Scepticism dominates when it comes to Russia-China relations. The more both states reassure each other and the rest of the world of their deepening ties and improving relations (which have been presented as ‘the best in all history’), the more eagerly analysts and commentators point to the deficiencies of the ‘strategic partnership’ between Moscow and Beijing. Three kinds of arguments stand out in the ‘sceptic’ narrative.
1) ‘The axis of convenience’. The phrase from the title of the so far most comprehensive account of Russia-China relations by Bobo Lo has been widely accepted in the academic world and beyond. The cooperation between the two powers is real, but shallow. Both cynically use each other to bolster their respective international standing, in particular towards the West and the U.S. but this relationship would not survive if put to a serious test. If it ever comes to choosing, each of the states would place its bets on Washington.
2) The inevitable clash. This reasoning accepts that although currently Russia and China remain close partners, this has to change in the not-so-distant future. The interests of two great powers interfere in too many areas to allow for a flourishing relationship. The Kremlin cannot remain indifferent in the face of a rising and increasingly assertive China. Beijing, which extends its sphere of influence beyond the Chinese borders, will sooner or later threaten Russia’s self-acclaimed privileged interests, most likely in the post-Soviet space.
3) The hidden rivalry. The point here is that Russia and China fiercely compete behind the façade of cordial relations. In Central Asia the competition takes place for energy resources and influence; in the Arctic it is over the Northern Sea Route; and globally it revolves around attracting Washington’s attention (the contest between the Sino-American G-2 and the US-Russia ‘reset’). China and Russia are said to contest each other for the arms markets of the developing states. Russia’s political support and arms sales to Vietnam are presented as a challenge to the Chinese position in East Asia. The Wall Street Journal commentary following Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow is a direct reflection of this kind of thinking.
In this blog I will be challenging these arguments, trying at the same time to remain sceptical with regard to the strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing.