The series of recent commentaries on Russia’s and China’s international behaviour has focused on the challenge the two great powers pose to the liberal international order. Written in a rather pessimistic tone, the analyses have resorted to phrases such as ‘the return of History’ or ‘the revival of the Great Power conflict’. The authors have also frequently made reference to past rivalries, including during the World War I and the Cold War in particular. Dominique Moisi laid the blame on Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping for the absence of statesman-like leadership. In his view, Russia’s policy towards Ukraine and China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas reveal a readiness towards brinkmanship and a lack of strategic self-restraint. Anne Applebaum reproached Russia and China for the return to Cold-War patterns of foreign policy, demonstrated primarily by the aggressive attempts to secure a privileged position in their neighbourhood. Walter Russell Mead put forward the most radical interpretation. In his view Russia, China and Iran form a revisionist coalition aspiring to overthrow the Eurasian status quo, which is advantageous to and protected by the US.
It cannot be denied that Russia and China have occasionally coordinated their actions towards the West, e.g. in the UN Security Council. They have tended to adopt similar positions on normative aspects of the post-Cold War international order, which in practice meant the objection to any kind of military intervention organised under the auspices of Western states. Interestingly, in the 2000s, a particular ‘division of labour’ emerged between Moscow and Beijing with regard to their roles in the global order. Moscow actively and noisily participated in the management of global affairs, eager to join all formal and informal forums (from the G-8, G-20 and BRICS to the Six Party Talks and the P5+1). Beijing, for its part, kept a low profile, engaging in global issues only when China’s vital interests were at stake. In the realm of international security, it was Russia which stood out as the non-Western voice.
This ‘division of labour’ has been reflected in different strategies adopted by Moscow and Beijing towards the West. Russia challenged US primacy while China searched for a modus vivendi. Moscow openly contested the Western-led liberal order. Putin’s speech in Munich in 2007 was the most pronounced declaration of Russia’s unwillingness to accept Western rules. The 2008 war with Georgia, the purpose of which was to block the process of NATO enlargement, demonstrated Moscow’s determination. Conversely, China chose to adapt to the Western-led liberal order, which was most clearly manifested in its accession to the WTO in 2001. China searched for benchmarks which could testify to its non-confrontational rise, such as the participation in UN peacekeeping operations. The concept of a ‘peaceful rise’, promoted in the mid-2000s, was quickly replaced by that of a ‘harmonious order’ as soon as it became clear that the former policy was a cause of concern among the neighbours of both China and the West.
These global roles ran contrary to the trends in the Russo-Chinese bilateral relationship. China allowed Russia, the gradually weakening partner, to enjoy larger international prestige and visibility. It was not until the global economic crisis of 2008-2009 that Russia and China opted for new strategies towards the West and US global primacy. Moscow toned down its assertiveness and improved its relations with the US within the ‘reset’ framework. Embarking on a modernisation agenda, it ultimately joined the WTO in 2012. Conversely, Beijing became more assertive towards the US and its own neighbours. It has pursued territorial claims with regard to the disputed maritime borders, thereby testing Washington’s resolve to support US allies in the region. These shifts were in line with the new balance of power between Russia and China.
Putin’s return to the presidential seat in 2012 has been marked by a growing assertiveness in Russia’s foreign policy. Moscow has effectively dropped its modernisation ideas and has embraced an anti-Western and anti-American agenda. The change of the Chinese leadership, which also took place in 2012, has only intensified China’s demands in the international realm. Russia and China have thus finally ‘united’ in their assertiveness towards the West.
But should the West be wary, as commentators suggest? While Russia and China demonstrate a similar approach towards their neighbours, they do not endorse each other’s attempts to gain recognition of the ‘zones of privileged interests’. Globally, Moscow and Beijing are striving to prevent the West from re-interpreting the idea of state sovereignty and thus oppose the practice of intervention. However, neither Russia, nor China has formulated a normative framework which would present an alternative to the contemporary liberal order. Selectively opposing US primacy, the two most powerful non-liberal states are not building an anti-hegemonic coalition. Russia’s and China’s ruling elites seem to care more about legitimising their international status as equal with the US within the existing order rather than overturning this order entirely.