A Partnership of Convenience

By Lo, Bobo | International Herald Tribune, June 8, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Partnership of Convenience


Lo, Bobo, International Herald Tribune


Relations between China and Russia may appear to be in the pink of health, but there are serious contradictions.

President Vladimir Putin's latest visit to Beijing comes at a time when relations between Russia and China appear to have reached new heights.

The two countries are lock-step in their support of the Assad regime in Syria. Bilateral trade is flourishing, boosted by the opening of a key oil pipeline. They are cooperating in various international forums -- the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS, and the U.N. Security Council. And Putin has announced Russia's intention to catch the "Chinese wind" in its sails.

Yet appearances are deceiving. The self-styled "strategic partnership" may look in the pink of health, but beneath the surface there are serious contradictions. Russia and China differ fundamentally in their views of the world and what they want from each other. These differences do not prevent cooperation in certain areas, but they ensure a relationship that is defined principally by its limitations.

For Moscow, partnership with China serves multiple purposes. It counterbalances the strategic and normative dominance of the United States. It confers on Russia a "success by association," helping to legitimize Putin's domestic and foreign policies. It strengthens Moscow's bargaining position with the West, whether in energy negotiations with the European Union or missile defense talks with Washington. And it allays vulnerabilities about the sparsely populated but resource-rich Russian Far East.

Most importantly, with China by its side Russia feels able to promote itself as global great power, one of the "winners" in a post- American century.

China's expectations from the relationship could hardly be more different. Its Russia agenda is preventative. It wants to ensure a good neighbor and avoid a spoiling and destabilizing presence in Northeast Asia. It seeks a like-minded state to preserve the principle of national sovereignty against Western-led moral universalism and "interference" in its domestic affairs. And it needs Moscow not to oppose its economic and security interests in Central Asia.

On the other hand, it has no interest in revolutionizing an international system from which it has benefited greatly, or of supplanting U.S. global leadership. If there is to be an eventual multipolar order, then it will be led by America and China, not a fading, complacent Russia that is manifestly not up to the job.

Accordingly, Beijing expects little of Russia. It is content to see Moscow take the lead in obstructing Western objectives, whether in the U.N. Security Council over Syria or by blocking alternative gas pipeline routes from Central Asia to Europe. And it retains modest hopes of energy cooperation.

But even this prospect has become less enticing. Russia is a useful source of oil, but far less important to China than the Gulf and Africa. Likewise, the impasse over a long-term gas supply agreement is of no particular consequence, given Beijing's increasing focus on imports of LNG and pipeline gas from Central Asia, and its intention to develop China's vast shale gas reserves.

The Sino-Russian partnership functions on the principle of mutual convenience. Both sides benefit from a stable interaction, and their different motivations in pursuing cooperation can be masked by the usual expedient of high-sounding declarations about the state of the world and assorted framework agreements and memorandums of understanding.

This accommodation, however, will come under real pressure over the next decade. The biggest weakness is the widening gap between a dynamic China and a non-modernizing, politically sclerotic Russia. …

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