of the line marking 15 inches of annual rainfall. China can be seen as a very densely populated island, surrounded on one side by ocean and on the other side by vast buffer regions of mountains and deserts. Much has been made of China potentially slowly taking over Siberia through demographics. It's unclear how many Chinese people live in Siberia but even if immigration increased wildly, Siberia is far from China's core - Beijing has a hard enough time managing its northwestern Xinjiang territory. China has never in its long history dominated Siberia, and there's no reason to expect it to begin to now.