Book Review: A Thin Friendship between Russia and China

axisofconvenience.jpg“Axis of Convenience”: Exploding the Myth of an Authoritarian Alliance in Russia-China Relations by Bobo Lo (Brookings Institution Press, £18.99, 300 pages) I recently had the pleasure of attending a discussion by Bobo Lo on Russia-China relations at Chatham House here in London. Dr. Lo’s new book, “Axis of Convenience”, provides fascinating and compelling insights into the complicated relationship between Moscow and Beijing, which has often been touted in recent years as a burgeoning alliance of growing concern to traditional centers of power. Far from the collusive geopolitical counterweight that it is often portrayed to be, the Moscow-Beijing axis is explained by Dr. Lo to be much more an alliance of convenience, driven by ad hoc pragmatism rather than some threatening grand design. The countries are all at once cooperative yet ambivalent, and even cynical, with respect to each other.

Dr. Lo notes that, broadly speaking, relations between Russia and China are better than at any time in their history. Trade has increased eightfold since 1999. The two countries closely share views on doctrines of international order, and run similar models of illiberal capitalist political systems. For Beijing, the relationship with Moscow is a notable success of Chinese foreign policy; for Moscow, the relationship with Beijing is the greatest success of Russian foreign policy.Yet this is not truly a strategic relationship, because Moscow and Beijing have different fundamental interests and national projects. For Russia’s territorial integrity, it is important to secure its Far East – much of which was annexed by China in the 19th century, and has gravitated toward Beijing’s blistering economic growth. Also, considering that Russia is increasingly isolated in the international community, the relationship with China gives comfort to Moscow in pursuing an independent foreign policy. For China, there is a desire to secure and safeguard its strategic rear so that Beijing can concentrate on domestic issues. On a grander scale, China has a real aspiration for global stability – and this is not just a slogan. China needs a stable external environment to ensure its domestic development.The fact that China withheld and scuttled support from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for Russia’s moves in Georgia revealed to the world the limits of the Moscow-Beijing relationship. This is no authoritarian alliance. For the Chinese, Russia represents the past; the West represents the future. Russia is no longer viewed by China as a source of advanced technology. Trade between the two reflects a great asymmetry: Russia exports raw materials, whereas China exports finished goods.Dr. Lo goes further: he questions those who might classify as equals the members of the so-called “BRIC” group of emerging market countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). For Dr. Lo, China and India, not Russia or Brazil, are the true emerging powers.With respect to Central Asia, Dr. Lo posits that Russia and China are as much competitors as they are partners in the region. Both seek to limit Western and particularly US influence in Central Asia. Russia wants to reassert itself as a leading power in the region; China has the more modest goal of being one power among three, that is, to be a significant player alongside the US and Russia. Inside Russian borders, some Russians have raised alarm about a demographic or military threat from China in the Far East. Yet the worst problems in those derelict nether-regions have more to do with local or regional corruption and with neglect from Moscow, than with any real Chinese threat.Dr. Lo also asserts that China does not want its accommodation with Moscow to spoil more important relations, such as those with the US. In this respect, Beijing considers the SCO to be a modest organization of modest purposes and modest achievements; it is essentially a means of legitimizing Chinese standing in Central Asia.Vis-à-vis Europe, Dr. Lo suggests that the harsh reality for Moscow is that Russia does not truly have a “China card” in its bargaining hand with the EU or individual European countries. Moscow knows very effectively how to exploit European divisions and the European tendency to panic. Yet the “China card” is an illusory construct. China is no alternative to Europe as a customer for Russia. Europeans pay top dollar for Russian energy supplies; the Chinese tend to negotiate discounts. Russia’s pipeline infrastructure heads west, not east. With the financial crisis, prospects for investment in eastbound infrastructure are less likely today than any time in post-Soviet history. Furthermore, there is comparatively little justification for building certain types of infrastructure, given the minimal Chinese demand for Russian gas compared to burgeoning European demand. Indeed, China’s interests seem more in tune with those of Europe or the US: easy and secure access, diversity of supply and a secure international environment.On big-picture geopolitics, Dr. Lo posits that Russia and China have diverging views of the New World Order. Russia ultimately situates itself in a European, and Christian, international community. Moscow’s goal is to increase Russia’s status as a global power, to undermine US hegemony. Beijing, in contrast, believes the US is likely to remain the sole superpower for quite some time; as such, there is no point in pursuing policies that undermine the relationship with Washington DC. The long-term vision for Beijing is of Sino-American bipolarity, with Russia as a secondary power. While Dr. Lo foresees no crisis for Russian-Chinese relations in the next decade, he does expect strategic tensions to increase in the longer term, with more and more overt strains becoming apparent.Dr. Lo notes however that a stable relationship between Russia and China is in the interests of the West. Through Dr. Lo’s analysis, we see that the West can take a calm and sober view of the current Russia-China relationship. This relationship does not pose a threat to the West. Indeed, neither Moscow nor Beijing wants the other to do very well; their relationship is one of selective convenience, and not the nefarious axis that many have recently raised fears of.