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Foreign Policy

China, Russia: A Cognitive Community

Jul 13, 2021
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

On June 28, the Russian and Chinese heads of state met in a videoconference and issued a joint statement formally announcing the extension of the China-Russia Treaty of Good Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation. This took place against the backdrop of U.S. President Joe Biden’s high-profile participation in the G7, NATO and U.S.-Russia summits.

The frequent high-level strategic interactions between China and Russia this year have sparked a high degree of interest in Western public opinion, with a variety of comments that boil down roughly to two core concerns:

First is the China-Russia alliance threat theory, which holds that in the face of the new U.S. administration strengthening its alliances, China and Russia will move toward a quasi-alliance and strengthen relations with U.S. enemies such as Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which will pose a great threat to the U.S.-led international order.

Second is a theory that the Sino-Russian relationship is fragile. As the argument goes, the rival geopolitical spheres of influence of the two countries, coupled with the fact that Russia’s economic strength is well below China’s, creates an asymmetrical structure that makes Russia reluctant to become China’s junior partner. In this view, the Sino-Russian relationship is merely a stopgap in response to U.S. pressure, and the two countries will eventually split, as they did in the 1960s.

While there is certainly a common interest in China-Russia strategic cooperation in response to U.S. strategic pressure, it would be not only intellectually wrong but also practically harmful to position the relationship solely in terms of a balance of power and short-term interests. At the core of Sino-Russian relations is a cognitive community based on a high level of similarity in the two countries’ basic judgments about international relations and U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.

First, China and Russia are deeply aware that the fundamental dilemma of U.S. foreign policy lies in the fact that domestic political polarization has seriously waylaid U.S. diplomacy, which requires both a resolute attitude and strategic patience. In February, the Chinese and U.S. heads of state spoke on the phone on Chinese New Year’s Eve. They reportedly talked for two hours about various possibilities for China-U.S. cooperation, with Biden praising the Chinese people as a great people. Yet, soon in his addresses on domestic issues — whether the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance or other speeches — China was criticized as an authoritarian state, a challenge to the international order and a major rival to the U.S.

In June, the U.S. and Russian heads of state met in Geneva for the first time in years. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wrote an article recently revealing that despite the broad consensus reached by the heads of state, those U.S. officials who attended the meeting turned around and said they had warned Russia and made demands. They said Russia would receive new pressure if it did not accept them.

All this shows that there are smart people in leadership roles in the U.S. who have a clear understanding of the importance of international relations and great power cooperation; but the internal pressure of domestic politics has forced these smart people to pretend to be confused internally.

Faced with this situation, China and Russia naturally need to state the facts on various occasions. At the same time, we can see that China and Russia are restrained in their statements. China’s central leaders did not level criticism by name as U.S. leaders did, and President Putin, in an exclusive interview with the U.S. media in Geneva, showed great patience in a reasoned rebuttal to provocative questions.

Second, both China and Russia believe that the emergence of a global audience in the post-Cold War era has shifted the global knowledge market from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market. With the internet, translation software and instant messaging apps, the flow of knowledge and information has become highly accessible and competitive. More than any other market, the knowledge market has the ability to penetrate borders. Listeners, as knowledge consumers, have become more global, and they not only receive different information but also compare, analyze and disseminate it, which poses a greater challenge to providers.

The relevance of words and facts is the key to gaining the acceptance of a global audience, because they don’t just listen to what you say; they constantly test what you do. This means that those who rely on highly ideological and confrontational discourse — for example, democracy versus dictatorship, or human rights versus repression — but who don’t deliver when it comes to improving people’s lives, will be lost to a questioning global knowledge-buying market.

Third, both China and Russia believe that the multipolarization of international relations and the movement of the global knowledge market from being monopolized to being free and open is an unstoppable historical trend. After the end of the Cold War, the concepts of the end of history, democratic peace theory and the theory of indispensable states differ in manifestation, but they all share the core belief that the United States is the victor of the Cold War.

The logic derived from this is that challenging the U.S. version of the domestic order of democracy and market economy, as well as the U.S.-dominated peaceful international order, would mean global chaos. This is essentially an exclusive intellectual monopoly. The global financial crisis, the postwar revival of Europe and Japan and the rise of larger emerging economies have proved that there is no uniform path to modernization. The theory that multipolarization leads to international chaos without the support of U.S. hegemony has never been empirically tested.

Sino-Russian relations will not move toward a military alliance, and much less toward division, because at the core of the relationship is a cognitive community forged through long-standing strategic interactions after the Cold War.

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