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'A Wary Embrace': Response to Stephen Blank

A member of the People's Armed Police in front of a portrait of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing (Photo: Qilai Shen/via Getty Images)
A member of the People's Armed Police in front of a portrait of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing (Photo: Qilai Shen/via Getty Images)
Published 8 May 2017 10:58    0 Comments

Stephen Blank's very generous comments on A Wary Embrace arrived too late to cover in my response to the original contributions in The Interpreter debate. But he brings up a number of additional points that deserve a reply.

The nature of the China-Russia relationship

Blank somewhat mischaracterises my summation of the Sino-Russian partnership as 'a tactical rather than principled relationship'. In my earlier book, Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing, and the New Geopolitics, I wrote (p.54) of an interaction that combined 'tactical expediency with strategic calculus and long views' – a judgement I reaffirm in A Wary Embrace (p.108). The point is that this is a complex relationship that cannot be encapsulated by standard formulations such as 'strategic partnership' and 'authoritarian entente'. Instead, it is a 'relationship of strategic convenience' that has major achievements to its credit, but also labors against significant constraints (p.139).

The durability of the partnership

Blank poses the critical question of how the Sino-Russian partnership has survived the growing asymmetry of capabilities between the two sides. A Wary Embrace directly addresses this issue. It notes that 'both sides understand that they are better off emphasising the positives and … underplaying their differences' (p.109). Despite overblown claims of strategic and normative convergence, and the limitations of the relationship, 'the balance sheet is largely positive, and Beijing and Moscow are committed to making things last' (p.130).

Moscow's concerns about the strategic challenge posed by China are real, but also long-term and often nebulous. As such, they have been pushed into the background by more urgent priorities. By contrast, the Kremlin sees the US as the 'first enemy' – a perception that has barely changed with Donald Trump in the White House.

For its part, Beijing is committed to nursing a relationship that favours it in key respects. It understands there is far more to gain by accommodating Russian sensitivities than by adopting an overtly competitive approach. The painful experience of Western policy-makers with Moscow has shown that 'even a "weak" Russia has the capacity to cause plenty of trouble' (p.137).

The Sino-Russian partnership works as well as it does because both sides see it as beneficial. They also recognise that the alternative to cooperation is fraught with risk and anxiety. However, Beijing and Moscow have few illusions about each other, for all their flowery rhetoric. This is a partnership driven not by normative convergence – the 'authoritarian international' that Blank and others speak of – but by cold-blooded strategic calculus and concrete interests.

The Xi-Putin dynamic

It has become de rigueur to highlight the special relationship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. This is closer and warmer than most interactions between world leaders, although Chinese scholars tend to underplay this aspect compared to their Russian and Western counterparts. We should not, however, overestimate the personal factor. Sino-Russian partnership was already on a steady upward trajectory during the era of Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao (2004-12), with whom Putin had no particular rapport. Conversely, the cordial dynamic between George W Bush (2001-09) and Putin was unable to check the sharp deterioration of US-Russia relations.

A good rapport at the highest level may facilitate a relationship, but only very rarely (if at all) does it alter the fundamentals. The China-Russia relationship works not so much because Xi and Putin like each other, although that clearly helps, but because cooperation is seen to serve the interests of both parties.

Blank reiterates the popular, but implausible, claim that Xi has been 'influenced by Putin's example to establish himself as the strongest ruler in China since Mao'. In fact, there are far more compelling reasons why Xi has systematically consolidated his personal power since becoming President in 2012: a strong individual sense of mission; a long-standing commitment to national 'greatness' (exemplified by the slogan 'China Dream'); a reformist zeal notably absent in Putin's Russia; and several thousand years of Chinese authoritarian tradition.

The US factor

Blank suggests that I have given too much emphasis to the role of the US in influencing the course of the Sino-Russian relationship. Yet he also argues that their 'ideological, political and institutional partnership' is a defensive response not only to US power, but also to 'any form of liberalism'. It is hard to see this comment as anything other than de facto acknowledgment that US soft and hard power has been the main driver of Sino-Russian partnership. While some observers might be inclined to raise a shout for European liberalism, the reality is that Kremlin narratives on the conflict in Ukraine, NATO enlargement, and Euro-Atlantic security have consistently portrayed the Europeans as being in thrall to Washington, with little independent voice of their own.

Domestic influences

Some Western commentators assume that one big authoritarian regime thinks and behaves much like another. Blank largely avoids this trap, highlighting a crucial distinction between Chinese and Russian governance – 'whereas Chinese politicians may be corrupt, in Russia corruption is the system'. He also suggests that the leadership in Beijing is more committed to privileging the national interest over private interests. It is difficult, however, to square such views with his claim that Beijing and Moscow have achieved an 'ideological consensus of the "authoritarian international"'. For while they agree on the primacy of sovereignty and national prerogatives, so too do Washington and London – as we have seen very clearly in recent months.

More generally, Blank believes that I neglect the domestic dimension of the relationship. But is that really so? I note Moscow's historical anxiety about the vulnerability of the Russian Far East (p.25), and the catalytic effect on cooperation of the anti-Putin protests of 2011-12 and the accession of Xi (pp.13-14). I refer to the potentially game-changing consequences of rising nationalism, regime instability, and economic conditions (pp.131-32). And I conclude that the future of the relationship 'may depend less on the international context … than on what happens inside China and Russia' (p.139).

A compliant Russia

Blank asserts that Russia has made major concessions to China in several areas – the Arctic, weapons sales, relations with other East Asian countries, and in Southeast Asia. In my view, he overestimates the significance of these concessions. For example, Russia may have allowed China to acquire observer status in the Arctic Council, but this is hardly a game-changer. As a mere observer, China has no voting rights, and was only admitted as part of a larger intake of observer states, along with Japan, South Korea, India, Singapore, and Italy. There has been zero movement in the core Russian position that only Arctic littoral states may decide the future of the region.

In A Wary Embrace, I acknowledge that the 'idea that Russia would sell its most advanced weaponry to China was almost inconceivable only a few years ago' (p.35). But it is a stretch to claim, as Blank does, that this shift is due to the narrowing of Russia's options. One of the features of recent Russian arms sales to Asia is their growing diversification. Moscow not only continues to sell large quantities of weapons to traditional customers, such as India and Vietnam, but it is also expanding into new markets in Southeast Asia. In this area at least it is operating from a position of strength, not weakness.

Blank rightly notes the growing Sinocentrism of Russian policy toward Asia. Yet it is questionable whether this has much, if anything, to do with Chinese pressure. True, on the Korean peninsula 'Moscow is virtually out of the running as a serious interlocutor in the current crisis'. But then again was it ever in the running? Certainly not for some decades. Similarly, Putin's refusal to make serious concessions to Japan is born not of a feeling of strategic dependence on China, but the conviction that ceding territory to Japan is incompatible with Russia's self-image as a global great power.


In considering the longer-term future of the relationship, it would be wise to keep an open mind, especially given the ongoing chaos in US decision-making and a volatile international environment. We should be wary of assuming either that China and Russia are growing seamlessly into an authoritarian alliance or, on the contrary, are destined for confrontation. Nothing is inevitable, and there is considerable scope for strategic shocks to alter the 'normal' course of events (p.118). Amidst all this uncertainty, however, one thing is clear. China and Russia still have much to do if they are to change the basis of their 'strategic partnership' from today's pragmatic self-interest to a deeper and more lasting convergence.

Despite encroachments, China is still Russia’s preferred partner

Published 21 Apr 2017 15:46    0 Comments

This post is part of a debate on Bobo Lo's Lowy Institute Paper A Wary Embrace. Other debate posts can be found here.

Bobo Lo's new Lowy Institute Paper on Russo-Chinese relations dazzles with the brilliance, clarity of thought, precision, and vigour we have come to expect from his work. This essay should be required reading for those who would seek to plumb the depths of this critical relationship and of Russian and Chinese foreign policies.

Lo is certainly right to say that the most dynamic factor in this relationship is the growing imbalance in aggregated power between Russia and China, whereby China is outstripping Russia in most if not all indices of power and capability. He argues that this dynamism and the consequences that ensue from it are placing the relationship under ever-increasing stress. Thus he sees it as a tactical rather than principled relationship or partnership, and dismisses, as do most writers, the idea of an actual alliance appearing anytime soon.

However, despite the many virtues and scintillating insights, the essay fails to answer why, if there is a power asymmetry (and most assuredly there is), the relationship has been a durable feature of world affairs for the last 25 years. Neither does his assessment explain why leaders like China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeatedly state that bilateral relations between them have reached 'a historic maximum', are stronger than they ever have been and are based on mutual interests and not external factors like a shared antipathy to the US. Certainly those statements are not just pro forma utterances or words spoken purely for purposes of politeness or domestic consumption. If the irritants and divergences in this relationship are as strong and widespread as Lo suggests, then its continuation is a mystery, as it would appear to be of decreasing utility or benefit to both states.

In accordance with Wang Yi's statement, some authors who have written on this relationship (including this author) argue that it has become or is on the verge of becoming an alliance. Russia has frequently openly solicited one, and there are Russian analysts who clearly believe that an alliance is possible and maybe even desirable. There are Chinese analysts like Yan Xuetong who openly call for it. Moreover, as Wang Yi suggests, the basis for this alliance increasingly is the similarity in political structure and self-presentation or self-representation of the Chinese and Russian state to foreign and domestic audiences. Furthermore, over the years a solid network of bilateral or intergovernmental contacts, regular meetings, and agreements has grown, giving this relationship a considerable degree of institutional and legal solidarity. In the military sphere, as Marcin Kaczmarski pointed out back in 2008:

The scale of cooperation between Russia and China is reflected in the extensive infrastructure of dialogue between the two states. Regular contacts are maintained at nearly all levels of central authority. Political dialogue takes place within an extensive framework for bilateral consultations, including meetings of Heads of State held several times a year (at least once a year on a bilateral basis, and also during several multilateral meetings); meetings of prime ministers and foreign ministers; consultations on strategic stability (at the level of deputy foreign ministers); consultations on military cooperation (at the level of defense ministers); and consultations on security issues (between national security advisors since 2005).

Thus we need to understand why this relationship (if not alliance) endures. One key to understanding what drives it is to take Wang Yi's remarks seriously and emphasise the endogenous factors within each state rather than focus exclusively on the exogenous factors, beginning with resentment of Washington. As Gilbert Rozman has masterfully shown, while the original impulse for rapprochement may have been fear of US power, it is increasingly the converging domestic self-identification and self-presentation of these two states as sovereign, authoritarian, would-be imperial legatees who are threatened by not only US power but by any form of liberalism that has brought them together in an ideological, political and institutional partnership.

The ensuing combination of strong ideological-political affinity and the widely reported personal affinity between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin also fosters an enduring community of both political and material interest between institutions and powerful elites in both countries. Thus Igor Sechin, the powerful boss of Rosneft, has invested enormous time and effort to obtain Chinese investments (and no doubt bribes) for his prize asset Rosneft – any study of Russo-Chinese energy relations will soon reveal Rosneft's deep involvement in them, while Gazprom has clearly been a reluctant player. The same may be said for the Russian military. Not only did Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and his deputy Anatoly Antonov openly solicit an alliance with China in 2014 in Beijing, Shoigu recently stated that the 'attempts of the US-led West to impede the establishment of a new, fair world order are leading to growing chaos...Russia's strategic partner is the People's Republic of China'. Similarly, many analysts have argued that President Xi Jinping is influenced by Putin's example to establish himself as the strongest ruler in China since Mao.

Finally, more attention to the endogenous factors driving these two states together (and potentially apart if Lo's forecasts are true) might help explain why the power asymmetry between them is so critical a factor, and even why it has occurred. Even though these are both highly authoritarian and corrupt regimes with a strong sense of state nationalism and imperial entitlement, it's clear that China functions more effectively to aggrandise power than Russia – this was true even before Russian aggression against Ukraine further aggravated the structural causes of Russian stagnation. Thanks to that stagnation it would appear that Russia's economy has not grown by any appreciable amount since 2008. Inasmuch as Russia only bounced back to 1990 level of GDP by 2007, this means another decade of stagnation, gien the continuing absence of reform. Meanwhile China continues to grow, albeit at a slower rate than before.

One explanation that could also shed light on the Russo-Chinese relationship is that while Chinese elites are corrupt or at least have been, nothing in Russian politics would permit the visible anticorruption campaign now being launched by Xi Jinping. Whereas Chinese politicians may be corrupt, in Russia corruption is the system – the only way the government could function. But that systematic corruption also means that private interests prevail as often as not, whatever state rhetoric may say about the national interest. The presence of powerful private interests like Sechin and the military (no doubt lubricated with Chinese money) inhibits any effort at formulating an objective assessment of Russia's true national interest. China's rescue of Rosneft from the consequences of its own predation, and its more focused sense of national interest compared to Russia's, may go some way to explaining the power asymmetry rightly emphasized by Lo.

Finally, Lo's avoidance of the domestic factor may contribute to his failure to realise that even though Russia's options are narrowing (which he recognises and acknowledges), it has had to abandon past policy positions due to the growing dependence on China. In the Arctic, Russia opposed Chinese entry into the Arctic Council but had to accept it; it now sells China weapons that it never would have sold it before; and it signs energy contracts at prices that remain a state secret, suggesting a very small profit margin for Russia. It has acknowledged China's economic primacy in Central Asia and solicited Chinese shows of naval force in the Mediterranean, a theatre Russia hitherto considered its own. All these facts may well grate on the Russian imperial consciousness, but they are part of the ideological consensus of the 'authoritarian international' that now dominates the relationship, or at least pervades it. Since the purpose of Russian foreign policy is to create a secure environment for the continuation and development of state power, the material and ideational incentives point to a continuation of this relationship, even as the imbalance of power grows and creates strains that might, in time, undermine it.

The so-called Russian pivot to Asia reflects this reality. On Korea, Moscow is virtually out of the running as a serious interlocutor in the current crisis. It refuses to make concessions to Japan, despite five years of Tokyo running after it. In Southeast Asia, despite Lo's argument, one can discern a clear evolution of Russian thinking away from its previous non-aligned stance to one considerably more in tune with Beijing's arguments. Lo argues against a 'complicit Russia', and that may be true. But to do so he has to ignore a dependent Russia that nonetheless preserves and may even expand its relationship with China, not only because it has shrinking choices but also because preservation of the regime is the alpha and omega of the regime's policies at home and abroad.

China may encroach on Russian policy interests, but as long as it does not challenge the fundamental system of rule in Russia (as the US does by virtue of its basic character), then it will remain a preferred partner if not an ally to Russia, even as those Chinese encroachments further weaken its ability to resist China. Indeed, the wholesale corruption of the Russian system plays into Beijing's hands as it not only enfeebles the state's long-term capabilities, it also creates lasting points of leverage for China within Russian politics and economics.

Therefore, for all its brilliance this essay remains, so to speak, impaled on the common belief in what German historians used to call Primat Der Aussenpolitik ('the primacy of foreign policy'). The result is brilliant, but incomplete. To the degree that we are able to assess the interplay of domestic political forces with external ones, then we will be able to get a fuller picture of this relationship that more completely captures its many riddles and paradoxes, among them its durability in a time of accelerating global dynamism.

‘A Wary Embrace’: The author responds

Photo: Getty Images/Sasha Mordovets
Photo: Getty Images/Sasha Mordovets
Published 20 Apr 2017 11:07    0 Comments

This post is part of a debate on Bobo Lo's Lowy Institute Paper, 'A Wary Embrace'. Other debate posts can be found here.

In their excellent responses to my Lowy Institute Paper, A Wary Embrace, Kyle Wilson, Peter Rutland, Alexander Gabuev, and Marcin Kaczmarski raise a number of interesting points. I will frame my response around several broad themes: benchmarks for judging progress in the Sino-Russian partnership; the issue of asymmetry; authoritarianism in China and Russia; tensions in the relationship; the foreign policy agendas of Beijing and Moscow; and the implications for Western interests and the liberal world order.


Alexander Gabuev considers the key question of how one should measure the progress in China-Russia relations over the past two decades. He argues that comparing this to either America's ties with its European and Asian allies, the US-China economic relationship, or Russia's trade with Europe is setting the bar artificially high. Instead, he calls for the the partnership to be judged by its own lights, and concludes that it 'is becoming deeper and the level of trust…is growing.'

I have some sympathy for this view, and indeed in A Wary Embrace I note that bilateral cooperation 'has never been better', and that 'by any standards, the expansion of the Sino-Russian partnership has been impressive'. That said, we should not discount external comparisons, especially given the propensity – in Moscow, Beijing, and Western capitals – to assign to the relationship an epic significance and likemindedness that is at odds with reality. Unlike Gabuev, there are many who believe that it does constitute a 'new axis of like-minded authoritarian regimes'. It is important, therefore, to bring a sense of proportion.

Asymmetry and compliance

Marcin Kaczmarski argues that the growing inequality between China and Russia has proved no bar to effective cooperation. It is true that economic ties have expanded, and that Beijing and Moscow agree on many things, such as the undesirability of a 'unilateralist' US, and opposing liberal interventionism. Yet Kaczmarski underestimates the 'drag' effect of asymmetry on the relationship. It has proved a major constraint on gas cooperation, and continues to be so notwithstanding the 'landmark' gas supply agreement of May 2014. Similar anxieties have restricted development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Russian fears of Chinese economic power have ensured that this body remains largely ineffectual more than a decade after its establishment.

Beijing and Moscow are also in the early stages of an increasingly unequal interaction, so that the effects of their asymmetry have yet to play out. The Chinese economy may be eight times larger than Russia's, but Russia is by far the greater military power. Notwithstanding Xi Jinping's globalist outlook, Russia enjoys a higher profile on many international political and security issues – in the Middle East, Europe, and the UN Security Council. The situation is changing, but Kaczmarski's claim that China and Russia have 'avoided falling into the Thucydides trap' is at best premature.

This is all the more so when there is a third player in the arena – the world's sole superpower. It is not that Moscow is relaxed about China's rise, but that this challenge pales by comparison with the 'clear and present danger' posed by a still preeminent US. There is no basis for supposing that Russian attitudes towards the emergence of a potential new hegemon in the form of China would be any less hostile than they are to the current global leader.

It is important not to confuse inequality and weakness with compliance. Kaczmarski rightly notes China's growing influence in Central Asia. However, this has less to do with Russian acquiescence than with Moscow's diminishing capacity to come up with an attractive alternative to Chinese soft power. The Eurasian Economic Union compares poorly to the Silk Road Economic Belt, but this does not mean Moscow is reconciled to the prospect of China becoming the leading power in Eurasia. Western governments and institutions were guilty of a similar misperception in the 1990s and early 2000s. Then, Russia's impotence in the face of NATO and EU enlargement misled many into thinking it had come to terms with the loss of strategic influence and status.

Modes of authoritarianism

Kyle Wilson highlights the authoritarian similarities between Xi's China and Putin's Russia, noting in particular the 'martial and social-control infrastructures that underpin authoritarianism'. Gabuev extends this idea to argue that it makes them 'natural partners in constructing an international order that values sovereignty over universal norms', while also offering 'a ready template that authoritarian governments around the world can follow'.

But is this really so? True, Xi and Putin are strong leaders who prioritise central control and the primacy of the state. Yet the Chinese and Russian political systems are very different from one another. The former, notwithstanding Xi's consolidation of personal power, remains a Leninist party-bureaucratic state. Russia, on the other hand, is an ultra-personalised system with feeble or non-existent institutions. Xi has pursued a vigorous modernisation agenda, whereas Putin has sought refuge in retro 'national-patriotic' values based on the nineteenth-century trinity of a dominant Kremlin, an ultra-conservative Russian Orthodox Church, and strident nationalism.

The differences in authoritarian governance between China and Russia influence their approaches to global governance, something that has become very evident since the election of Donald Trump as US president. Beijing and Moscow may talk up national sovereignty – as do many Western democratic leaders (witness Brexit) – but it is inconceivable that Putin would respond to the Trump challenge by positioning himself, as Xi as done, as a leader in efforts to tackle global climate change and defend free trade. But then that is hardly surprising given Russia's dependence on fossil fuels, acute discomfort with globalisation, and emphasis on military might as the primary means of power projection.

Tensions and insecurities

Unlike other contributors to this debate, Peter Rutland believes I may be 'underestimating the scope for a clash of both interests and world-views between Beijing and Moscow'. He argues that the increasingly globalist nature of Chinese foreign policy, extending from the Arctic to the Pacific, offers considerable scope for increased tensions.

This is a real possibility, particularly as the gap in capabilities between the two 'strategic partners' widens. However, it is also a process that will take some time to play out. Today, both sides attach considerable value to their generally constructive engagement. This calculus may change, but not soon – especially given the extraordinary unpredictability of Trump's foreign policy, with its 180 degree turns on a raft of issues ranging from Syria through NATO to Taiwan.

Wilson raises the issue of lingering threat perceptions in Russia towards China. The border may have been formally settled, but there is an enduring reluctance in China to recognise this as a historically just outcome. That may be so. Yet it would be a big stretch for these largely latent sentiments to translate into irredentist ambition. Beijing has far more compelling priorities, both within the partnership and more broadly in its foreign policy. China also recognises that Russia, despite its relative decline, retains the capacity to inflict considerable damage on the interests of others should it be so moved – as recent events in the Middle East have shown.


This leads naturally to the question of the larger strategic agendas in Beijing and Moscow. Kaczmarski asserts that Moscow's 'turn to the East' has been 'crippled', giving way instead to an overweening Sinocentrism. That the turn to the East has under-achieved is undoubtedly true. However, I am reluctant to dismiss its prospects altogether. For example, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is due to visit Russia at the end of this month. While only the most starry-eyed optimist would expect progress on the territorial dispute, the visit underlines that Putin is keen to maintain functional relations with other Asian countries, if only to minimise Russia's strategic dependence on China. Such efforts may well fail, but it would be rash to conclude that Putin has called time on the quest for a more balanced Asia policy. The emphasis on projects such as the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok suggests the opposite.

In this connection, I would take issue with Rutland's claim that there is 'no significant domestic lobby inside Russia for Putin's "pivot to Asia"', and that it is seen as a 'temporary manoeuvre'. In fact, there is considerable consensus on the need for Russia to engage more productively with the Asia Pacific, even while it retains a Western-centric outlook. The challenge, though, is to convert high-sounding rhetoric into substantive achievement.

Implications for the world order

Gabuev identifies a number of areas of Sino-Russian interaction that he judges should concern the West. They range from general questions of global governance and authoritarian models to more specific policy issues, such as Russian arms sales to China, Chinese economic and technological support to Russia, and cooperation in cyber development and countering missile defence. He cites these as examples of 'tactical and opportunistic cooperation' that come 'at the expense of the Western-led international order'.

There are two points to make in response. The first is that Western interests and norms are challenged less by the Sino-Russian partnership than by China and Russia acting individually. Beijing's assertiveness in the South China Sea threatens to further destabilise an already precarious regional environment, but Moscow's role here is insignificant (claims that Sino-Russian naval exercises have encouraged Beijing's aggressive actions are implausible). Similarly, Beijing has been entirely peripheral to Moscow's annexation of Crimea, military interventions in southeast Ukraine and Syria, and interference in democratic processes in the US and Europe.

Second, the main threat to the liberal world order comes from the failings of Western governments and institutions themselves. Neither China nor Russia was responsible for the global financial crisis and the massive damage it inflicted on the political and moral credibility of the West. Likewise, they had little or no involvement in some of the biggest debacles of Western policymaking in recent years, such as the military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and the collective European failure to address the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Today, for all the legitimate concerns about the excesses of Chinese and Russian behaviour, we should be more worried about the impact of a US president who has made no secret of his profound distaste for the liberal world order, and who has already undertaken a number of steps to undermine it. Sabotaging efforts to combat global climate change, or undertaking unilateral military interventions from the Middle East to Northeast Asia, are likely to be far more destructive to the liberal order than anything Beijing and Moscow can conceive, let alone as a non-existent authoritarian entente.

How China and Russia avoided the Thucydides trap

Photo: Getty Images/Sovfoto
Photo: Getty Images/Sovfoto
Published 11 Apr 2017 08:21    0 Comments

This post is part of a debate on Bobo Lo's Lowy Institute Paper A Wary Embrace. Other debate posts can be found here.

With every energy or arms trade deal and joint veto in the UN Security Council, the question of whether Russia and China have formed an alliance becomes more salient. These two states' shared opposition towards Western political values and norms and their rejection of the US claim to primacy prompt commentators to see their close ties as the key challenge to the liberal international order.

In his recent Lowy Institute Paper A Wary Embrace, Bobo Lo remains sceptical about the prospect of a genuine Moscow-Beijing entente. He argues that the two states do not act as a coordinated geopolitical force, but remain driven by selfish national interests. For Lo, the essential character of the relationship remains unchanged since the post-Cold War reconciliation, despite deepening Sino-Russian cooperation. Moscow and Beijing's emphasis on the unprecedented quality of their relations serves as an element of strategic communication. Building the image of close mutual ties, both states aim first and foremost to improve their relative positions with respect to the West.

Such diagnosis of the Russian-Chinese relationship does not, however, do justice to the evolution of Moscow-Beijing cooperation. Since the global financial crisis, Russia has gradually acquiesced to China's growing power in all three dimensions: bilateral, regional and global. This major shift remains unaccounted for in Bobo Lo's analysis. The soaring asymmetry between the two states has not dissuaded Moscow from deepening its cooperation with Beijing – rather than balance or at least hedge against China's rise, Russia has chosen to embrace it even closer.

In the mid-2000s, there were numerous obstacles to developing closer ties. Russia made genuine attempts to avoid dependence on China. In planning its oil and gas exports to Asia, Moscow reached out to Japan, South Korea and other potential customers. Russia was also unwilling to provide China with the most advanced weapons, leading to a stalemate in arms trade. It was also vocal about its discontent with China's attempts to reverse engineer Russian military technology. Moscow felt uncomfortable with China's growing influence in Central Asia and attempted to offset Beijing by establishing itself as a fully-fledged participant of East Asian politics.

Today, Russia's ties with Asia are centred on China in multiple areas, including geopolitics, security and defence cooperation, trade, arms sales, and energy exports. Russia has resumed exports of advanced arms to China. The existing and planned oil and gas pipelines are mostly bound for China – Russia is now China's largest supplier of crude oil. Joint naval exercises have been tailored first and foremost to meet Beijing's strategic needs. The unintended consequence of ever closer relations with China has been a reduction in Russia's capacity to establish deeper ties with other Asian states. In effect, Moscow's policy of turning to the East has been crippled.

Russia's acquiescence to Chinese pre-eminence has been even more conspicuous in Central Asia. Beijing has established itself as the key economic partner for Central Asian states, seriously diminishing Moscow's leverage over the region. China has built new oil and gas pipelines and opened its market for Central Asian energy resources. China has locked in most of Central Asian gas supplies for its own needs, replacing Russia in this role. Loans from Beijing enabled Turkmenistan to resist Russian pressure during the so-called 2009 'gas war'. Russia attempted to regain initiative in Central Asian politics by creating a regional economic bloc in the form of the Eurasian Economic Union but, faced with China's Silk Road Economic Belt project, Moscow ultimately gave in and the two states agreed to reconcile their projects. China's successes in Central Asia are even more acute when compared with Russia's unimpressive record in East Asia.

Russia's adaptation to the asymmetry in its relationship with China stands in stark contrast to Moscow's clash with the European Union over Ukraine and Eastern Europe in general. It is even more surprising given Russian policymakers' pride in following the Realpolitik tradition, according to which they react to capabilities rather than intentions of other states. The Russian elite's readiness to accept the growing inequality in relation with China can be ascribed to the process of mutual learning. The relationship has survived several difficult tests: China's emergence as the key player in Central Asia, the Russian-American reset under Barack Obama, Russia's annexation of Crimea, and the intersection of two regional initiatives in Eurasia. Beijing has managed to convince Moscow that China's rise does not pose a threat to Russia's ruling elite. Demonstrating self-restraint and some willingness to take Russia's interests into consideration, Chinese policymakers have successfully avoided falling into the Thucydides trap and prevented a backlash from a former great power over which they have been steadily gaining the upper hand.

China and Russia: Friends with strategic benefits

Photo: Getty Images/Sasha Mordovets
Photo: Getty Images/Sasha Mordovets
Published 7 Apr 2017 08:08    0 Comments

This post is part of a debate on Bobo Lo's Lowy Institute Paper A Wary Embrace. Other debate posts can be found here.

Is the relationship between China and Russia just an axis of convenience – a limited partnership with no real empathy between the two parties, spiced by deep-seated and well-hidden mutual mistrust? Or is it an emerging alliance of revisionist authoritarian powers which marries Beijing’s growing economic power with Russia's brazenness to challenge the international liberal order? And more importantly, what are the challenges posed by growing rapport between China and Russia to Western interests and leadership?

To address these questions, one needs to unwrap the Sino-Russian relationship from many layers of myth, spin-doctoring, and old wisdom projected onto current developments.

To arrive at a realistic assessment, a comparative benchmark is important. It's easy to dismiss progress in Sino-Russian relations once one starts to compare hard realities to propaganda on both sides. Another way is to argue that partnership between Beijing and Moscow is not deep and thus the West shouldn't fret about it. We can do this by comparing Sino-Russian economic ties to China's trade with the US, or by contrasting military cooperation between the two powers to US-led alliances in Europe and Asia. One soon arrives at fairly predictable conclusions – virtually any relationship that China might establish with Russia cannot compare. In the same vein, for Russia, no economic relationship with China can substitute for its dependence on European markets.

This static, black and white picture, so common in many Western capitals, obscures important developments in Sino-Russian relations, which start to surface once one tries to compare current developments to the state of the ties some years ago before the global financial crisis and Crimea annexation. One of the many merits of Bobo Lo's Lowy Institute Paper, A Wary Embrace, is that he has included post-Crimea developments in his analysis.

Scarce and misleading data is another obstacle for an inquisitive scholar of Sino-Russian ties. Take, for example, Chinese investment in Russia. According to a Chinese Ministry of Commerce announcement, China's cumulative investment in Russia since 1991 stands at $14.2 billion – a farthing compared to Western investments during the gilded age of the commodities boom. However, this figure is deceptive since it doesn’t include transactions through offshore jurisdictions. Beijing has recently calculated a more realistic figure by polling Chinese companies that have invested in Russia. As a result, the Chinese have arrived at US$40 billion of cumulative investment by the end of 2016, with about quarter coming after the Crimea annexation.

Rigorous cross-checking of data, verification of claims made by officials and businesspeople on both sides (including conversations by the very same people with their Western counterparts, which provide different facts than in face-to-face Sino-Russian meetings) show a complex and dynamic picture, well presented in Lo’s A Wary Embrace. This is a picture of deepening ties between Eurasia’s two largest powers, and a growing asymmetrical interdependence between them in which Russia is the needier partner. The relationship remains transactional and rocky, and expectations on both sides haven't been fully met.

However, measured against Sino-Russian standards, the relationship is becoming deeper and the level of trust between Beijing and Moscow is growing. This is not without implications for the West.

On the Russian side, Beijing has marginally helped Moscow to withstand Western economic sanctions. Chinese banks are generally compliant with the sanctions regime, but policy banks have channeled much-needed funds to companies of Vladimir Putin’s cronies. More importantly, China has supplied some critical technologies including underwater electrical cable going from mainland Russia to Crimea, which helped Moscow withstand the Ukrainian economic blockade of the occupied peninsula. Some of these efforts are beginning to challenge the position of Western companies in the Russian market, particularly in the IT and telecommunications sector where Russian SOEs and ministries are busy replacing Western equipment with products made by Chinese competitors.

But it is on the Chinese side where Sino-Russian cooperation is affecting Western interests in a more dramatic way.

Soon after sanctions were introduced in 2014, Moscow rushed to sell China Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 missile-defence systems. These two procurements will significantly boost China’s capabilities in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Before Western sanctions, Russia was reluctant to sell China its most advanced weapons, fearing reverse-engineering and potential use of these weapons in any conflict with China over Siberian resources. Now these fears are gone. The Kremlin was forced to conduct a rigorous interagency study of potential risks of partnering with Beijing, and many previous worries were dispelled. Now Moscow is more concerned about the closing window of opportunity in the Chinese arms market due to rapid advances in domestic R&D. The Su-35 and S-400 deals signal a reverse of a long-standing Kremlin policy, and more arms deals are likely to follow.

Russian cooperation which builds Chinese military capabilities is more important in practical terms and more detrimental to Western interests than any grand rhetoric coming out of officials’ mouths. Cooperation between Beijing and Moscow on issues of mutual concern, like THAAD deployment on the Korean Peninsula, may follow this pattern - look for small-scale practical steps which could be aimed at THAAD such as planning for cyber operations, information sharing on missile-defence, and additional sales of S-400 systems.

Lastly, there is the question of global governance. Neither Beijing or Moscow are visionary superpowers which have more attractive values to promote globally. In many areas, China and Russia either have no alternative proposals to the current norms, or have conflicting views. But the similar nature of their authoritarian systems, and the position that both countries occupy in international fora (most notably the UN), make them natural partners in constructing an international order that values sovereignty over universal norms. This is most visible in new domains of global governance like cyber or space, in which the international order is still a work in progress. Another dimension is joint work on ways to put pressure on civil society domestically. Sino-Russian collaboration and mutual borrowing of 'best practices' provides a ready template that authoritarian governments around the world can follow.

Sino-Russian relations do not constitute a new axis of like-minded authoritarian regimes that want to challenge the West by default. But it’s an example of how tactical and opportunistic cooperation of non-Western powers seeking to boost their influence on the international stage comes at the expense of the Western-led international order.

Russia and China: A long way from a fully-fledged partnership

Photo by Wang Zhou - Pool/Getty Images
Photo by Wang Zhou - Pool/Getty Images
Published 5 Apr 2017 11:44    0 Comments

This post is part of a debate on Bobo Lo's Lowy Institute Paper A Wary Embrace. Other debate posts can be found here.

Bobo Lo belongs to the very small number of analysts who can be relied on to provide a sensitive and nuanced account of the policy-making process and mind-set of foreign policy elites in both Russia and China. In this paper Lo brings us up to speed on the state of play in the Russo-China relationship.

His core argument is that things have not changed as much as appearances – and rhetoric – suggest; nor are they likely to change in the foreseeable future. There are just too many deep differences in the positions of Russia and China – divergent histories, distinct cultures, and geographical and economic specificities – for them to become fully-fledged partners.

Lo rebuts alarmist fears of an 'authoritarian entente' (p. 98) between Russia and China pushing the US out of Eurasia and the Pacific while rewriting the rules of the international economic and political order. 'It is neither the vanguard of a new world order nor does it pose an existential threat to Western interests.' (p. 110)

Peer through the dense fog of positive political messaging from Beijing and Moscow, Lo argues, and you will find that this is a very asymmetric relationship. Earlier, up to the late 1950s, the Russians were the leader, the 'elder brother'. But since the Soviet collapse there has been a dramatic status reversal; now the Chinese are aspiring to global leadership, as an equal partner of the US. (p. 39)

That is, arguably, a realistic aspiration – but that is a point which almost no Russian scholar or policy maker is willing to acknowledge. Indeed, if an American raises the topic of China’s rise, they tend to get visibly uneasy, and start talking about the imminent collapse of the Chinese miracle.

Lo reports that 72% of Russians have a positive view of China, while 51% of Chinese had a positive view of Russia. (p. 25) It is worth underlining that 51% is not exactly a ringing endorsement from what Russia portrays as its most important 'strategic partner'.

Such encounters lead me to suggest that Lo may be under-estimating the scope for a clash of both interests and world-views between Beijing and Moscow. For 20 years the Russians have been talking up multipolarity, while the Chinese are now focused on bipolarity – a 'G2' of them and the US. However, international relations scholars have long acknowledged that a bipolar world (or or unipolar world) is likely to be more stable, and more likely to serve the interests of Australia and the US, than a multipolar one.

In a world of growing complexity and uncertainty, the Russo-Chinese relationship is not sufficiently robust to serve as a stabilising force. Rather, it just adds another layer of uncertainty. How far will Russia go in supporting China’s actions in the South China Sea? How will Russia’s delivery of advanced weapons to various countries affect the military balance in the region? At what point will Russia decide that the asymmetric economic relationship is harming Russia’s long-term development goals?

Lo focuses on the diplomatic arabesque between the two countries. But the domestic dimension is also important. Lo tends to treats each country as a more or less holistic rational actor. While it is true that these are highly centralised regimes, there is a pluralism of interests and opinions within the respective elites.

Unlike in Australia or the US, there is no significant domestic lobby inside Russia for Putin’s 'pivot to Asia'. The oligarchs send their money (and their families) to Europe, not Asia. Economic ties are still modest: China accounts for just 12% of Russia’s trade turnover – and just 2% of China’s trade is with Russia. (p. 39) Oil accounts for 60% of Russia’s exports, but the major customers of the oil industry are still in Europe, and the technological upgrading which Russian oil and gas companies need will be coming from Western corporations.

As Lo notes, 6% of the Russian population live in the Russian Far East. It's important to remember therefore that 94% of Russians do not live in the Far East, and hence have little interest in China. The government’s new emphasis on China makes regions bordering Europe feel like a new forgotten periphery – especially with the counter-sanctions that have banned food imports since 2014. Many Russian scholars see the 'pivot to Asia' as abstract political rhetoric, a temporary manoeuvre. Lo convincingly argues that Russia is not and does not really see itself as an Asian power – its interest in the region is just a sub-set of its broader self-image as a global power.

I would be inclined to see even more scope for tension in Russo-Chinese relations in the near future. The 2006-2011 hiatus in arms sales to China reflected deep anger and mistrust on the Russian side, in the face of Chinese reverse-engineering of the Su-27 fighter and mass producing 'Chinese' J11B fighters.

Perhaps Lo is somewhat downplaying Chinese aspirations to a global role, when he writes 'Unlike in Russia, there were no pretensions at global leader­ship'. (p. 65) He writes that 'Modern Chinese foreign policy really begins with the opening up of the country under Deng Xiaoping at the end of the 1970s'. (p. 64) But Mao’s attempts to undercut the Soviet Union in the Third World in the 1960s, from the 'little red book' to the Tanzam railway, were not insignificant.

Donald Trump is of course a wild card. Russia would like to see itself as a peacemaker in any future US-China conflict, but this is unlikely – neither Beijing nor Washington would trust Moscow in such a role (p. 125). Lo suggests it is even less likely that aggressive actions by Trump could push Russia and China into a closer, formal military alliance. (p. 127)

Russian scholar Andrei Sushentsov has a nice metaphor of Russia and China standing back to back, looking out at Europe and Asia respectively. But China’s huge deep integration with the economies of Central Asia (which Lo documents) and interest in the Artic indicates that the Pacific giant now has a 360 degree perspective.

Sino-Russian relations: Historical secrets and modern ambitions

The PLA's 'Battalion of Honour' marched for the first time in Moscow's Victory Day parade in 2015 (Photo: Flickr/Dmitriy Fomin)
The PLA's 'Battalion of Honour' marched for the first time in Moscow's Victory Day parade in 2015 (Photo: Flickr/Dmitriy Fomin)
Published 4 Apr 2017 07:19    0 Comments

This post is part of a debate on Bobo Lo's Lowy Institute Paper A Wary Embrace. Other debate posts can be found here.

The day will come when we Russians will get back into bed with the Chinese, and then we’ll screw you from both ends.

So said Yevgeny Rogov, Minister Counsellor at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, testing the sang froid of some senior DFA officers in 1981 and passing into DFAT legend. Three decades later we can appreciate how prescient Rogov was. But the Sino-Russian recoupling that has come about since Putin came to power in 2000 has seen a reversal of roles: for the first time in about 160 years, Russia seeks entry to China’s bed not as the senior but as the junior party. So who will do what to - or for - whom? And how might we be affected?

At first glance, the growing propinquity between China and Russia should be a cause for disquiet about its implications for Australia’s interests, strategic and economic. If two of the planet’s three nuclear-armed great powers - both with territorial claims, both with legitimating ideologies of historical grievance and victimhood, and both of whom see the US, and therefore its allies (albeit through different lenses) as adversaries, and would like to see their power eroded -  both seek (though to varying degrees) to refashion the global disorder - and are ready to use military force to achieve their goals – then it is hard to see how this does not have implications for Australia’s security. And to boot we now have the acute disarray in the US brought about by the election of a man manifestly unfit for high office.

Then there’s the complex question of Russia’s potential, given its stupendous natural resource endowment - but also the curse of its geography (much of its iron ore and coal cannot be exported without constructing new and hugely costly infrastructure)  -  to threaten and capture Australia’s markets in north Asia, including China, for our main commodity exports.

One the many virtues of Dr Lo’s Lowy Institute Paper A Wary Embrace is that it grapples with and offers judicious and succinct conclusions to such questions.

Lo comes across as a sceptical analyst, who follows the advice of the Book of Han to ‘seek truth from facts’ (实事求是) – actual as opposed to ‘alternative’ - and knows the right questions to ask. Just how close is the officially vaunted ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’? Are the things the partners share more important than what divides them? To what degree are a 'substantial degree of solidarity' and an 'underlying resilience' counterbalanced by contradictions and strains in the relationship? Lo concludes that the fulsome official rhetoric of ‘friends forever, enemies never’ cannot mask the reality that the Sino-Russian border is one of the sharpest cultural divides in the world; and that the tensions in the relationship preclude a genuine alliance founded in mutual trust.

But Lo gives due weight to the convergence of their respective perceptions of national interest. Not only are both countries authoritarian: under Putin and Xi they are becoming more so. Both exhibit the martial and social-control infrastructures that underpin authoritarianism, with massive armies (Putin recently decreed that the number of Russian ‘defence personnel’ would be increased from 1.88 million to two million) to deal with external enemies, real and confected; and huge police and para-military forces to deal with internal enemies i.e. anyone who opposes actively the authoritarian order.

Australia and Russia don’t have much in common but one thing they do share is a preoccupation with China. Australia’s economy is now so dependent on the health of China’s that Australian sovereignty has been eroded. The statistics of Russia’s commercial ties with China, in terms both of trade and investment, are not imposing: Sino-Russian trade turnover in 2015 was $US8 billion ($10.52 billion), while Australia-China was worth $160 billion; in the same year a tiny 0.7% of Chinese OFDI (outward foreign direct investment) was in Russia, and Russian accumulated investments in China were just $US1 billion (FDI data are notoriously problematic. These figures are from kommersant. V.Kashin complains about their imprecision in the Sino-Russian context here.)

But that picture is changing rapidly enough to prompt a fellow commentator in this forum, the leading Russian sinologist, Aleksandr Gabuev, to express concern that Russia might become China’s ‘little brother’ or fall into ‘China’s firm embrace’. Gabuev notes that the Russians have removed three key barriers to a close relationship: a truce in commercial rivalry in Central Asia; renewed arms sales; and ending the ban on China’s involvement in resource projects (A detailed survey of the economic dimensions of Sino-Russian relations can be found in this BOFIT Policy Brief: Heli Simola
Economic relations between Russia and China – Increasing inter-dependency?)

The East believes no less than we do in the most precious of our national traditions – autocracy. Without it, Asia would be incapable of its sincere affection for Russia and its painless identification with her.
- Prince Ukhtomski, in 1900 (cited in Russian Orientalism by David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, p.234)

Russia and Australia also share a deep ambivalence about China, and for similar reasons. In Russia’s case, the relationship stretches back to the 16th century at least, and is bound up with complex Russian notions of ‘the East’. The significance for the Russian political system of the legacy of the 230 years as a vassal of the Mongol empire is a flammable theme in contemporary Russian historiography (see for instance B Akunin's Istoriya russkogo gosudarstva, Vol. 2, Chast’ Azii, Ordyskii Period, pp.4-6). The Russians have been comprehensively defeated only twice, on both occasions by ‘eastern’ powers: Batu Khan’s Mongols; and the Japanese in 1905. Traditionally, the Russians look to their east with apprehension, rather as Australians do to our north. Officially disputes over the demarcation of Sino-Russian border have been resolved, but many Russians know that most Chinese know that under the ‘unequal treaties’ of the 1860s tsarist Russia acquired 1.4 million square kilometres of Chinese territory. The Russian Sinologist Larin relates that when a visiting Russian delegation asked a Chinese official whether he had visited Russia he replied ‘No, but I have been to Weishenhai’ – the Chinese name for Vladivostok built on land that was Chinese until the Convention of Peking in 1860 (interview with this writer, but see his Rossiiko-Kitaiskie otnosheniya v regional’nykh izmereniakh, Moscow 2005, especially p.378)

Russian anxieties are captured in that reliable barometer of social attitudes in authoritarian societies; popular humour. So, for instance, the witticism ‘All quiet on the Sino-Finnish front’. Or: ‘the Russian leader is awoken in the early hours by an aide who reports that a Top Secret Immediate cable has arrived from Peking. It contains bad news: the Chinese have landed on the moon; and good news - all of them.’

知之为知之 不知为不知 是知也: If you know, recognise that you do. If you don’t know, realise that you don’t – that is knowledge.
- Confucius

The reason we don’t know more about the Sino-Russian relationship is that both partners are highly secretive. Both would endorse Don Corleone’s operational principle of discretion: ‘Never tell anybody outside the family what you are thinking’. Officials assume that ‘transparency’ is stupidity, and possibly treason, and if so likely to be fatal (it’s presumably no coincidence that no Snowden or Assange has emerged in China or Russia).

Russia has been ruled for the last 17 years by an intelligence officer supported by a conclave of intelligence officers, whose business is secrecy. China has been a one-party state for almost 70 years, in which the ruling elite maintains control of the state, the military and society. ('Beneath the surface of China’s relentless rise', Dong Dong Zhang, East Asia Forum, ANU). China employs at least two million people just to monitor the internet. Both countries are good at safeguarding their own while acquiring others' secrets.

Lo is perhaps the sole Australian scholar who has followed closely the evolution of Sino-Russian ties for decades. His report shows that he knows virtually all that is to be gleaned from open sources about Sino-Russian relations. And more besides. Some may not endorse all of his conclusions but no-one can, in this writer’s view, credibly cavil over the depth and rigour of his argumentation. His report exemplifies the kind of dispassionate, rigorous and empirical analysis for which there is now so acute a need.

The judgements are the author’s but he wishes to acknowledge the help of Dr Stephen Fortescue in providing critical comment.