The Russian-Chinese relationship has come under greater scrutiny since the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s “deniable intervention” in Ukraine. Commentators have taken on the question of whether Russia and China present a unified, all-encompassing challenge to the West’s domination in international politics and have fiercely debated the prospect and possibility of a fully-fledged Sino-Russian alliance in the not-so-distant future.
Since the late-2000s, Russia and China have taken a number of steps aimed at shifting the existing international order to their advantage, in both its global and regional manifestations. Both powers are pursuing territorial claims (Crimea, the South China Sea), albeit in differentiated forms; they have established new multilateral institutions (such as the BRICS New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, AIIB); they share a similar stance on the normative concepts promoted by the West (such as the responsibility to protect and humanitarian interventions); and they adopt similar positions on international crises (Iran, North Korea). Russia has gone even further, resorting to military interventions in Ukraine and Syria. Moscow and Beijing consistently oppose the promotion of democracy, regard “color revolutions” as Western-led conspiracies, and vow to divide the Internet into “national sectors.” Russia’s military intervention in Syria and China’s successful launch of the AIIB in particular – steps taken in the face of direct U.S. opposition – were interpreted as nails in the coffin of the American “unipolar moment.”
These developments reinforce the argument that a revisionist, anti-Western bloc has emerged, regardless of the absence of any formal political-military alliance between Moscow and Beijing. This reading of Russia and China’s policies does, however, neglect the nuances of the Russian-Chinese relationship and ignores meaningful differences in the two states’ approaches to the current international order. Although the post-Cold War Sino-Russian relationship can be said to have been born out of U.S. primacy and unilateralism, the American factor does not suffice to explain the dynamics of Russian-Chinese ties.
The power gap that emerged in the wake of the global economic crisis of 2008-2009 has redefined the Russian-Chinese relationship. Merely depicting Russia and China as “great powers” or labeling them both as BRICS members conceals the reality of their co-operation – that of a superpower in the making and a great power in relative decline, a decline delayed by high oil prices and an unusual determination to demonstrate its vitality to the outside world. Russia’s political-economic stagnation set against China’s rapid emergence have transformed the Kremlin into the “junior partner.” Russia and China are undergoing a process of accommodating themselves to this enormous shift. Moscow is trying to adapt to China’s rise and newly acquired power, while Beijing is practicing the art of self-restraint. Close co-operation – in such spheres as energy and arms – is fuelling China’s rise, making the asymmetry of the relationship even more pronounced.
Russia and China differ on to a number of fundamental issues of international politics. Although both states despise the U.S. predominance and react allergically to American unilateralism, the extent of their political and economic ties with Washington bear no resemblance to each other. For China, the U.S. is both a rival and a trading partner. For Russia, the U.S. is a political competitor. As a trading nation, China has had much more to gain from the U.S.-led international order than Russia has since the end of the Cold War. As G. John Ikenberry has argued, Beijing remains interested in the stability guaranteed by the U.S. and in paving the way for its own economic successes.
A similar discrepancy can be observed with regard to Moscow and Beijing’s attitudes towards European integration. Both states delight in any weakening of the trans-Atlantic ties and would gladly pull Europe away from the United States. Nevertheless, their approaches to the European Union represent two divergent stances. For Russia, European integration is yet another obstacle in its pursuit of political and economic deals with particular European states. Beijing, while drawing advantage from European divisions, conspicuous by the absence of a common EU policy towards China, is supportive of the success of European integration, if only in the economic sphere. The euro provides a counter-balance for the hegemony of the dollar and the EU itself is much more willing than the U.S. to make room for a rising China in the international order, as was demonstrated by the recent change in the special drawing rights within the IMF.
Depicting Russian-Chinese collaboration as a common challenge to the West also ignores substantial differences in their respective great-power toolboxes and different traditions of employing those toolboxes. The coincidence of Russia’s military intervention in Syria and Xi’s promises to establish a 10-year, $1 billion China-UN peace and development fund could provide no better illustration. At present Russia has primarily military assets. The energy component was lost in the previous decade, mostly due to falling oil prices and the EU’s third energy package. Russia turned out to be incapable of transforming its petrodollars into effective development assistance policy, despite the fanfare with which it was announced in 2007. China’s main means of exerting influence is its checkbook. Beijing hopes to buy stability for money, just as it has been doing in Afghanistan, paying off Taliban leaders in order to discourage them from attacks on Chinese investments. Similarly, China appears wary of deploying its armed forces since, notwithstanding a constant process of modernization, they have not conducted a single mission outside China’s borders since 1979 when they underperformed in the war against Vietnam.
These differences are not intended to suggest that Russia and China are on a collision course that will inevitably lead to conflict. On the contrary, Russian-Chinese co-operation can be expected to increase. Gas pipelines, at least The Power of Siberia, are going to be constructed, albeit with delays and financial losses. China is going to remain the biggest buyer of Russian oil in Asia. Moscow is ready to provide Beijing with advanced weapon systems, as proven by the contracts on S-400 missile complexes and Su-35 fighter jets. Contrary to common opinion, both states have turned out to be adept at limiting their competition and at introducing a division of labor in their shared neighborhood, such as Central Asia. China has made Russia a stakeholder in its New Silk Road (One Belt, One Road) mega-project and has refrained from challenging Russia’s political primacy in the post-Soviet space. Beijing carefully dispenses great-power respect to the Kremlin in regular doses. Moreover, China needs Russia on the international scene more than any other partner. Russia remains the only state in BRICS with which China shares not only a non-democratic political system, but – more importantly – a great-power identity. Neither India, Brazil nor South Africa are able to offer substantial political support to China on the international stage. These states lag Russia in terms of material capabilities (military potential) and institutional arrangements (a permanent seat on the UN Security Council). Moreover, they lack the determination to challenge or resist U.S. primacy.
Nonetheless, closer ties between Russia and China do not mean that the two constitute a common challenge to the West. Russia and China have different takes on international politics. The Chinese Communist Party needs a conducive external environment in order to continue selling its whole range of goods (from low- to high-end, such as high-speed trains), exporting the overcapacity of its industry, and offering loans from its overflowing coffers of U.S. dollars. Moscow has shown itself able to thrive on insecurity and instability – although it ultimately threatens Russia itself, the current “new world disorder” is regarded by the masters of the Kremlin as the West’s problem rather than its own. Consequently, Moscow and Beijing aspire to change the existing international order in different directions. China needs another wave of globalization; the New Silk Road concept’s ultimate goal is to secure this. The One Belt, One Road is a Chinese version of the late-19th century American open door policy, one that aims to prevent other states from locking themselves up in forms of regional economic integration. Russia acts to the contrary, striving to build a fence around its post-Soviet peripheries and isolating it from the outside world. The U.S. and Europe face two challenges of different natures that need to be tackled simultaneously.
Marcin Kaczmarski is Assistant Professor at the Institute of International Relations, University of Warsaw, and the Head of the China-EU Programme at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), Warsaw. His main research interests include Russia-China relations, Russia’s foreign policy and broader issues of rising powers’ place in international politics. He has published in Problems of Post-Communism and Demokratizatsiya. His monograph, Russia-China Relations in the Post-crisis International Order was published by Routledge (2015).