In recent weeks, China’s assertive moves in the South China Sea have dovetailed with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its covert aggression in the eastern parts of Ukraine. Last year Moscow and Beijing successfully prevented the intervention against the Syrian regime. The return of power politics, with Russia and China singled out as the major culprits, has become the order of the day among the scholarly community. It has been said about both states that they are striving for hegemony in their respective spheres of interest or neighbourhoods and that they oppose liberal internationalism globally.
What are the outcomes of these policies for the international order? John G. Ikenberry optimistically argues that the liberal order will persist as the emerging powers do not wish to overturn it: ‘it is a misreading of China and Russia, which are not full-scale revisionist powers but part-time spoilers at best, as suspicious of each other as they are of the outside world’. For Walter Russell Mead, Russia and China (supported by Iran) are revisionist great powers who challenge the international order created by the US. Charles Kupchan, in turn, takes a more centrist position, arguing that the liberal order dominated by the West will be replaced by a ‘diversified world’, which will be anything but one dominated by a single actor.
President Putin’s visit to Beijing was preceded by ambitious declarations of elevating the two states’ relationship to a ‘new stage’ and it is worth pondering the question of what the Russo-Chinese relationship actually means for the future of the liberal international order.
Russia and China have aspirations to dominate and reorder their adjacent regions. Their respective actions towards Ukraine and the South China Sea coincided but they can hardly be said to represent a coordinated action against liberal order. Although Moscow and Beijing continue to oppose liberal internationalism, with its practices of intervention and normative content focused on human rights and democracy, they are both on the defensive. Russia’s engagement with R2P is very uneven, while China finds it increasingly difficult to reconcile global interests with keeping a low profile outside its immediate neighbourhood. Russia and China may have converged in terms of political systems, but they still represent two distinct types of non-democratic regimes.
The parallel nature of both states’ actions can be very misleading and makes analysts place them in the same category, under the banner of the common challenge they supposedly pose to the West. But beneath the surface, Russia and China are in the midst of their own, bilateral ‘power transition’.
Beijing is gaining the upper hand in the Russo-Chinese relationship and is beginning to dictate its terms. Russia’s sophisticated plans for the diversification of energy export to Asia have been replaced with an increasing dependence on China, so far limited to oil but soon to be extend to the gas sector. The naval drills, organised regularly since 2012, have reflected first and foremost Beijing’s strategic needs and the concerns it holds dear with regard to its neighbourhood. Russia has acquiesced to China’s presence in Central Asia, while not being able to position itself as an independent player in East Asia. Even the success of Russian diplomacy in preventing US action against the Syrian regime cannot overshadow China’s imprint on global multilateralism, from the G-20 to BRICS.
Hence, the relationship between the non-liberal great powers – Russia and China – and the West cannot be reduced to a simple ‘them versus us’ dichotomy or to a return of power politics. Moscow and Beijing are undergoing a complex process of re-arranging their respective places in the international hierarchy. The effect of this is still far from being determined, but it will certainly have an impact on the future international order.