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

In a world of growing complexity and uncertainty, the Russo-Chinese relationship is not sufficiently robust to serve as a stabilising force.

Photo by Wang Zhou - Pool/Getty Images
Photo by Wang Zhou - Pool/Getty Images
Published 5 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 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.

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