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In a world increasingly framed by great power rivalry, deepening ties between Moscow and Beijing have been one of the most salient features of global politics in recent years. Yet as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, two competing views have emerged about the state of Sino–Russian relations.
The first contends that the pandemic stands to strengthen China’s grip on Eurasia. The persistence of Western sanctions against Russia, the investments generated by China’s state-driven economy, and the acceleration of the trend toward great power rivalry together suggest that Russia and Central Asia will continue to drift further into Beijing’s orbit. Even in the realm of technology where Moscow has traditionally remained sensitive to preserving its sovereignty, the Kremlin has demonstrated an openness to Huawei’s 5G network, suggesting that an emerging ‘Pax Sinica’ at the heart of Eurasia could extend beyond geopolitics and economics into the digital realm as well.
By contrast, others observe that Moscow, in an effort to preserve its status as an independent great power and return a degree of equilibrium to its foreign policy, has begun to distance itself somewhat from Beijing. Supporters of this perspective contend that excessive dependence on China in the context of an emerging Sino–American cold war threatens to sideline Russia from the top tier of global powers, relegating Moscow to ‘junior partner’ status in its relationship with Beijing. Accordingly, they cite as evidence Moscow’s recent decision to skip a ministerial-level dialogue on the Belt and Road Initiative chaired by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, sending an ambassadorial-level representative in place of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Both perspectives contain elements of truth. Claims that Russia’s increasing economic dependence on China will lead to the former’s ‘vassalisation’ are likely exaggerated. Although the economic component of Sino–Russian ties is a useful barometer for measuring the advancement of their strategic partnership, economic ties are not necessarily determinative of political relations. That said, given China’s rising power and continued tensions in Russia–West relations, Moscow has little option but to anchor its foreign policy in its entente with Beijing. This fact should inform Europe’s engagement with Russia if it wishes to play a constructive role in stabilising a global order in transition.
Russia’s deepening partnership with China exhibits a mixed picture, featuring both instrumental and genuine elements. Moscow and Beijing have been brought together in recent years by a convergence of worldviews. They reject the notion that the uniform expansion of the Washington-led global order and the Brussels-centric European order can be equivalent to the spread of order full stop. Their normative rapprochement is underwritten by what they see as unilateral Western efforts to reshape global norms and alter regional security architectures – ranging from the interventions in Yugoslavia and Libya to the status of ‘in-between’ states such as Georgia and Ukraine. Moscow’s declared ‘pivot to the east’ is also reinforced by the perceived dynamism of rising Asian economies, contrasting with the supposed political dysfunction and moral corruption of a West in relative decline.
However, the rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing has occurred largely along ‘negative’ lines, declaring their opposition to American hegemony but failing to offer a comprehensive set of alternative principles for world order. As such, Russia’s gradual efforts to strengthen its ties with China may be primarily aimed at securing its ‘strategic rear’ in its contest with the West. The Eurasian vector of Russian foreign policy still features elements of hedging, with Moscow seeking to diversify its economic and political partnerships to avoid excessive reliance on Beijing. What is more, the two countries’ worldviews are not identical. While Russia’s desire for a ‘polycentric’ world order is aimed at securing great power status as an end in itself, China has little concern for the precise global distribution of power so long as it remains able to pursue its core interests such as fostering economic growth, enhancing regime stability and increasing its regional influence.
To a certain extent, the sharp downturn in China’s relations with Western countries since the start of the pandemic has reversed the dynamic of dependence in the Sino–Russian bilateral relationship. In contrast with the immediate aftermath of the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, it is Beijing that is now dependent on good relations with Moscow to avoid encirclement in an international context that appears increasingly hostile to Chinese interests.
European Russophiles may take this as evidence that a window has opened to pursue a ‘reverse Kissinger’ – to bring Russia into an anti-China alliance. However, such hopes are unfounded. Moscow no longer considers the West to be a reliable partner, its desire for a ‘relationship of equals’ having been rebuffed by the consolidation of Euro-Atlantic institutions that have left it largely excluded from the continent’s core economic, political and security architecture.
At the same time, Russia hawks who fear a return to a Yalta-type order rooted in spheres of influence also miss the mark. Though discord between them can easily lead to dysfunction and disorder, the global agenda is no longer set by great powers alone. Moreover, Russia’s desire for a pluralistic and polycentric world order – exemplified by its still-inchoate but firmly anti-hegemonial vision of an integrated ‘Greater Eurasia’ – is not akin to the emergence of rigidly delineated alliances. In this sense, a ‘reverse Kissinger’ has become impossible not merely because of the West’s failure in alienating Russia, but also because of its success in constructing a globalised world where small states have a say.
Russia’s entente with China now serves as a power multiplier – a key mechanism through which Moscow amplifies its influence on the world stage despite its status as a declining power. While it is true that the persistence of Western sanctions would gradually push Moscow even closer toward Beijing, it does not necessarily follow that a Russia–West reset would restore the status quo ante in EU–Russia relations.
This is not an argument against pursuing engagement with Russia, but rather a realistic assessment of what engagement can achieve. Moscow’s partnership with Beijing is now likely as crucial as its relationship with Washington to maintaining Russia’s great power status. At least in this sense, the Eurasian vector of Russian foreign policy has become meaningful in its own right, placing inherent limits on any European attempt to persuade Russia that its natural home lies with the West.
And the Europeans?
Still, Brussels should not conclude that it must adopt a largely defensive posture aimed at defending European norms, values and institutions from a rising Eurasian behemoth. Both the EU and Russia share an interest in avoiding a world framed by a Sino–American bipolar rivalry, which would reduce the normative and geo-economic clout of Brussels while undercutting elements of Moscow’s great power status. Although they may not agree on the shape of the European security system for the foreseeable future, this should not preclude confidence-building measures and cooperation between them at the pan-Eurasian or global levels when their interests intersect.
The EU should therefore offer Russia cooperation on the basis of their shared commitment to a multipolar world order. Global multipolarity should be fostered as a guarantor of the independence of states and regional blocs – which is a core European principle – rather than according to a logic of ‘containment’ that is incompatible with the precepts of the Sino–Russian strategic partnership.
This approach to restoring engagement would strengthen the international conditions that sustain European sovereignty. It would also buttress EU foreign policy by fostering a pan-Eurasian strategic posture in place of separate sets of guiding principles for engaging with Moscow and Beijing. France, which has led calls for re-engaging with Russia but encountered resistance from other EU members, could use this opportunity to increase its level of trust in Central and Eastern European circles by pushing this compromise proposal – one rooted in cooperation with Russia at the external level, but defence of the rights of small states and opposition to spheres of influence at the intra-European level. Such a move, which aims to boost consensus among member states on foreign policy issues, would help Europe gradually move beyond a ‘geopolitical Commission’ toward a veritably geopolitical EU.
Zachary Paikin (@zpaikin) is Senior Visiting Fellow at the Global Policy Institute and an expert with the Cooperative Security Initiative, a joint project of GLOBSEC and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Vienna office supported by the OSCE. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Kent.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of the Kremlin.