The Peak Moment for China-Russia Ties
No. 3 2016 July/September
Xiang Lanxin

Professor, International History and Politics (Emeritus), Visiting Scholar, Belfer Center, Harvard University, Havard Kennedy School; Director, Institute of Security Policy, China National Institute for SCO International Exchange and Judicial Cooperation (CNISCO), Shanghai, PRC

Beijing and Moscow Build a New Model of Great-Power Relations

Observers in the West tend to underestimate the solid foundation of the current Chinese-Russian relationship. The intimacy between Beijing and Moscow is often referred to as a “marriage of convenience.” Both Beijing and Moscow, however, rank their ties as the “peak” in mutual history. We can look at this unprecedented phenomenon through two analytical frameworks: the conceptual framework of converging visions of the future world order and the effective operational framework of harmonized national interests.


In the conceptual framework, Russia and China share a strategic vision against the unipolar world: both see the United States in relative decline and the world already becoming multipolar. In the process of mismanaging its decline, the U.S. suffers from a psychological problem that is often labeled as Post-imperial Time Lag Syndrome (PITLES) and is manifest in the unfounded fear of rising powers. Moreover, both Beijing and Moscow consider their countries to be on the path of national restoration, hence a declining U.S. that is oversensitive to any sign of power challenge from potential rivals and poses a major obstacle to their objectives. The world is changing and the world order must be revamped. Pax Americana is over and Washington must adjust to the new world. Chinese culture is fundamentally anti-hegemonic, and its implication for global governance leads inevitably to competing interpretations of what is the global “moral center.”

If a morally corrupted system does not undergo serious reform, it will not be able to sustain itself for long. Looking from whatever perspective, Beijing’s external policies have raised the specter of a meaningful alternative to Western models of international order, for the first time in three centuries.

But the debates over whether China is going to comply with established (Western) rules of the international system miss the point and encounter at least two cognitive problems. The first problem is the intellectual habit, both in moral and practical sense, of applying Western standards for assessing the “proper” international behavior of a non-Western actor. Here the insurmountable difficulty is for the West to recognize the legitimacy of any alternative model of conducting global affairs based on an entirely different system of domestic governance.

There is no “order versus chaos” mental paradigm which is predominant in mainstream Western IR theories. Naturally, this Western paradigm always focuses upon the international power distribution, hence the need for establishing and maintaining a kind of mechanical power hierarchy in order to keep stability, defined either by hegemony or “balance of power.” In Chinese conception, permanent existence of hegemonic power in any political system cannot be sustained, as the hegemon will inevitably start to misbehave morally. But the new order is not recreated by another pattern of power distribution such as “balance of power” or war, but rather maintained by leaders whose behavior is morally correct. Beijing’s rapidly increasing economic and political power demonstrates that a non-Western actor is equally skilled, powerful and willing to perform on the global stage. In this respect, the acknowledgment of China’s legitimate role as an international actor implies, above all, the treatment of Beijing as an equal partner in the West-dominated international society.

Another cognitive problem is the lack of analytical tools or indeed the right language to explain this new development in international order as a result of China’s “rise.” To begin with, China does not consider itself to be on the “rise,” but in a historic process of national “restoration.” That means, as Henry Kissinger stated in his recent book On China, “the Chinese DNA has reasserted itself,” which explains why so much interest has been accorded to Beijing’s foreign policies, “confronting the new challenges of the twenty-first century, and in a world where Leninism has collapsed, Hu [Jintao] and Wen [Jiabao] turned to traditional wisdom.” The cognitive challenges to analyzing China’s foreign relations have left Western observers frustrated and they have to elicit allegories of animals to help interpret China’s external behavior, ranging from a cute and cuddling “panda” to a terrifying, fire-emitting “dragon.” In the Unites States, for example, pro-Beijing policymakers are labeled “Panda Huggers,” while those opposing China’s foreign policy are known as “Dragon Slayers.” These allegorical images do not clarify but obfuscate the understanding of China’s foreign relations. Such animal allegories confirm that IR theories seem to gravitate easily towards the realms of fiction and fantasy.

Coincidentally, the Chinese view on the world order at this historical juncture is shared and dovetailed by Putin’s Russia. Both sides hold the view that Washington’s alienation from both Beijing and Moscow is reflected by the deeply rooted fear of the U.S. losing hegemonic status as the “only indispensable superpower” (Madeleine Albright). The indications of the U.S. fear are plenty. From Beijing’s point of view, the U.S. decision to restart a Cold War containment machine with the pivot or “rebalancing strategy” in Asia was driven by misguided fear. From Moscow’s perspective, due to the blind American triumphalism over the Cold War, Washington has deliberately ignored the crucial contribution from the USSR to the ending of the Cold War. As a result, the Western alliance took the advantage of post-Soviet chaos to push the Western sphere of influence towards the Russian border.

In sharp contrast to mutual suspicion and deteriorating relationship between Washington and Beijing, the Chinese-Russian tie has proved to be a stable strategic partnership and by no means a marriage of convenience. It is built on mutual understanding, respect and national interests. Dramatic changes in international relations since the end of the Cold War have brought the two countries closer together. Nevertheless, neither side has interest in a formal alliance, because it is unnecessary. Since the end of the Cold War, the two sides have successfully resolved most of the historical obstacles such as thousands of border disputes and initiated and succeeded in building the first multilateral regional institution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is hardly an anti-U.S. or anti-Western bloc. Rather, it provides a safe environment for the two countries and their central Asian partners to support each other through active cooperation. China even hopes this type of cooperation led by two major powers may offer a model for managing the great power relations, especially concerning the U.S.-China relations. The Chinese have offered the concept of “New Type of Great Power Relations” to Washington, but so far it has not been accepted by the American side.


On the operational level, the China-Russia ties have been evolving at a rapid pace in the past twenty years. Over this period bilateral trade and investment have expanded on a massive scale. In 2011, China became Russia’s largest trading partner. In 2014 alone, China’s investment in Russia grew by 80 percent—and the trend towards more investment remains strong. In the early 1990s, annual bilateral trade between China and Russia amounted to around $5 billion; by 2014, it came close to $100 billion. That year, Beijing and Moscow signed a landmark agreement to construct a pipeline that, by 2018, will bring as much as 38 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas to China every year. The two countries are also planning significant deals involving nuclear power generation, aerospace manufacturing, high-speed rail, and infrastructure development. Moreover, they are cooperating on newly created multinational financial institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank BRICS, and the BRICS foreign exchange reserve pool. The One Belt One Road Initiative, disliked by Russia at first, is now linked to Moscow’s favorite project of the Eurasian Union.

Meanwhile, China has become one of the largest importers of Russian arms, and the two countries are discussing a number of joint arms research-and-development projects. Extensive Chinese-Russian defense cooperation involves regular exchange and consultations between high-level military personnel and joint training and exercises, including more than a dozen joint counterterrorism exercises during the past decade or so, carried out either bilaterally or under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. As economic and military links have strengthened, political ties are getting ever closer. Since 2013, Xi and Putin have met 12 times.

Of course, China’s rise has been viewed worrisome among some in Russia. There is still talk in Russia of “the China threat,” Russia’s public opinion poll showed that around 60 percent of Russians were concerned that Chinese migration to Far Eastern border areas would threaten Russia’s territorial integrity; 41 percent believed that a stronger China would harm Russia’s interests. However, these concerns do not support the speculation in the West that Beijing and Moscow are alienated from each other. The crises in Syria and Ukraine indicate that China and Russia can effectively manage their partnership under difficult conditions. China did not take any side but expressed sympathy with Russia’s historical sensitivity to the Ukraine crisis. Chinese leaders are unambiguous about what led to the crisis, including the series of Western-supported “color revolutions” in post-Soviet states and the pressure on Russia that resulted from NATO’s eastward expansion.

On Syria, Beijing supports Russia’s claim that its military intervention at the request of the Syrian government is aimed at combating terrorist forces. China hopes that talks among parties concerned may help resolve the conflict.

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China-Russia ties are at their best since the time of Catherine the Great. They are built on a solid foundation and will remain stable for a long time. Meanwhile, the Sino-American relationship will increasingly run into trouble. As no one seems able to persuade the American leaders to give up their hegemonic fantasies and policy, the strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow will remain a healthy check on Washington’s “unipolar folly.”