China-Russia: Axis of Convenience—or Inconvenience?

15. 3. 2017

Michał Lubina, Niedźwiedź w cieniu smoka. Rosja-Chiny 1991–2014, Księgarnia Akademicka, Kraków, 2014, 631 pgs.

Marcin Kaczmarski, Russia-China Relations in the Post-Crisis International Order, Routledge, London and New York, 2015, 190 pgs.

The economic and financial crisis of 2008 changed the world stage. It put an end to the unipolar moment of absolute American dominance in all areas, as Charles Krauthammer deftly described it. At least in the economic sense, but also strategically, we have been increasingly moving back towards traditional multipolarity. Yes, the US remains the first among equals, but other players also count on this scene.

These “other players” are first of all a new category of countries, until 2008 called the Third World, which, significantly, after the financial crisis changed its status and started to be described by the term emerging markets. There are many of them, but almost a synonym for this phenomenon is the BRICS group, founded in June 2009 and comprising the strongest emerging markets (not all of them, for Turkey, South Korea or Indonesia could take offence), that is Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Two Mirrors

Among the elements distinguishing this group the most important is the fact that China is economically stronger than the other four countries put together, and the object of the greatest attention—and concern—of the West remains the state of relations between the giants in this group, that is China and Russia as well as China and India.

Two outstanding Polish researchers of international relations of the younger generation, Marcin Kaczmarski and Michał Lubina, independently of each other took up the theme of China-Russia relations. They both approach the subject more from the Russian side, because they know it better (especially Kaczmarski), but they try to be objective and listen to both sides. Lubina, in a book which in the Polish language is unprecedented in its scale and profundity, meticulously analyses and presents these relations in the post Cold War period, that is after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kaczmarski set before himself a more modest, but also ambitious task: to analyze the state of China-Russia relations after the 2008 crisis and to draw conclusions for the global order.

These two mirrors, given to us by young, but already accomplished and experienced Polish researchers, allow the reader to form a picture of and to draw conclusions on the state of the current bilateral China-Russia relations, but also, more importantly, their impact on the world order, for the two countries, because of their scale and importance, definitely influence the global state of affairs.

Both authors, and especially the meticulous Lubina with his voluminous set of sources, document and justify one fundamental claim: despite the differing interests, cultures, ideological foundations and approaches, in recent years, and especially after 2008, the bilateral relations between China and Russia have been constantly tightening and “thickening.” The number of visits, joint projects and initiatives is growing, and representatives of both sides clearly—and truthfully—emphasize that their relations are “the best in history,” even better than in the years of the formal alliance in the 1950s; and yet now, as politicians and experts both in Beijing and Moscow unanimously stress, “there is no alliance of any kind.”

Also the wider institutional cooperation within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, originating directly from these bilateral relations, is not very formal alliance, despite the fact that by many analysts and observers (mostly American) it is perceived—to an extent correctly—as an “anti-NATO.” Yes, one of the most important areas of this cooperation is security (as well as fighting terrorism), but the two sides have not established a formal alliance by signing a treaty, limiting themselves to quite frequent joint military exercises, which, before the current rapprochement that started in the last decade of the 20th century, would be a unthinkable.

Who Is the Little Brother?

There is no doubt that military cooperation, trade exchange and, to a slightly lesser extent, economic cooperation are the pillars of today’s Sino-Russian relations. And in both cases important processes are underway, expertly documented by both authors. Yet if until recently, perhaps before the watershed of 2008, it was Russia which played the role of the Big Brother, supplying China with modern equipment and technologies, in most recent times the roles have been clearly reversed.

Lubina, more expressive and reaching for stronger language, goes as far as to define it in the following way:

“Russia is increasingly becoming China’s ‘little brother.’ Beijing imposes the agenda of the relations in such a way as to suit the principal Chinese interests (economic questions, exploitation of the Russian Far East and reducing Asian Russia to the role of a resource base for China), which is turning the Sino-Russian relations into a historical inverse of colonialism.”

Little wonder that the author gave his study a telling title: “The Bear in the Shadow of the Dragon”. The claim about a strategic role reversal is strongly underlined here, but also justified in many ways and supported with ample data and numbers.

Kaczmarski is more cautious both in his language and argumentation (perhaps because he is writing in a different language and for a publisher with a different profile?), but he reaches a similar conclusion: “Russia and China used to be depicted as the ‘coalition of the unwilling,’ given their limited engagement with the international order […] In the wake of the 2008–9 economic meltdown, Russia and China experienced deep shifts in the global dimension of their relationship. […] the dynamics between Russia and China shifted significantly to Beijing’s advantage. It was China that gained more say in defining and implementing the global agenda.”

Sources of the Alliance

So we have a documented rise of the importance of China both in bilateral relations, and on the international scene. What will the Russian elites do with this problem? That is the political elites, for the best Russian experts on China, and there are quite many of them, are already raising this issue as a potential threat. Not to mention the fact that in today’s Russia probably nobody is looking for a development model in China, as it was in the early “era” of Vladimir Putin. In terms of domestic policy both countries are moving away from each other rather than coming closer. What they have in common is the fact that both giants moved from totalitarianism to authoritarianism, but the reality inside both countries is increasingly different. China continues rapid reforms, while Russia is bogged down in internal stagnation. Still, we must come back to the most critical issue, crucial for the West: are these relations an alliance? If yes, what kind of an alliance is it and how long will it last? And finally, do China and Russia working in tandem have any kind of alternative for the West?

This dynamics was grasped better by Lubina, who studied a slightly longer period. Throughout the book he is adamant that the Sino-Russian relations after 1991 have never assumed the form of a genuine alliance, and that especially the Russian side is treating these relations as a kind of strategic counterbalance to the United States. In other words, Russia is trying to exploit the strong and flourishing relations with the fast-growing China as a leverage “compensating the losses in its relations with the West.” It was so under President Boris Yeltsin already, that is before 2000, and it has become more so in the context of the occupation of Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine.

The problem is that China is approaching the matter in a slightly different way. As Lubina writes, “for Beijing, Russia is not a strategic counterbalance to the USA. Beijing is not using the ‘Russian card’ in its games with the West (and is reaping the benefits of it).” Meanwhile Kaczmarski, probably correctly, takes a broader look and considers the bilateral China-Russia relations in the wider international context. He writes:

“In the wake of the crisis, China has gained a clear advantage over Russia in terms of shaping and influencing multilateral institutions. China dominates within the non-Western groupings due to its economic potential. Moreover, if Russia’s isolation within the G-8 following the Ukraine crisis in 2014 persists, China’s privileged position will become even more conspicuous. The fact that Russia ultimately joined the WTO in 2012 has not changed the Russia–China balance. Moscow has merely matched China’s presence at a time when the WTO finds itself in a stalemate, threatened by the emergence of regional free trade-blocs, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.”

Added to all this is the issue, well brought out by the authors and relatively little known in the West, of the mutual distrust in the Sino-Russian relations, where, as the well-known Russian expert Dmitri Trenin put it, “politeness is the norm, honesty is a rarity.” Sooner or later the historical grudges, the still long (4,195 km!) common border despite the emergence of sovereign republics of Central Asia, and above all the cultural differences are going to make their mark. But so far Sino-Russian relations are flourishing as never before, one visit follows another, joint fairs, military exercises and even annual events (“Chinese year in Russia” and vice versa, presenting one partner to the other) are organized. How long is it going to be so swell?

Smiles Hide Uncertainty

Behind this facade there is one fundamental common denominator: the joint desire to show the West, primarily the US, that they are no longer hegemonic powers, that they have to reckon with others too, and emerging markets have something to say. But is Russia, especially the assertive Russia involved militarily in Ukraine, an emerging market? It can definitely be doubted. If China is quickly reforming—and out of necessity changing the direction of its development model, selecting sustainable development as well as consumption and domestic market as the engines of further growth rather than promoting exports as it did before—Russia got mired in Ukraine and is locked in a costly conflict with the West. This is one more, perhaps the largest, source of asymmetry—in power and influence—between Russia and China. The advantage of China over Russia is increasing, which can have far-reaching consequences—and not only direct consequences for the partners involved.

Lubina and Kaczmarski rightly do not prejudge what will happen to the now flourishing relations between the two giants. But the enormous empirical material and documentation collected by them allows us to express a reasonable doubt if such a state of affairs is and will remain stable. China and Russia are embracing each other and trading on an unprecedented scale, but harbor mutual distrust. It is no longer only an axis of convenience—as it was nicely put in an important earlier work on the subject by the well-known expert Bobo Lo—but it is increasingly becoming an axis of inconvenience, especially for Russia, more and more reduced to a secondary role, and even a resource base for the rapidly growing China. How long will it remain so? Of course, this is a question mostly for the Russian elites, but for obvious reasons it is also important to us.

It is said, particularly loudly in China, that the age of the Pacific is coming! Okay, but will this age be with or without Russia, and if with the former, what kind of Russia is it going to be? Will Russia still claim, as it is doing today, that the flourishing relations with China are “more of an opportunity than a threat” for it? China is for Russia the second-largest economic partner today, while for China, Russia occupies the tenth place (and that is mostly thanks to imports of raw materials).

In this context one more of Kaczmarski’s conclusions is worth quoting: “Given the growing power asymmetry between Russia and China, it should not be surprising that it is Beijing that will define the extent to which both states may challenge the international order and how far they are ready to conform to existing global arrangements. However, the peaceful power transition should be equated neither with Russia’s subordination to China nor with the political-military alliance.”

In other words, looking at Russia and its actions in Ukraine, which we are doing all the time, let us not forget about Beijing, of which we definitely speak too little, at least in Europe. For China is becoming a player dealing more and more important cards.

Bogdan Góralczyk

is professor in Centre for Europe, University of Warsaw, since September 2016 also a director of the Center. Former Ambassador of Poland to Thailand, the Philippines, and Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma). He was also Chief of the Cabinet of Polish Foreign Minister and long-term diplomat in Hungary; a prolific writer, author of many books and articles in Polish, English, and Hungarian.

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