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.