There is an undeniable continuity in post-Cold War Russian-Chinese relations. They seem to be always progressing in a linear direction – towards greater engagement with one another. Even given the periods of stagnation – such as witnessed after Russia’s rapprochement with the US, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks – have not altered this dynamic.
This continuity is often ascribed to just one factor, which is most often either the persistence of unipolarity and the American global domination or similarity in authoritarian political-economic systems (this line has been developed in the most recent piece by Lilia Shevtsova). It is, however, worth going beyond the mono-causal picture by taking a closer look at those domestic, regional and global factors which may be expected to influence the relationship between Moscow and Beijing and make it more complex in the coming years.
Relative domestic stability in both Russia and China has contributed significantly to the development of their ties. Currently neither the old leader in the Kremlin, nor the new leadership in Zhongnanhai can look calmly into the future. While Putin sees his fading legitimacy and may expect further waves of protests, Xi Jinping and his team face conflicting calls, to liberalize the system and to bolster its international standing. Indeed, to which of these vows Xi Jinping responds in realising the Chinese dream, does matter for the Kremlin.
The regional dimension is no less interesting to observe, especially given the significance and scale of changes it is expected to undergo. The transformation of Eurasia is looming. It will be marked by the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as the Russian project of the Eurasian Union. A number of analysts interpret the Russian integration effort as an attempt to forestall further Chinese expansion into the ‘Russian’ Central Asia. The lack of a common political opponent after 2014 is going to adversely affect efforts to avoid open Russian-Chinese rivalry in the region. Moreover, if Moscow succeeds in making its pivot to Asia more substantial (it has so far remained in the sphere of rhetoric), diplomatic mastery in managing bilateral relations will be valuable.
In the global realm, China and Russia face a strategic environment which is far from clear-cut. The US retrenchment strategy has been coupled with more sophisticated attempts to boost American presence in East Asia and to hedge - de facto - against (if not contain) China’s rise. Interestingly, in response Russia and China alike have resorted to using increased assertiveness. Moscow brought the ‘reset’ with the US to a halt and Beijing has pursued territorial claims with regard to disputed maritime borders, thereby testing Washington’s resolve to support US allies in the region.
Groundbreaking events in recent international relations have, for the time being, fueled the Russo-Chinese relationship. The wave of the Arab Revolutions has strengthened the perception of increased potential for domestic turmoil and pushed Russia and China towards closer cooperation (in a similar vein to the wave of colour revolutions in the post-Soviet space in the mid-2000s).