At the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly in late September, the leaders of China and Russia condemned western unilateralism (Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 28; UN.org, September 28). Chinese President Xi Jinping launched his week-long U.S. visit in Seattle, calling for “an outlook of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security,” and reminding that China and other developing countries wanted to reform and improve the existing international system, which should “serve the common interests of all countries and mankind as a whole” (Xinhua, September 24). To adequately evaluate China’s negotiating position and the outcomes of this summit, one should consider the fact that Xi’s strategic bargaining power is enhanced by the growing political proximity between Beijing and Moscow. China’s ability to coordinate its global agenda with Russia and capitalize on its strategic dialogue with Moscow secures higher pay-offs in Beijing’s complex political game with the U.S. (Xinhua, September 25).
Despite the recent slowdown in trade and economic cooperation between China and Russia (including its energy component), which made their earlier declared goal of $100 billion in bilateral trade in 2015 impossible, there are a number of important indications of a special relationship between Beijing and Moscow (Global Times, August 27). A new phase of bilateral cooperation was formally launched in the midst of the crisis in Ukraine in May 2014 during the two countries’ leadership summit in Beijing (Kremlin.ru, May 20, 2014). U.S. sanctions against Russia and Western political pressure have only encouraged the formation of a new tandem between Beijing and Moscow, demonstrated by the firmness of the two countries’ upgraded partnership. In his article “History Lessons and New Frontiers,” published prior to Vladimir Putin’s visit to Beijing earlier in September, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov characterized the current Russian-Chinese partnership as “the best [historical]” example of the new type of state-to-state cooperation in the 21st century (RT, August 24).
Robust Strategic Partnership
This Sino-Russian strategic congruence should not be viewed merely as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. Should the crisis have unfolded simply around a Russian-Ukrainian territorial dispute over the Crimea, China’s “positive neutrality” posture toward Kremlin’s actions could have been much more restrained. Alexander Lukin, a leading Russian governmental expert on China, rightfully asserts that the foundation for Russo-Chinese strategic partnership has deeper roots, and the causes of the recent progress are much more fundamental than most observers acknowledge (The ASAN Forum, August 18). Those fundamental roots lie in the shared Chinese-Russian vision of the nature of major globalization-driven shifts within the international system toward the excessive use of military power, the erosion of sovereignty and institutional impotence. The thorny transition to a polycentric world, China and Russia believe, creates much turbulence, due to Western attempts to preserve supremacy, reassert the existing liberal normative consensus and regulate the process of global power realignment. The newest iteration of America’s “visionary leadership”—based on the “bloc mentality,” the intrusive use of economic statecraft, untamed financial globalization, and the new diplomatic tools of 21st century statecraft—has prompted China and Russia to undertake an intensive recalibration of the theory and practice of their foreign policies now driven by the defensive imperative against the unified West (U.S. State Department, February 16). Moreover, this new ideological alliance between China and Russia is gaining momentum.
A New Ideological Alliance
The role of the ideological foundation in the development of a Chinese-Russian tandem is vividly seen in this years’ festivities in Moscow (in May) and Beijing (in September) commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. One key objective of this ideological alliance is to prevent the erosion of the post-World War II world order by jointly presenting the historical truth about war. China and Russia’s reference to history is considered instrumental to prevent “vital errors in the future” and help the international community to jointly confront some existing western political practices of “imposing one’s will over sovereign states, including by force, introducing unilateral sanctions and practicing policy of double standards as such”(Rossiiskaya Gazeta, August 23).
Consequently, China and Russia position themselves as the leading guarantors of global peace—through strengthening themselves, enhancing their partnership, and mobilizing the whole international community. The Chinese-Russian joint mission of maintaining the international order and promoting global peace and development, was placed at the center of Xi Jinping’s seminal article “Remember History, Open Up the Future” published in a Russian government-affiliated newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta in May this year (Chinese Foreign Ministry, May 4; Rossiyskaya Gazeta, May 6). Xi called for the formation of a new global community in which “policy of peace is diametrically opposed to the militant and hegemonic power politics; the way to development rejects the zero-sum game and principle of “winner takes all.” In his address to the seventh BRICS summit in Ufa (Russia) in July Chinese President strongly urged the other BRICS member-states to safeguard peace in the world by strengthening their partnership (Xinhua News [Russian], July 10). Interestingly, while China emphasizes the role of collective effort of all countries—including the U.S.—to address global challenges, President Putin draws attention to the realist principle of strategic stability and Russia’s role in it. Explaining the logic of Russia’s military buildup to Swiss media in July, the Russian president categorically stated that Russia was doing it for itself to ensure his country’s security, and it also doing it “for the rest of the world, because this strategic stability ensures the balance of power” (Kremlin.ru, July 27).
This ideological similarity informs the upgrade of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. The two countries are ready to consider one another’s national interests, to avert conflict and build “a new type of great power relations,” (新型国际关系) which is believed to be an important parameter of a new security and economic order (China Brief, May 7, 2014). That explains why, as Yang Cheng, a professor at East China University has argued, “the possible decrease in Chinese-Russian economic cooperation in scale does not present a challenge to the countries’ coordination and cooperation at the strategic level” (Valdai Club, September 21). Thus, political and ideological closeness of the two Eurasian powers alters the character of their partnership and might have serious implications for the changing global order.
Russia Accommodates China’s Leaders
These essential changes in the strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow lay the foundation for two important shifts in their practical policies. Two new developments should be stressed—Russia’s new stance toward the rising China and the formation of a new Chinese-Russian condominium in Eurasia.
In recent years, Russia has abandoned its previous role as a neutral onlooker of China’s rise and embarked on the strategy of accommodation of the Chinese leadership. In an interview in October 2011, Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to take sides in the battle for global leadership between China and the U.S. stating that it was not Russia but the West that competed with China for global leadership, and Russia did not plan to interfere (Newsru.com, October 18, 2011). This is not to say that Russia and China are formal allies—both countries have persistently denied the possibility of a new binding alliance in principle. Instead, as Russian former foreign minister Igor Ivanov explains, China and Russia “enjoy flexibility in their decision making, avoid balancing against one another, promote their interaction in the form of new international regimes, favorable for both parties, develop multi-layered partnership, addressing simultaneously security and development issues” (Lenta.ru, May 29). But clearly the two countries’ bilateral relationship has grown from the energy-based to a geopolitical one—driving China and Russia toward economic complementarity and potentially mutual security commitments. As one leading Russian expert noted, “the U.S. and the West underestimate rapprochement between Russia and China, hoping that China will be driven by its economic pragmatism” (China Daily, September 12, 2014; Xinhua Online, May 12).
Military Cooperation: New Stage
The deepened military cooperation between China and Russia and new Russian arms deals with China may serve as an important indicator of the importance both countries place on the partnership. In 2008, Russia and China resumed their annual sessions of the Russian-Chinese Intergovernmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation after a three-year break due to distrust over technological transfer and copying. Although these issues remain important, in an article published in People’s Daily in 2012 Russian President Putin clearly reaffirmed Moscow’s willingness to form “a real technological alliance” between Russia and China, to jointly “outreach to third countries’ markets” (People’s Daily, June 5, 2012). In November of that year, the Chinese expressed interest in the 117S new generation turbofan engine used on Su-35S fighters, Il-476 transports (a Russian-produced upgrade of the venerable Il-76), and S-400 surface to air missile (SAM) systems. In addition to Russian supplies of advanced anti-missile systems and its “fourth plus” generation SU-35S fighter jets, deeper cooperation in research and development, including microelectronics supplies from China, joint development of conventional submarines, heavy helicopters, UAVs, marine engines, and a variety of space exploration equipment are on the agenda. As Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu stated in Beijing in November 2014, China and Russia had entered a new stage of bilateral relations in the military sphere, for the sake of regional and global peace (Vzglyad Online, November 19, 2014). Numerous joint maneuvers—such as “Joint Sea-2015”—and combat games (including a “tank biathlon” in July) largely contribute to integration and unit coordination of the Chinese and Russian military forces (MOD Online, August 28; RT, July 26).
One Belt One Road and the Eurasian Economic Union
Unprecedented changes are underway in the sphere of economic cooperation between China and Russia. Chinese-Russian joint efforts in the sphere of global economic and financial regulation are aimed at the formation of a new global economic order. Russia supports Chinese concepts of world trade liberalization. Moscow in turn backs China’s position on the issue of the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), and, along with China, criticizes U.S. policies of creating exclusive trading blocs in Europe and the Asia-Pacific (Kremlin.ru, September 28). Russia has evolved from its role as one of the largest natural resource suppliers to China into a potential partner of China’s proposed economic “road” across Eurasia (Vzglyad Online, June 23; Vzglyad Online, February 27). This change is heralded by an increase in investment cooperation and the beginning of an important transition from trade in commodities to a more comprehensive model based on large investment projects (Russian Information Agency Online, July 31; Global Times Online, August 27).
Eurasia is increasingly becoming an “experimental field” for reshaping the international order along values that have been actively promoted by China and supported by Russia and their partners within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and elsewhere within the developing world. To avoid competition between parallel integration projects—the Moscow-backed Eurasian Economic Union and the Beijing-sponsored the Silk Road Economic Belt, the two countries agreed to combine these initiatives in a way that would complement each other, ultimately creating a common economic space across the entire Eurasian continent (Kremlin.ru, May 20, 2014). Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev reiterated in August that the China-proposed Silk Road Economic Belt initiative was not a competitor, but a partner project for Russia (Xinhua, August 22). Russia in turn, was invited to be a founding stakeholder in the China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) (Vzglyad Online, June 29).
This strategic consensus helps the two countries to develop joint projects in financial markets, agriculture and large-scale infrastructure programs (RT, July 23; People’s Daily Online, June 10). Along with a number of major natural gas deals, in May of this year Chinese commercial banks opened credit lines to Russia’s Sberbank ($966 million), VTB Bank ($483 million), and Vnesheconombank ($628 million) (China Brief, January 23). Chinese-Russian negotiations are also under way on the construction of the 770-km-long high-speed rail line linking Moscow and Kazan, an investment worth $5.9 billion. China also agreed to purchase 100 Sukhoi SuperJet-100 passenger aircraft for $3.6 billion (Russia-direct, May 13). Even more noteworthy is that Russia has committed to make significant adjustments in its legal system, governmental institutions, foreign investment and trade regimes to facilitate China’s economic engagement in Russia and other post-Soviet states (ITAR-TASS News, June 9).
In the formation of a political and ideological alternative to the West, neither China nor Russia intends to dismantle the existing international system, rather trying to modify it through the collective effort of all who disagree with Western rules. Beijing and Moscow clearly understand that their emerging ideological and political construct may not challenge the fundamental principles of democracy and freedom cherished by the West. Chinese and Russian strategists have only two instruments in their possession to challenge the role of the West in the existing liberal consensus. One is their attempt to assume the role as defenders of traditional universal values, dismissing Western “democratic malaise,” hedonism and moral relativism. Another way is to demonstrate good governance during economic and social hard times, proving the potential of the non-Western world to create new practices of governance and development. It is not a coincidence that Xi Jinping’s speech in Seattle strongly emphasized China’s efforts to improve governance. The transformative appeal of China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative is also related to good governance and institution-building in the turbulent states of Eurasia. Successful implementation of these programs, along with Russia’s ability to reform its system of governance and political control would make these two actors significant agenda-setters in a new global order.
Dr. Vitaly Kozyrev is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Endicott College, Beverly, MA. He is an expert on Chinese-Russian relations and foreign policy, and international security in Asia. He is also affiliated with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University as an associate in research.