Rise of the East

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR Putin’s latest visit to Beijing comes at a time when relations between Russia and China appear to have reached new heights.

By Bobo Lo (Geopolitics)

Published: Wed 13 Jun 2012, 9:56 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 3:42 PM

The two countries are lock-step in their support of the Assad regime in Syria. Bilateral trade is flourishing, boosted by the opening of a key oil pipeline. They are cooperating in various international forums – the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the BRICS, and the UN Security Council. And Putin has announced Russia’s intention to catch the “Chinese wind” in its sails.

Yet appearances are deceiving. The self-styled “strategic partnership” may look in the pink of health, but beneath the surface there are serious contradictions. Russia and China differ fundamentally in their views of the world and what they want from each other. These differences do not prevent cooperation in certain areas, but they ensure a relationship that is defined principally by its limitations.

For Moscow, partnership with China serves multiple purposes. It counterbalances the strategic and normative dominance of the United States. It confers on Russia a “success by association,” helping to legitimise Putin’s domestic and foreign policies. It strengthens Moscow’s bargaining position with the West, whether in energy negotiations with the European Union or missile defence talks with Washington. And it allays vulnerabilities about the sparsely populated but resource-rich Russian Far East.

Most importantly, with China by its side Russia feels able to promote itself as global great power, one of the “winners” in a post-American century.

China’s expectations from the relationship could hardly be more different. Its Russia agenda is preventative. It wants to ensure a good neighbour and avoid a spoiling and destabilising presence in Northeast Asia. It seeks a like-minded state to preserve the principle of national sovereignty against Western-led moral universalism and “interference” in its domestic affairs. And it needs Moscow not to oppose its economic and security interests in Central Asia.

The Sino-Russian partnership functions on the principle of mutual convenience. Both sides benefit from a stable interaction, and their different motivations in pursuing cooperation can be masked by the usual expedient of high-sounding declarations about the state of the world and assorted framework agreements and memorandums of understanding.

This accommodation, however, will come under real pressure over the next decade. The biggest weakness is the widening gap between a dynamic China and a non-modernising, politically sclerotic Russia. For all the talk in Moscow about the decline of the West, it is Russia that could be the greatest casualty of the “global shift in power to the East” as it fails to adapt to the demands of a post-industrial age. In these circumstances, the myth of an equal partnership will scarcely be sustainable and historical anxieties about the “China threat” would re-emerge.

In fact, this is already happening. Recent Russian commentary highlights two particular concerns.

The first is that the growing imbalance of power could result in an eventual loss of sovereignty over eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. At the very least, the Chinese would come to dominate the region economically, exploiting its natural resources in a near-colonial relationship.

Second, on a more general level, China’s emergence as the next superpower threatens to reduce Russia to a subordinate player in the international system. Putin’s vision of Russia as an “independent” center of power would be a non-starter in a China-dominated world.

In the meantime, there are more immediate problems. It is easy to overlook in all the summit razzmatazz that Sino-Russian relations lack substance. Moscow and especially Beijing attach far more importance to relations with the West than they do to their own “strategic partnership.” The United States remains the strategic and security benchmark for Moscow; the European Union is by far Russia’s largest trading partner and source of foreign investment, and European civilisation is its chief cultural reference point.

Similarly, for Beijing the United States is the one truly indispensable partner, while the EU is the largest source of foreign trade. Russia, by contrast, accounts for only two per cent of China’s total overseas trade in value terms. There is no sign of this Westerncentric bias abating. Amidst talk about “partnerships for modernisation,” Moscow and Beijing look to the West, not each other, for advanced technology.

The Russia-China relationship is neither an authoritarian alliance nor a genuine strategic partnership. It is a limited partnership sustained by the perception of mutual if asymmetrical gains, and the wisdom to underplay significant differences where they occur.

This interaction has prospered, relatively speaking, because it has not been overtaxed by expectations – unlike Russia-US relations. The Putin regime has reined in anti-Chinese sentiment and taken the flak of Western criticism over Syria, while the Chinese leadership has pandered to Moscow’s great-power cravings. The question is how long can this accommodation last. The combination of tactical convenience, prophylaxis, thin substance and willful self-deception is hardly the stuff of long-term relationships. The time will come when the differences between Russia and China cannot be so easily fudged.

Within the next 10-15 years, China will be the world’s largest economy, a much more confident international player, and almost certainly the leading power in Northeast Asia and Central Asia. How will Russia react to these inconvenient truths? Will it become a 21st century incarnation of a tribute-state, a niche provider of natural resources? Or will it finally abandon the constraints of an anachronistic strategic culture and gravitate once again toward the West, thereby risking a new deterioration in relations with Beijing?

Bobo Lo is an independent analyst


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