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How China and Russia avoided the Thucydides trap

Russia’s adaptation to the asymmetry in relations with China stands in stark contrast to its clash with the EU over Ukraine and Eastern Europe in general.

Photo: Getty Images/Sovfoto
Photo: Getty Images/Sovfoto
Published 11 Apr 2017   Follow @M_Kaczmarski

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.

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