The Russian-Sino relations went a long way since the clashes on Damanskyi/Zhenbao in 1969. The two states were able to normalize their relations in 1989 and fulfill an unprecedented rapprochement, called ‘the strategic partnership, within the 1990’s. The relations were successfully re-established despite cultural and ideological differences, a painful history and political misunderstandings. It must be considered a great achievement.
The modernizing paths chosen by Russia and China after the demise of communism determined the first period of relations: Moscow and Beijing looked at each other with reservations, if not dislike. This has changed due to geopolitical realities – Russia’s failed hopes to deliver equal relations with the West and thanks to Chinese pragmatism. Both countries understood benefits of mutually friendly relations: strengthening their positions vis-à-vis the West being the most important one. It was “ideological-axiological” opposition against the West that became the engine of their relations in 1990s. Moscow and Beijing shared a similar perception of global affairs: both opposed the American unilateralism and disliked Western values. NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, in particular, had farfetched consequences. It strengthened their belief of the US’ hegemonistic attitude. Their opposition against the West united them and made their rapprochement in the 90s possible. It was not, however, an alliance or bloc – Russia and China simply strengthened their own positions against the West.
Russia’s ambivalence has proven it to be correct. Within the 90s Moscow took a dual approach – on one hand it has proclaimed a strategic partnership with Beijing, while on the other still considered China a threat to the Far Eastern provinces. Beijing was no better. The Chinese officially accepted the importance of relations with Russia, but when it came to concrete facts (choosing key investors in the country’s modernization) they always preferred the Western ones (see: Three Gorges Dam). It can therefore be summarized that in 1990s Russian-Sino relations were not much more than an appendix to their ties with the West.
Nevertheless, they achieved some significant success: within the demilitarization and demarcation (though not full) of the border and the economic relations and growing trade volume – the Chinese goods saved Far Eastern Russians from empty shelves whereas China’s vast purchase of arms saved Russia’s military-technical industry. Finally, Russia and China created an institutional and structural base for mutual contacts. This has proved to be fruitful within the new decade.
Within the 90’s however, the partnership was more practical than strategic. Where Russian and Chinese interests overlapped (Central Asia), the nations gave support to one another. If their interests were contradictory, Moscow and Beijing felt no hesitation in sacrificing the other country’s interests. What overshadowed most success was Moscow’s and Beijing’s orientation towards the West. As for the most important issues, Washington was always most significant for Moscow and Beijing.
Vladimir Putin’s term of office first repeated the former decade scheme. Initial rapprochement with China (best symbolized by 2001 treaty) was soon overshadowed by Putin’s pro-western turn after 11 September 2001. This rapprochement, however, ended up in bitter disappointment. Moscow – strengthened by rising oil and gas prices – turned to Beijing again to balance Washington. This time the Russian-Sino rapprochement had stronger fundaments. Their partnership became more multidimensional, substantial. Two sides were able to completely demarcate the border. Even the economic relations – which have always been the weakest point – have improved, with China becoming Russia’s second trade partner. Russia and China were able to build a successful relationship. In a sense, this is one of their foreign policies’ biggest achievements.
The Russian-Sino relations have normalized. Moscow and Beijing proclaimed that they built ‘a new model of international relations’, but this was nothing more than an equivalent of the 19th century Realpolitik. In this approach, international system is considered anarchic, based on power politics and, consequently build on an “organized hypocrisy” rule. It’s a place where logic of expected consequences prevails over logic of appropriateness. Their political behavior is based on traditional, 19th century realpolitik imperatives: national security, power projection, management of the strategic balance and emphasis on the primacy of state sovereignty. The only difference is the discourse: they have learned to use more modern and inclusive language. But all of this is merely a smoke screen: ideology plays an instrumental role for the two nations. Democracy and human rights are understood here as western instruments of enlarging the zone of influence and interfering in domestic affairs of other countries. Therefore opposition against them is a well-conceived defense of national interests. Moscow and Beijing perceive the world through the prism of the 19th century power struggle, with the sole difference being that only a single hegemonic power – albeit weakening – exists now: the US. The tools of influence though, are new. Simply: the decorum changed, but the essence remains the same.
This is clearly visible in the way the nations perceive one another. The main reason why Beijing is able to forbear Moscow its subsequent political twist is that good relations with Russia secure China’s north border. Russia, whilst trying to rebuild a position on the former Soviet area, needs to be secure from the east as well. Therefore, as China needs “peace from the North”, Russia needs “peace from the East”. A realistic attitude makes Russia and China aware of the fact that they cannot count on each other in key issues. It does not matter that Russian-Sino relations became more substantial; they are still somehow a function of Russia-West and China-West relations. The West or USA precisely, is still most important to them, even now as Moscow proclaims her “pivot to Asia”.
The Russian-Sino partnership is more limited than strategic: it is a partnership limited by the lack of trust. Many of its achievements are quite relative. The trade exchange remains the function of Russia’s trade with UE and China’s with USA. The convergence in international issues may always be reversed. Many things divide Russia and China – recently for instance, there has occurred an issue quite evident, though not exploited by both. Its Central Asia, where the rivalry of two exclusive visions of regional integration occurs: the New Silk Road and Eurasian Union. Russian Far East is another point. The Russian fears of Chinese economic dominance and the slide to being China’s raw material appendage are becoming more and more adequate. Even more threatening is the Chinese economic advantage and Russia’s ‘neocolonial’ economic dependency on China. Russia feels exploited, wants to cease this advantage, however has limited tools that would allow it to be changed and has more important political agendas now. Russian concentration on the priority regions (reintegrating post-Soviet land, Ukraine) meant that Russia had to accept a beneficial gas contract for the Chinese in May 2014. This, in turn, means that Russia’s “pivot to Asia” – if it ever materialized – is turning into “pivot to China”. Hence China’s dominance in Russian Asian policy in spite of decreasing – increases. All this makes Russia’s attitude towards China a disillusioned one based on distrust, no illusion and – recently – a lack of choice.
The Chinese elites don’t trust Russia either. They have learned that Moscow cannot be counted on. From a Chinese perspective, Russia is a partner of limited trust and limited usefulness. China realized that trusting Russia is unwise: Moscow can always sacrifice relations with Beijing for improving ties with the US, or even Japan. Therefore when dealing with Moscow, Beijing gives examples of the Chinese proverbial pragmatism: it takes what is to be taken and does not care about a proclaimed ‘friendship’. For China, the concrete things matter. In Russia’s case it is the securing strategic rear and the stability of energy supplies from the Russian Far East that are important. The rest is of less significance.
Many aspects of the Russian-Chinese relations are a mixture of success and failure. The development of trade is balanced through its structure, effectively limiting the American influence in Central Asia through mutual rivalry, the resistance against American unilateralism, through different world visions, and the cooperation on the Russian Far East by mutual distrust and suspicion. In this complex environment the best clue to understanding the Russian-Sino relations is utility. Their relations are what Bobo Lo called an “Axis of Convenience”: the sides do not expect much from one another, hence they are never disappointed. Despite an often-proclaimed “friendship”, it truly is a very business-oriented relation – a political “marriage of convenience”. It is a meeting of two alien civilizations that have very little in common, and yet they have a deal to make and must make it successfully.
Both states consider themselves as useful ones, though in different aspects. For Russia, China plays a psycho-political role of the West’s equalizer – a strategic alternative, no matter if real or virtual (see: the crisis in Ukraine). Moreover, China is important to Russia in multiple aspects – most notably in the development of Russian Far East. On the other hand, Russia is to China an important, and yet secondary partner. If properly treated, this partner may be quite useful in foreign policy (securing strategic rear, assuring energy supplies, the ideological opposition against the West) and domestic matters (the necessities for finishing modernization). Besides, Russia is an important example of proof that China indeed is “peaceful”.
Most of the Russian-Sino success is not spectacular, but useful, and politically convenient. It still based on an external factor – the West – if not directly, then relation-wise (Western opposition to Russian reintegration actions push Moscow into the hands of China, whereas the US pivot to Asia pushes China into hands of Russia). Although this “Western factor” is less visible than during the 1990s and applies more to Russia than to China, it is still present. Both countries still perceive the West as more important than each other (though for Russia it may change now). “The Western factor” forces Moscow and Beijing to curb their mutual resentments, keep calm whatever happens and be tolerant to the irritating actions of the ‘strategic partner’. Russia and China not only don’t stress their differences, but also stay silent (see: rivalry in Central Asia). The undemocratic character of their societies and the closeness of their political cultures help here. Consequently, the Axis of Convenience works, because of its usefulness – the benefits overtake the problems. Russia needs China to maximize its options within foreign policy and play a more important role worldwide. China on the other hand, needs Russia as a strategic rear and source of supplies.
Another important factor here is a growing asymmetry in the Russian-Sino relations. To use a boxing metaphor, these are two different categories. Within the 23 years of cooperation, China achieved a multidimensional advantage over Russia. This process accelerated after the world economic crisis in 2008 and since then only deepened. The changing balance of power signifies that Beijing is implementing an agenda of relations that can be called “asymmetric win-win”: both sides gain, but it is China that wins more, much more. The economic sphere is a good example. Here, step-by-step, China consequently pushes Russia into being a raw material appendage to the Chinese economy. Beijing has already made the Russian Far East a Northeast Asian equivalent of Laos, and wants to make Siberia an “Asiatic Canada”: it is the raw material supply base needed to finish the Chinese modernization. Asymmetry doesn’t end here though. Beijing has an advantage in the most important aspects of bilateral relations – with the exception of military sphere – and in the Asia-Pacific (within Central Asia, China is catching up with Russia). China is becoming a stronger partner in almost every aspect. Within the aspect of economy, China is superior and far more important to the world. China is Russia’s second trade partner, whereas Russia is China’s tenth. Politically China is becoming a global superpower, with global – not only regional, like in the case of Russia– importance. Even within the military sphere, where Russia’s advantage is still significant, China is modernizing and shortening the gap between the two nations.
It is China that is more important to Russia, rather than Russia to China. Relations with the People’s Republic of China touch upon many aspects of Russia’s domestic and foreign policy – only the United States are more important to Russia in this aspect. On the other hand, Russia carries much less importance to China: it is a useful, albeit not the only one and not the most reliable one, source of supplies deeply needed in a modernizing project. It is not however, not an ally in confrontation with the West (it is a convenient smokescreen behind which China can hide and win the interests of the Chinese quietly). Russia is insignificant to the Chinese domestic policy and is not central in Beijing’s foreign policy: it is only a complement of the general strategy of „returning to the right place”. Although publicly China shows Russia respect and praises Russia as the ‘great power’, the reality is that Beijing does not treat Russia seriously. The Chinese learned how to tackle Russians: they know how to make use of the Russian megalomania; they tell Russians exactly what they want to hear. In reality, however, China considers Russia a fallen power that lost in confrontation with the West, even though the Chinese elites respect Putin as a strong leader who want to bring back the lost glory. From the Chinese perspective Russia is a backward, unorganized, uncivilized and non-attractive country that cannot be compared with developed Western countries. The countries, which possess something truly priceless: high technologies. Russia however, can be very useful to China in tactical games with the West and so Beijing will push Russia to keep doing so. The way of conducting foreign policy aids China as well: when Russia upgrades its position and plays beyond its status, China downgrades its position and attempts to keep stay in the shadows. Although since 2013 Beijing remains quite assertive in its “Chinese dream” state, it is still aware that China cannot afford confrontation with the US. The West remains the key partner in ending the grand modernization, and this has been Beijing’s top priority. At the same time, China realistically assesses Russian possibilities and sees that Russian influences are shrinking globally and regionally. Beijing therefore loses checks to respect the Russian zone of influence: (see: the an unprecedented initiative of “New Silk Road” in Central Asia).
For the first time in modern history, though in their relations, Russia faces a China stronger and more dynamic than itself. This is, in a way, a back to the past, for Russian-Sino relations to the ones of the 17th and 18th century. Back then Russia, although weaker and forced to withdrawn from Priamuria, was nevertheless able to construct an acceptable modus vivendi with Beijing. It was a deal broken on Chinese terms, however Russia did not become a tributary state, even though it was not equal to China. Now the situation repeats, and if historical experience is to be trusted, then the future model of Russian-Sino relations may be an equivalent to that of the 17th century’s Sinocentric model, with China at the apex and Russia as her vassal (maybe even the primary one). It would therefore be as before 1842, when the Sinocentric world order of tributary relations did not necessarily involve any significant political control carried out by China. It did require, however, the lesser political entities to recognize a hierarchical structure with China at the apex. In this scenario, Russia would develop too and even reintegrate the former USSR’s area. This would occur under one condition: the recognition of Chinese primacy and becoming China’s junior partner. If this happens, then from Chinese perspective it would not only be a back to the past, but also back to what is natural.
The Russian elites are aware of the consequences behind becoming China’s junior partner, but choose to cooperate anyway. They consider the rising China a chance rather than a threat. This happens for a few reasons. First, they cannot balance the Chinese influence: they want, but are unable to conduct a foreign policy to diversify China’s dominance. Secondly, they are aware that so far Russia can stay calm: China’s position is far from hegemony. The rise of China is not threatening Russia because Moscow knows that – for now – the strategic ambitions of China are concentrated on East and Southeast Asia, not Northeast Asia. Thirdly, although Russians acknowledge the success of the Chinese, they remain skeptical about the ultimate triumph of the reforms: they realize that the Chinese modernization is still unfinished; China still has a long way to go. Finally the rising China weakens the United States and forms a more balanced international system, giving Moscow place to maneuver. Russia, although anxious about China, knows that Chinese historical resentments are focused on the West rather than on Russia. Moscow also understands, that it is United States, not Russia, whom China wants to replace as a global hegemon.
Henceforth, although Russia is dissatisfied with the growing asymmetry, it is not a basic, fundamental anxiety about the state and the regime’s stability. Consequently, in spite of being asymmetric, the relations are strong and stable – and will remain so in the near future. The cooperation with China (on Chinese conditions) pays off to Russia. Within the Asia-Pacific, Russia’s chosen partner would be Japan – but in the near future this will not happen. Therefore Russia bandwagons to China – looses space to maneuver, but gains access, although secondary, to decisions in regional affairs (see: Korea). A similar scenario is happening now in the Russian Far East. Russia would prefer to neutralize the Chinese influence through different Asian investments, but doesn’t have much and nolens volens chooses Chinese engagement as the only remaining option for the development of this region. Finally, the success of Putin’s reintegration policy also depends on forging relations with China. The light version states that the purpose to this is to keep things “calm from the East” (China does not disturb), the harder version states that the purpose is to gain China’s support. And finally presenting the last aspect: in the realities of growing confrontation with the West over Ukraine, Moscow feels that it is the Western, not the Chinese, attitude that challenges its interests: it is a mortal threat to the Russian integration project. Therefore Russia chooses to oppose the West and needs the help of China. It is hence reasonable from Russia’s perspective to subordinate to a distant power on the east, in order to oppose the immediate threat from the West. To sum it up, in the present day Russia needs China, sometimes perhaps being dependent on it.
Consequently, not only the agenda of Russian-Sino relations is settled in Beijing, but also the future so dependent upon China’s success. If China were able to finish modernization and become a hegemon, Russia would slip in to be her vassal state (though probably the most important one). And yet if China freezes on the development path (due to domestic problems or American containment policy) this would mean a chance for Russia to act beyond her strength (which Moscow does brilliantly). This however, is a long-term perspective. Today one thing is certain: the Russian “Bear” is overshadowed by the Chinese “Dragon”.
This is an English summary of Michal Lubina’s book “Niedźwiedź w cieniu smoka. Rosja-Chiny 1991-2014”, Kraków, Akademicka 2014.
Michal Lubina holds a PhD in political science from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and works as an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Middle and Far East Studies of the Jagiellonian University. He is also an expert on Burma in Poland-Asia Research Center, leading Polish think tank specializing in East Asia, and an author of three books published in Polish: two about Burma and one about Russian-Sino relations.