A relationship born of convenience. Russia, China, and the dreams of power

09.10.2018 | By Michał Lubina

The July meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki brought on the voices about the upcoming US-Russia relationship reset; however, the last great Russian Vostok manoeuvres with the participation of Chinese soldiers sparked discussions about the strengthening China-Russia alliance. Both attitudes to Bear and Dragon’s relationship are exaggerated, as Washington and Moscow are not preparing for the “reverse Nixon manoeuvre” to join forces against the growing power of China, and a new Russia-China “authoritarian international” is not being created. Reality is much more complicated.

Everything is perfectly alright

Roughly speaking, the China-Russia relationship is currently perceived in three ways. First, as in Russia and China – through the prism of “official optimism”. According to this view, China-Russia relations are better than ever before; they have left behind old disputes and built a model of relations that may be an example for other powers. Sometimes, some divergent voices appear in this official narrative: Chinese superpower chauvinism or some Russian fears are being revealed. But this is a margin. Even so-called “independent experts” (in quotes because in Russia and China being an independent expert is a function, not a choice), such as Dimitri Trenin or Fu Yin, who allow themselves to criticise their authorities, admit that relations of Beijing and Moscow are good.

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”

In the West, the things are viewed completely differently. The conviction dominant in the West has been best described in The Axis of Convenience – book by Bobo Lo, who is former Australian diplomat of Chinese roots. According to him, China-Russia relations are cynical, opportunistic, based on the rule to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”, and, as a result, shallow. It is from where The Axis of Convenience got its title. The strength of Moscow and Beijing union lays in “anti-relation” towards the US. According to this narrative, it causes limitations and instability of Russia-US and China-US relations.

It must be honestly admitted that this vision, philosophically derived from political realism, has a solid base. Both Russia and China have no political illusions; they neither believe in ideals nor progress at “civilising” international relations. In their opinion, the world should be ruled by powers which respect their sovereignty and spheres of influence, and do not interfere in internal affairs of each other (but do interfere in internal affairs of minor countries). The Powers would, therefore, balance each other, like in a 19th-century Bismarck concert, which is a better way to maintain lasting peace, than attempting to unify the world by imposing common democratic values on it. Of course, political realism is different in Russia and China. Russian “Hobbesian realism” is based on Leninist principle ”Who, whom?” and primacy of power, as “dog eat dog”, while Chinese “moral realism” relies on moral rule of which task is to restore proper hierarchy – with China at the forefront – in international relations through giving a good example, and thus to build long-lasting world harmony.

But Russia and China agree that there are no universal principles, the powers are “more equal” than others, and that American hegemony is an anomaly and should be abolished.

For all these reasons, perceiving Russia and China through the prism of political realism (and recently popular geopolitics, which is part of this trend, as it is, in fact, vulgarised version of political realism) is so popular, not to say natural. It has sense, but it also has limitations. A strictly realistic look does not explain why Russia and China are not yet at each other’s throats, why Russia got closer to China after the crisis in 2008 instead of moving away from it, and why “reverse Nixon manoeuvre” has not happened yet.

A third, constructivist way of perceiving Russia-China relations appears at this point. It is based on the assumption that when looking at the policy of the state, one must try to understand the interests of the political elite, and not operate with such abstract concepts as  “national interest”. In countries like Russia, the political elite will act against the interests of the state rather than risk the violation of their collective interests or loss of power (which is often followed by the loss of property, or perhaps even life).

Asymmetric win-win deal

Putin’s team, after a decade of hesitation, recognised China as a safe partner who may be a difficult opponent in business negotiations, but will not overthrow the Chekist authorities, and, additionally, will allow officials (e.g. Gennady Timchenko, Igor Sechin, Dmitry Rogozin) to earn some money.

In a word: Thanks to their restraint, the Chinese have managed to convince generally distrustful Russian elites that they do not threaten them, and as a result, they gained much more than Russia on this relations. Nonetheless, they do not use this asymmetric win-win agreement to force Russia to make political concessions, as they do not want to tease the Bear. For Russia, this deal is not perfect but is acceptable. This is why Kremlin, nolens volens, came to terms with Chinese superiority and decided to gain as much as possible under Chinese conditions, which is visible in several areas.

The Russians tried hard, but eventually, China won

And this win is the most visible when it comes to energy resources. In the first decade of the 21st century, Russia has been trying to remain independent from China and to balance Middle Kingdom’s influence through cooperating with other Asian countries. Moscow dreamed of controlling Eastern Asians like they were controlling Europeans: through raw materials. The ESAST pipeline, which was to play a decisive role in the Russia-China-Japan triangle, served this purpose. Moscow changed routes depending on the political situation, justifying it by such humorous (looking at overall Russian policy) reasons as environmental protection, and frustrating the Chinese (who compared Russian promises to a rapidly changing weather forecast).

However, the game ended when the crisis came in 2008, and the only real remaining option was the one proposed by China (low price, higher flow capacity, and the vast majority of raw material going to China). Moscow has chosen it willy-nilly, and as a result, Russia became the largest oil supplier to China in 2017, surpassing Saudi Arabia. By 2020, the Russians will have supplied China a total of 56 million tons of oil (ca. 20% of all Russian exports).

A similar thing happened with gas. For over than decade, Moscow and Beijing could not reach an agreement, because China wanted to pay too little, and Russia did not break the negotiations as they were helping them build pressure on Western Europe. The matter changed when the Ukrainian crisis broke out. Putin needed to send a political signal and gave in to China, signing a 30-year gas contract for the construction of the Power of Siberia pipeline, which is to supply China with gas for a low price (probably 346 USD for 1000m3). The pipeline is still being built, despite numerous delays (current assumptions say that gas is expected to flow to China around 2022), but the signing of the contract was a great success for the Middle Kingdom (long-term deliveries of cheap gas transported by land) and the average result of Russia, because China has monopolised their gas in Asia. Apparently, Russia concentrated on deeper cooperation under Chinese conditions after initial attempts to balance China.

The same applies to the third most crucial Russian export product (and the primary one in Asia): arms. In the 90s, Russia used to sell almost everything to China, which saved the Russian military industry from bankruptcy. Later, at the beginning of the 21st century, Russia ceased to offer China the most modern military technology, because the Chinese were copying and re-selling it, which took Russia out of markets. Until 2015, Russia adhered to the rule to sell willingly and a lot to China, but to keep the latest models for India or even Vietnam. The Russians have changed their mind as a result of the Ukrainian conflict, the collapse of the Russian economy, and Western sanctions. They sold six battalions of S-400 anti-missile systems to China in April 2015, and twenty-four Su-35 fighters in November 2015. Today, China again is a recipient of both the largest amount of Russian equipment and the most advanced models.

“Younger partner” of the Middle Kingdom

Russian’s change of approach (from conservative to pro-Chinese) is also visible in domestic politics in the Russian Far East, and in regional politics in Eastern Asia and Central Asia.

Russia has dreamt of developing Far East – a problematic, peripheral, and underdeveloped region – through cooperation with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but these countries do not rush to invest in this economically non-attractive area. Thus, only China is left. Moscow overcame fears about the future of the region and decided, as Vladimir Putin said, “to catch the Chinese wind”, and develop Russian Far East with the help of China. The Russians even created a grand plan of how to develop using Chinese capital.

Unfortunately, it remained only a plan, as it turned out that the Chinese are only interested in raw materials and supplying their products to the Russian market, and that they do not rush to invest in the Russian Far East, because economic cooperation with Russia only matters for one Chinese province- borderland Heilongjiang (politically and economically unimportant small region with mere 38 million inhabitants, which is not an impressive number considering Chinese scale). The Chinese lack of interest frustrates the Russians (Trutnev, Putin’s special representative, reproached the Chinese that they want to invest in Angola, not in Russia), but they still hope that this will change, because only China is economically viable option for the Russian Far East.

It presents the change in the mentality of the Russian elite, including the provincial elites: Yet only 20 years ago, politicians from Vladivostok and Khabarovsk were talking nonsense about China’s migration expansion; 10 years ago, they declared that they would cooperate with anyone but China; and now, they look forward to Chinese investments.

The microscale shows the general regularity of Russian policy towards China: moving from a distance balancing towards joining to gain benefits. In other words: replacing fear with hope.

A similar situation may be observed when it comes to Asian policy towards Russia. Since the beginning of the 21st century, Russia has tried to balance China in the Asia-Pacific region by inventing political and economic concepts for this purpose. And yet, everything ended in partial or full failure due to objective factors: inability to reach an agreement with Japan (despite the recent warming of relations), lack of chances to intensify ties with India (except the sphere of arms sales), reluctance of other Asian countries to get in closer ties with Russia, inability to function under Asian conditions, and finally, secondary importance of this area in the Kremlin’s policy.

In the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, knowing that beggars can’t be choosers, Russia stopped trying to balance China. Instead, they chose to avoid conflict (the Korean issue) and support China in dispute over islands of South China Sea, which was the most important matter for this region. Ipso facto, Moscow stopped fighting for a permanent place on the Far East chessboard, being satisfied with the status of the “younger partner” of China.

Asian condominium under the Chinese-Russian reign

Russia has also accepted the active role of China in its traditional backwoods: Central Asia. There, the Russian hegemony was disturbed by American intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. Back then, the Russians helped them, but they regretted it soon. Seeing that the Americans want to stay longer, Moscow has allied with Beijing to eradicate US influence from the region.  As the common anti-democratic interest united the whole of Central Asia (local satraps, Russia and China), it ended successfully: the US left Central Asia.

However, China was pushing harder, developing energetic cooperation (breaking the monopoly of Russia and in some cases, like Turkmenistan, and establishing its own), economic cooperation (Beijing is the primary trading partner of the Central-Asian Republics) and announcing the ambitions of rebuilding the Silk Road. Russia wanted to reintegrate the region and to block China with the help of the Eurasian Union, which meant that for many commentators that the “new Great Game” began.

Nonetheless, it did not happen; and this overused comparison simply does not fit to Central Asia, because Russia and China got along instead of competing. Russia took politics and security, and China has an economy. For Russia, this state is not perfect, but it is acceptable, as it is a lesser evil which will help to achieve the primary goal: to keep the region away from Western influence. Central Asia has become a kind of condominium under Russian-Chinese supervision.

All the examples described above show one pattern: Russia stopped trying to balance China and chose to join their development. Kremlin considers this situation a temporary necessity which Russia must adjust to to remain in the game for the status of world power. According to the Putinist elites, the West is the greatest threat to the existence of the regime and the Kremlin’s great-power ambitions; the pro-Chinese choice is a natural consequence of this position.

“Chinese lever” to regain former power

Of course, Moscow desires different relations with the West: the Russians consider themselves a part of widely understood European civilisation, and treat the West as a reference point (though they have a love-hate relationship at the same time). China, whereas, is an alien. Russian elite, together with the Chinese, may criticise Western hypocrisy and deride at the weakness of democracy, but they send their children to Anglo-Saxon universities, buy real estates in Europe, keep their savings in Swiss banks, travel to the Cote d’Azur, and do shopping in Paris and Milan. Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore are also interesting, but this is not what they are looking for. The Russians consider themselves part of Europe; in Asia, they feel uncomfortable. That is why the elite’s dream is to transform Europe or even West: they want to make Europeans “understand” the Russian interests.

However, this has not happened yet, so the deal with China remains intact. Contrary to numerous voices, the presidency of Donald Trump did not change these dynamics, despite noticeable pro-Russian statements of the American president. Although Moscow has expected a lot from Trump, and many commentators, including Poland, even anticipated the “reverse Nixon manoeuvre” (according to this narrative, democratic US was to get along with authoritarian Russia against the increasing power of China, the same as in 70s US got along with communist China, despite ideological contradictions), it never happened. The American Establishment effectively blocked Trump’s actions, while the anti-Russian mood in the US made the president aware that he had little to gain, but much to lose by getting closer to Russia. Current Vostok manoeuvres show that Moscow did not sacrifice relations with China while waiting for Trump’s concessions.

Russia was patiently waiting for reset from the US which eventually did not happen, but it did not hurt Russia-China relationship, as it is built on the foundation of Russian elites’ world perception. According to look, instead of being a “younger partner” of the West, Kremlin chooses a provisional acceptance of the superiority of a powerful neighbour in the East; this way, Russia will be able to withstand difficult times and return in future as power. In short, temporary submission to China is only a means to the invariable goal: to acquire the position of world power.

Translation from Polish: Bartłomiej Piątkiewicz


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.