Looking towards the Future an Eye to the Past
No. 3 2013 July/September
Feng Shaolei

Professor, Dean of the School of Advanced International and Area Studies, East China Normal University

Russian-Chinese Relations in the Asia-Pacific Region

With the world’s political and economic focus gradually shifting to the Asia-Pacific region, bilateral relations between China and Russia are facing new challenges and opportunities. For both China and Russia, the current changes may have a more profound impact on and significance for readjusting their development strategies than any changes that took place in previous decades.


Almost all forecasts name Asia-Pacific as the fastest developing global region, both economically and socially. With an aggregate GDP nearing two-thirds of global GDP and traditional European powers and trans-Atlantic countries still deeply immersed in the financial crisis, this region has incontestably become the focus of the world’s attention. The region draws the interests of such economic powerhouses as the U.S., China, and Japan. Also, Russia plays a very special geopolitical role: located at the intersection of Eastern and Western civilizations, Russia is making consistent efforts to connect the East and the West, and the South and the North. This is the key to its survival and further development.

Korea and China are two nations in the region that have been divided since the Cold War. Yet the region embraces the U.S., the sole remaining global superpower. China is the biggest developing country, while Russia has the most valuable natural resources, the largest territory, and the highest economic potential.

The region includes countries with different levels of development and forms of governance. Some are strong powers with traditional well developed democratic and market institutions, while others are poor with weak economies and forms of governance typical of the Cold War era. In addition, there are a large number of rapidly developing countries, emerging countries, and countries in transition. This unique diversity not only brings enormous difficulties to the region, but it also provides rich experience and conditions for building mature systems in the future.

An important characteristic of the Asia-Pacific region is that it is a highly open area. Each country in the region maintains, to varying degrees, economic and trade relations with regions and countries outside of the region, in addition to economic ties with neighboring countries. Regional cooperation is still weak, a phenomenon shown clearly by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Consequently, it is hard to form a common market with a common currency and foreign trade that is significantly higher than that of Europe. It is particularly striking that the 2011 Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), strongly promoted by the U.S., has been gradually forcing each Asia-Pacific country to make choices, while regional economic cooperation has faced difficult challenges.

Asia-Pacific countries’ cultural and religious diversity determine the form of governance. Unlike Europe, which shares a Christian heritage, the Asia-Pacific region is a mixture of Confucianism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity, all of which exert their respective influence. Specific nature and geography augments this varied cultural picture: oceans and mountains divide the region, which makes Asia-Pacific much different from Europe’s plains. A combination of specific environmental and cultural features adds a special naturalism and harmony to the gradual progress in the region’s development.

A ‘balance of power’ can partly offset inevitable geopolitical rivalry, yet in seeking such a balance each party looks for additional advantages for itself. Such enhanced competition, seemingly aimed at achieving a balance, in reality is full of countless crises as each player scrambles to find an advantage. Regional security in Asia-Pacific needs a multilateral mechanism that should rest upon a multilateral security concept tested through experience in various areas.

Such experience can be drawn, for example, from European history. After World War II, the victors carved up a once powerful Germany and restricted its power through a series of multilateral international organizations. Once the Maastricht Treaty was signed at the end of the Cold War, Germany “exchanged a mark for its unity;” namely, it accepted regional integration by giving up its economic sovereignty in exchange for European recognition of German political unification. Undoubtedly, this European experience, generalized by ‘new liberalism,’ is still a precedent worth considering and learning to promote for regional security. The competition, which cannot be curbed by geopolitical arrangements of the balance of power, is indeed likely to be smoothed out in a kind of mature multilateral framework. Of course, the Asia-Pacific geopolitical environment and Asia-Pacific countries’ historical experience are quite different from those of Europe and Germany. China and Russia, for example, were not defeated in World War II, while the Asia-Pacific region does not have political, economic, and cultural conditions that could copy the European-style, multilateral security mechanism.RICH TRADITIONS

China and Russia, two great powers in Asia-Pacific, have different historical experiences, diverse domestic institutions and development levels, and varying degrees of influence in this region. Yet similar fates and ambitions enable these countries to face current challenges side by side and learn how to address problems with account of the different interests and complex situation. The region should try to achieve mutual benefits through coordinative efforts.

Both China and Russia are undergoing a profound historic change, which probably is more significant than the reforms of the previous decades. Those reforms heralded a transition from a highly centralized planned economy and a rigid political system to a modern market governed by the rule of law and democracy. Those changes were implemented, in one sense, through the example of the U.S. and advanced Western countries. The changes both countries are presently undergoing still contain the important content mentioned above. People still want free markets and democracy. In addition, both countries are exploring their own distinctive forms of governance, trying to build strength in order to renew the nation, continue their traditions, participate in the reconstruction of international political and economic mechanisms, and build new relations amid a regional and global power shift. Overall, the current changes are driven not by a desire to correspond to some external model, which is what happened during the initial stage of reform, but by a desire to blaze an individual path of effective development.

Currently, the Chinese-Russian relationship is entering a new stage of development. Newly elected leaders in both countries are expected to establish sound and effective national governance for a long period. The elites of both nations will have a strategic opportunity to modernize their countries and further develop their relations. It is a rare historical occasion when such opportunity presents itself in two countries at once.

Governing a great power with a complex history is incomparably more complicated than running an ordinary country. In addition to a fair, effective, and practical form of governance, individual politicians play an important role. If the leaders of Russia and China are able to establish an effective dialogue and close partnership, it would be beneficial not only for both countries’ development and their repositioning in the future international setup, but also for a new global configuration. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s statement that he “got along well” with Russian President Vladimir Putin after his first visit to Russia sparked confidence about the future among Russians and Chinese alike. President Xi Jinping stressed: “Russian-Chinese relations are among the most important relations in the world. They are the best relations between great powers.”

This is an important message that undoubtedly shows that the Chinese choose the best partners not based on a country’s power or wealth, but on fairness, reliability, mutual interests, and good decisions. China is guided by the ‘easy to hard’ principle; that is, it gives preference to countries that display greater consensus and have fewer problems with China. This does not mean that China does not attach importance to its relations with the U.S. or the EU, its biggest trading partners. Nor does it mean that China does not value its relations with Japan, one of its most economically developed and powerful neighbors. Yet it is important that China’s decision to set as its first priority promotion of relations with Russia helped to launch a constructive process of building a new system of relations with great powers.

Despite different national backgrounds and institutional cultures, Russia and China are similar in many ways. Continuing modernization in both countries offers an opportunity for supportive cooperation. Although China and Russia abide by common international standards, they choose their own paths of modernization according to their own national conditions and interests. As China and Russia aim to build a stable and sustainable political environment, they show their strong commitment to advancing modern democratic and political institutions. Both China and Russia adhere to governance models characterized by innovation, integrity, harmony, and justice. There are many similarities between these models, but there is also room for both countries to develop new approaches and political instruments.

The next decade will be a critical period for China and Russia. Both countries will play an important role in global governance and expand their international influence by further participating in major international decisions. At the regional level, China has supported Russia’s participation in international cooperation in Asia-Pacific. In turn, Russia has advanced China’s presence at the Arctic Council as an observer, has promoted cooperation in resource exploration on the continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean, and has called for broadening China’s participation in addressing complex issues in the Middle East. At the global level, China and Russia have made remarkable progress in the Security Council over Syria. Thus, both China and Russia will certainly make an important contribution to the future world order.


Although objectively the Chinese-Russian relationship enjoys many benefits, there are still numerous difficulties.

Firstly, world history has never seen such a comprehensive interaction between two powers that share a long, immediate border. Russia is a Christian Orthodox country that has faced many difficulties during its long and complex history. China is an oriental power at the center of an ancient civilization with a complicated past. Since the Tartar-Mongol occupation, these two distant cultures with thousand-year-old histories have interacted and mixed with each other. The Chinese-Soviet alliance in the 1940s-1960s was an important landmark in their common history. However, the reverse side of closely associated fates is the conflict of interests and ambitions that have marked relations between these two countries at various periods in their history. Russia and China have not always been tolerant of each other.

Secondly, during the two decades since the end of the Cold War, the development of Chinese-Russian relations has been limited by a dramatic reversal and difference in the national strength and development levels of these two countries. Different interests and ideologies have also hampered relations. Although there have been exchanges among the political elites in both countries, ordinary people still do not know and understand each other very well. The complementary potential of both countries’ interests is clear, but it has not yet been implemented in specific practical exchanges. Dr. Sergei Karaganov recently said the following about Chinese-Russian relations: “Goodwill now prevails, but some of the old suspicions linger, and some new ones have emerged.”

Thirdly, as international society is confronted with hitherto unknown changes, several Western and neighboring countries are naturally suspicious about the future direction of the relationship between China and Russia. Some countries are trying to stir up discord and contain the bilateral relationship. Since Western countries are more skilled in modern diplomacy, Western standards still dominate in academia. Western discourse has an advantage in the global media, and as long as the West considers armed intervention to be a legal instrument of power, the above-mentioned challenges will continue.

Given this background, it is remarkable that new concepts and approaches have emerged. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin signed in March 2013 a joint Russian and Chinese statement on cooperation and strategic partnership. Proceeding from mutual trust, mutual benefits, and collaboration, both sides support universal equal and inseparable common and collective security, sharing an approach to resolving international conflicts and collisions through peaceful measures. Russia and China are against the use of force and subverting the lawful governments of foreign countries. Both advocate establishing “open, transparent, equal, and inclusive cooperative security architecture” in Asia-Pacific. This position takes due account of the international political reality in the region; it stretches beyond a search for security as the two countries refrain from pursuing the balance of power and copying European security paradigms.

Fourthly, although the joint statement does not specify countries referred to, it contains explicit proposals for limiting ballistic missile proliferation through political and diplomatic means within the framework of international law. The statement also indicates that the national security of some countries cannot harm that of others. This is an appropriate and indispensible approach to solving not only the issue of the Korean peninsula, but also other hotbed issues in Asia-Pacific.

Fifthly, the two sides have declared readiness to support each other on issues of key interest, such as sovereignty and territorial integrity, maintain the historical achievements of World War II, and strengthen their mutual understanding, communication, and support on ABM issues. This is a new common ground and cooperation field that has never been emphasized as such.

It is a crucial historic moment for economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. On the one hand, after emerging from the financial crisis, the Asia-Pacific region may become a driver of the global economy. On the other hand, due to the exclusive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) promoted by the U.S., the Asia-Pacific economy is likely to remain differentiated.

China’s urbanization in the next decade will give a great impetus to Asia-Pacific development. In addition to foreign imports totaling $10 trillion, foreign investment of $500 billion and over 400 million tourists will make a significant contribution to economic interaction between China and other Asia-Pacific nations. The great potential of Russia, including its rich natural resources, geographical environment, and excellent human resources, have great advantages that will complement the economic development of the entire region.Along with China, Japan, South Korea, or any ASEAN country, the main development challenges for the entire region are resources, fresh water, and land. In this regard, all these elements are present across the region. The Russian Far East and Siberia alone have tremendous riches. As Vagit Alekperov, President of Russian oil major Lukoil, wrote in his new book, Oil of Russia: Past, Present and Future, Russia’s current oil reserves could be used for another 36-40 years, while the country’s natural gas reserves can be tapped for 75-80 years. In the next three decades, Russia has all the necessary conditions to increase oil and gas production. Moreover, Russia is one of the few countries with plenty of available land for development. In addition to energy resources, agricultural and food resources will become important sectors for investment over the next few years. Lake Baikal is actually the last large resource of fresh water available in the world that can be commercialized, even without too much investment.

Additionally, an important aspect for the future development of the Russian Far East and Siberia is building infrastructure, which provides plenty of opportunities for Chinese-Russian cooperation. According to a Russian plan, from 2010-2025, per capita housing construction will almost double in the Far East. In addition to building roads, bridges, airports, the construction of housing has great potential. Institutional arrangements need to be made in accordance with the intentions and long-term interests of both Russia and China. In any case, the development of the Russian Far East and Siberia is definitely not a project that can be launched soon. This is a significant issue concerning economics, politics, and security and which requires comprehensive special research.

Warmer winters have created a longer navigable period in the North Sea of four to five month and this has had an impact on international trade. A new trade passage – the Arctic Passage – can be opened with ships moving north off the shore of northeastern Asia into the navigable part of the Arctic Ocean via the Bering Strait, along the Russian North Sea, and finally to Scandinavia. Undoubtedly, this route will be of great importance since it will connect Asia-Pacific, as well as the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia, with the Arctic and northern Europe. For Russia, this is a rare opportunity to develop the Far East and Siberia. The U.S. also regards the Arctic Passage as a vital trade route, especially as that country plans to supply shale gas products to Europe in the future. At the same time, it will also be an important channel for the U.S. to become involved in the Far East and Arctic affairs. For China, it is momentous for transportation of resources, trade, and logistics. The Arctic route means there is no need to further advance to the hinterlands of the Far East and Siberia; it will be sufficient to build the necessary infrastructure in several ports along the Arctic Passage to promote large-scale multilateral cooperation.

As for future Chinese-Russian relations within Asia-Pacific, there are several theoretical and strategic issues to be explored.

Firstly, Western scholars such as Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy have already discussed whether the vast territory, specific climate, and traffic conditions of Russia will be economically helpful in large-scale resource development in the Far East and Siberia. In recent years, the popular ‘energy curse’ theory sparked controversy in Western academic circles. Many experts think that the resource endowment of a nation does not necessarily lead to the failure of a market economy.

Secondly, Chinese-Russian economic cooperation can follow general market rules for economic cooperation, but also could and should go beyond the market principle. Cooperation between Russia and China over natural gas is an example of this. The shale gas revolution has shaken the entire energy market, so Russia needs to pay special attention to the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, this will not necessarily change fundamentally China’s energy requirements within the next decade or even longer. Therefore, China should consider not only energy supply and demand, but also the political situation. For example, the Chinese can accept Russian participation in the country’s urbanization on certain conditions and explore gradually new spheres for mutual interests and complementary demands in order to further promote a Chinese-Russian energy dialogue.


Strategically speaking, Chinese-Russian cooperation would be impossible without the U.S. factor. The twists and turns in Asia-Pacific geopolitics in recent years have neither changed the fundamental dominance of the U.S. nor basically altered the conventions of international cooperation that have existed since the Cold War. At the same time, due to its diversity this part of the world has become the subject of heated debates about the future of international relations. Many things have changed in the past several decades: division solely according to ideology has become obsolete; overt military confrontation no longer exists; and alliances are no longer at odds with each other. In general, the Chinese-U.S.-Russian trilateral relationship has ceased to be mainly a confrontational relationship.

Nevertheless, in terms of global politics, the search for a balance of power is still ongoing. Any bilateral relationship has to consider the influences and constraints on a third party (which is not necessarily a country; it can refer to a group of countries). Fortunately, as the Chinese-Russian relationship progresses, we can see that communication, understanding, adjustment, and deepening cooperation are maintained at different levels and in different fields between China and the U.S., on the one hand, and between Russia and the U.S., on the other. This has actually laid a foundation for the construction of markedly new power relations. According to Henry Kissinger, there must be a moral line for a balance of power. That is also why we need to enhance the theoretical basis of traditional power balances.

Globalization in the 21st century is no longer a trend solely promoted by the ‘Washington consensus;’ it is now driven more by various concepts, including the ‘Chinese dream’ and Russia’s great power ambitions. The process of globalization is not only inspired by the private sector and market mechanisms, it also involves far more diverse participants, especially large corporations supported by their governments. Thus, explaining globalization from the viewpoint of liberalism is not enough. In early 2012, Britain’s The Economist launched a discussion about ‘state capitalism,’ which today is very different from a century ago. If previously the flow of capital, goods, technology, and workers was towards Western and developed areas, today it is a two-way street connecting developed and developing countries and regions.

Nothing can prevent the current global multidirectional development trend. The famous U.S. political scientist and economist Francis Fukuyama reflects in The Origins of Political Order (2011) about why the West does not understand the reasons behind China’s present unprecedented growth. Fukuyama maintains that Western political scientists do not pay enough attention to China, especially its ancient history. He also raises an important point about the relationship between “good governance” and democracy. Fukuyama posits that democracy is definitely a goal that needs to be achieved, but there is no consensus regarding the relationship between democracy and “good governance,” which is something that needs to be explored in-depth. The ongoing profound changes in the world have forced the renowned Western political scientist to review his conclusions made in the late 1980s. At that time, Fukuyama advocated the idea of the “end of history” and final victory of democracy and the Western market economy.

China and Russia should study carefully the experience and lessons of the transition period and conduct an in-depth analysis of possible global trends. A creative and daring approach to formulating the principles of Chinese-Russian cooperation would help greatly. By doing so, both countries will build a solid foundation for constructive relations that are truly in the interest of their people. If certain conditions and objectives are achieved, Chinese and Russian cooperation in Asia-Pacific will very likely go beyond its previous depth and scale. This will impart a strong impetus to an extremely uncertain world, making the path to progress more dynamic and diverse.