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Despite encroachments, China is still Russia’s preferred partner

As long as China doesn't challenge the fundamental system of rule in Russia (as the US does), then it will remain a preferred partner if not an ally.

Published 21 Apr 2017 

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.

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