What is the ‘New Era’ of the Sino-Russian Relationship?

17 june 2019

Lanxin Xiang is Professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva; Director of the Center of One Belt and One Road Studies, China National Institute for SCO International Exchange and Judicial Cooperation.

Resume: For a long time, Western commentators did not take the close relationship between Russia and China seriously, because conventional wisdom held that the foundation of this link is fragile. Russia has its “Eurasian complex,” which is considered ephemeral and opportunistic, whereas in China there has been a strong distrust of Russia since the 1949 Communist revolution, as typified by the Mao-Stalin alienation. Today, such analytical logic can no longer hold water.

For a long time, Western commentators did not take the close relationship between Russia and China seriously, because conventional wisdom held that the foundation of this link is fragile. Russia has its “Eurasian complex,” which is considered ephemeral and opportunistic, whereas in China there has been a strong distrust of Russia since the 1949 Communist revolution, as typified by the Mao-Stalin alienation. Today, such analytical logic can no longer hold water.

President Xi Jinping’s visit to Russia took place amid the dawn of a “new era” of comprehensive strategic cooperation in the bilateral relationship. What is this “new era”? According to an official joint declaration, it includes the need for defending multilateralism, the world trade system, the authority of the United Nations and the sovereign rights of nations. More interestingly, for the first time, both sides have decided to collaborate in a wide range of areas, not only with respect to trade and investment, but also by jointly engaging in technological development, especially with respect to information technology, with the clear objective of breaking the longstanding US monopoly over this sphere.

The “new era” also reflects fundamental changes in the international system, triggered by the “America First” strategy of President Trump.

The deepening of Sino-Russian cooperation comes at the right moment, in light of the current full-scale trade war President Donald Trump has launched against China. In a way, the concept of a “new era” is a call for restoring some key values embodied in the “old” system. Blaming others for one’s own problems is nothing new, and modern politicians are as likely to shift blame to a foreign enemy as ancient rulers were. It is an effective tool of political distraction. The typical methods include promoting half-truths, promoting inaccurate data and fabricating stories. Adolf Hitler used this tactic successfully to rally popular support – by blaming the Treaty of Versailles for all Germany’s internal problems. The irony is that Hitler at least attacked an “unequal” treaty imposed on Germany by foreign powers, whereas Donald Trump blames the Bretton Woods System, which is a quintessential US creation.

The real question is whether or not this blame game will work for Trump in domestic US politics. The answer will depend on whether Trump’s diagnosis of the American economic problem is valid.

The anti-China “Dragon Slayer Camp” is led by lunatic economists such as Peter Navarro and some extremist national security hawks. Navarro, now an advisor to Trump on trade, has long been propagating the theme that the United States has traded away its superiority to China for short-term economic gains. This accusation is absurd.

The other camp, the “Panda Huggers”, did have some fantasies about China, such as a “convergence” theory, believing that the two systems (China and the West) will eventually synchronise; this has not taken place since China opened up its economy four decades ago. However, the “huggers” are at least historically and cultural sensitive to China’s experience of national humiliation, thus China should be seen as “a particular type of rising power that has real security concerns based on recent history".

With Russia, the Trump administration has not only scrapped most of the arms control deals, but also identifies Moscow as a leading rival. The US national security team, led by ideological hawks such as Mike Pence and Michael Pompeo, tried hard to revive the early Cold War policy of strategic containment. This was based on two ideas: regime change for authoritarian states, and the doctrine of pre-emption: preparing for war with Russia and China before it takes place (which they contend is unavoidable).

Under these circumstances, the Sino-Russia collaboration on the global stage now becomes the only powerful constraint on the dangerous trend of American unilateralism. The good news is that the Trump strategy of America First has created huge problem for Transatlantic relations as well. If we consider the West to now effectively be split into two, between a jingoist new Rome and a peace-loving new Greece, support for the Sino-Russian position in the world order is bound to rise. Donald Trump dislikes almost everything the EU represents. Now that the Trump trade war is running into difficulties, realism seems to have found a great opportunity to creep back into policy-making. The new era of Sino-Russian relations coincides with the rapid decline of America’s global standing, now that Washington has squandered a reservoir of international good will and soft power which it had built for over seven decades.

The Valdai Discussion Club

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