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Foreign Policy

What to Make of Deepening China-Russia Relations?

Nov 21 , 2014
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

Among the sets of major power relationships in today’s world, relatively speaking, the China-U.S. relationship is the most critical, China-Russia relationship closest, and Russia-U.S. relationship most complicated. While China-U.S. relations develop in twists and turns and Russia-U.S. relations become more entangled, China-Russian relations develop further and deepen at the same time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Beijing for the 22nd APEC informal leadership meeting and met Chinese President Xi Jinping, the fifth meeting between the two since the beginning of this year. According to Xi, the two “maintain close communication with each other to provide strengthened top-level design and strategic guidance for the development of China-Russia relations and to cultivate an evergreen tree of China-Russia friendship and cooperation,” which has produced rich fruits. Putin claimed that this meeting would “inject a new driving force into the development of positive Russia-China relations”.

Putin’s visit has dual focuses. On the bilateral front, the two countries are to strengthen cooperation in energy, high-speed train infrastructure, aeronautics, and finance with a series of agreements signed between competent government agencies including those providing for the supply of Russian natural gas to China through pipelines. On the international front, the two sides vowed to commemorate together the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II with a view to jointly safeguard the fruits of victory and post-war international order.

In 2014, the two countries have had closer diplomatic coordination, spectacular joint military exercises, energy cooperation with long-term perspective and increasingly multi-dimensional cultural exchanges. All of these demonstrate that their political mutual trust has reached a new high: economic integration has reached a new stage, military interactions have moved into new realm, cultural exchanges have shown new outlooks and diplomatic consultations have produced new results. There is still huge potential and enormous space for their relations to develop further.

The China-Russia relationship is actually a new model of major power relations. Its foundation is the five principles of peaceful coexistence. It is pre-conditioned on non-alignment, non-confrontation and not targeting any third country. As such the two countries truly exercise strategic cooperation without entering into an alliance, handle international affairs according to their merits rather than pursuing double standards, and seek resolution of disputes or differences through consultation between equals.

China and Russia develop in parallel and in cooperation. There are reasons for that. Both are in transition, each in search of path to development suited to its national conditions and in need of a sound external environment. They do have similar philosophies on ruling the country and have taken similar measures. For example, China rather appreciates Putin’s pursuit of a “controllable democracy” aimed at political stability and social harmony, a social market economy with efficiency given priority and equity given due consideration, and a comprehensive balancing diplomacy. China and Russia have different national interests and ideologies. However, where their national interests differ, the two countries have chosen to coordinate with each other. And their relations have gone beyond ideological differences. In other words, these differences are handled properly, without distorting state-to-state ties. The two major powers have both commonalities and distinctive properties. In the collaboration process, commonality is stressed while individuality respected and accommodated to the extent possible. Such is the essential lesson for the development and deepening of China-Russia relations.

One may ask about the relationship between Putin’s Eurasian Alliance and China. Putin put forward the idea against the backdrop of building U.S. and EU pressure and difficulty for the Commonwealth of Independent States to act effectively. Russia attempts to take the lead to expand the economic union between Russia and Central Asian countries, a task that will take protracted time to accomplish. Although an agreement was signed by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, it seems difficult for Putin to achieve what he wishes with the ongoing Ukraine crisis. The Eurasian Alliance also overlaps with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and China is thus involved. If properly handled, the two may complement each other; if mishandled, conflicts may arise.

Attention has also been given to the respective roles of China and Russia in in the SCO. SCO cooperation continues growing and the growth can’t possibly be equal or balanced with priorities pre-defined as security followed by economy and then humanities. China and Russia are the two dominant forces in the SCO. Russia plays a special role in maintaining security. Economically, China is taking the thunder with mutual benefit proposals such as the Silk Road Economic Belt. The best the SCO may achieve is to maintain and carry forward the Shanghai spirit and to enrich it to the maximum on the basis of being conducive to regional peace, stability and development.

When China-Russia relations are discussed, it is natural that the U.S. comes into the picture. China-Russia relations and China-U.S. relations neither depend on nor exclude Russia-U.S. relations. Politically the U.S. worries more about the influence of the Chinese model in the world, while militarily the US guards more anxiously against Russia turning into another Soviet Union. Putin’s defiance of the U.S. and the West should be perceived as the pursuit of an equal status. The three major powers of China, U.S. and Russia naturally compete for international influence. But competition should neither be a fight nor confrontation.

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