In an anarchic world, the relationship between China and Russia has emerged as the model of a modern strategic partnership.
The personal dynamic between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin is the warmest between any two world leaders. Bilateral co-operation is expanding, buttressed by several high-profile energy and arms deals. Beijing and Moscow are united in condemning US unilateralism and Western liberal interventionism. And they appear to hold near-identical views on international issues ranging from Ukraine through Syria to the South China Sea.
Such is the impression of Sino-Russian harmony that many in the West have come to view their partnership as an alliance in all but name, and as an existential threat to the US-led global order. Yet this narrative, while plausible, is misleading. Behind the gladhanding, there are important differences in perceptions and interests between Beijing and Moscow. This is no authoritarian entente but a relationship of strategic convenience shaped by individual national priorities that sometimes converge but at other times do not.
For example, although Russia and China agree that the liberal world order is unsatisfactory in many respects, they differ substantially in their overall assessments of it. Moscow's view is unequivocally negative. It sees a system that was imposed on Russia as the loser in the Cold War and that has systematically deprived it of influence and status.
Now, however, it believes this order is in terminal decline and it is committed to expediting its demise by all means possible. To this end, it has sought to undermine and discredit the democratic process in the US; made common cause with far-right parties in Europe; and intervened militarily in Ukraine and Syria.
The Chinese position is notably less revisionist. Beijing seeks reform of the international system, not its destruction. It has no problem with the principle of US leadership, although it insists that this should take into account China's growing role in world affairs.
Beijing's more accommodating stance arises from the recognition that US leadership and Western-style globalisation have been extremely kind to China, helping to transform it from a regional backwater into an incipient superpower in three decades. If Russia has been the biggest casualty of the liberal world order, then China has been its largest beneficiary.
Beijing also worries about the anarchy that may ensue from the shift to a post-American world, and the additional responsibilities it would have to bear. Since he became China's paramount leader in 2012, Xi has pursued a more ambitious foreign policy compared with his predecessors. But global leadership presents an altogether different level of challenge, for which Beijing is far from ready.
Chinese diffidence is compounded by the realisation that any overt challenge to US primacy will increase the chances of a confrontation with Washington — all the more so since Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 US presidential election and the escalation of anti-Beijing rhetoric in Washington.
Since the mid-1990s, Russian and Chinese leaders have called for a new multipolar order and, more recently, a 'polycentric system of international relations'. Such vague formulations mask different visions of global governance. Moscow identifies three independent centres of global power: the US, China and Russia. The complex relations between them would govern the international system. Ideally, the big three would co-manage the world on the basis of great-power consensus. While there would continue to be rivalry between them, this would remain manageable. Russia itself would occupy the position of global swing power, holding the geopolitical balance between the US and China, and being a bridge between East and West.
Beijing, by contrast, subscribes to a bipolar-plus vision in which the US is still pre-eminent and China has emerged as its only true counterpart. The Sino-American relationship with Washington would be the fulcrum of global governance in the 21st century. The US would continue to lead, but China would have a much greater say than before in how the world was run. As for Russia, it would remain an important player, a great power certainly, but not at the level of the US or China.
Thus far, the differences in Russian and Chinese views of multipolarity have been blurred by the acute crisis in Moscow's relations with the West. Who has time for long-term questions of global governance when there are so many more pressing concerns? Accordingly, the Putin regime has kept a lid on its anxieties about China's rise, while the Chinese leadership has been careful to flatter Russian sensibilities.
Nevertheless, there is a clear tension between Putin's view of Russia as a global power on a par with the US and China, and the mainstream Chinese assessment of Russia as a secondary power, one of several adjuncts to the US-China global relationship.
Beijing and Moscow agree that Washington is to blame for much of the instability in today's world. However, they engage with it in markedly different ways. For China, the US stands at the epicentre of its foreign policy. It is at once the strategic benchmark, second largest economic partner after the EU, and primary source of technology. Mindful of this interdependence, Beijing remains committed to maintaining a functional relationship with Washington, however serious their differences may be on individual issues.
This is no guarantee against confrontation. But it does mean that the Chinese leadership's default position towards the US is one of co-operation. Beijing's restraint in response to recent provocative American statements about Taiwan and Chinese trade policy reflects this mindset.
The US is likewise the primary external reference point for Russia. However, their bilateral relationship is meagre, and dominated by contentious security issues such as conflict management in Syria. Neither side has shown much interest in strategic engagement; theirs is essentially a tactical and opportunistic interaction. The lack of a meaningful co-operative agenda has reinforced anti-Americanism in Moscow and anti-Kremlin attitudes within the US establishment.
The scandals over Russian cyber-hacking in the presidential election and the suspect contacts between senior Trump administration figures and the Russian security services have further aggravated matters. Although Trump has declared his intention to reach a deal with Moscow, a rapprochement seems more improbable than ever. Bipartisan opposition in Washington is strengthening, while initial optimism in Moscow that Trump's electoral victory might bring about a thaw in relations has evaporated.
Looking ahead, the most plausible prognosis for Sino-Russian partnership is one of broad continuity. But Beijing and Moscow are unlikely to upgrade their partnership to a bona fide alliance. Putin will persist in his attempts to position Russia as the indispensable power, straddling East and West. Xi will strive to ensure that China's global rise is as smooth and harmonious as possible. And both presidents will continue to value Sino-Russian partnership as an oasis of calm in a turbulent world.
Bobo Lo is an expert in Sino-Russian relations and former head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House. The Lowy Institute will host him for events in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne next week in relation to his forthcoming book, A Wary Embrace, about the China-Russia relationship. (Penguin)