The end of September saw two major non-Western powers, Russia and China, provide interesting answers to questions on how they perceive their contribution to global governance. Beijing promised to establish a 10-year, US$1 billion China-UN peace and development fund, offered US$ 100 million to the African Union for the purpose of establishing a rapid reaction force, and committed itself to the creation of a special police unit of up to 8,000 troops for UN peacekeeping operations. Moscow, in turn, vowed to forge an anti-Islamic State coalition and, without waiting long for others to reply, embarked upon its first military intervention outside the post-Soviet area. Targeting anti-Assad forces in Syria, Russia directed its activity towards upholding the Assad regime rather than suppressing Islamic State. This evident contrast between Moscow and Beijing's actions calls for broader reflection as these two states have been increasingly regarded as posing the same kind of revisionist challenge to what has been termed the Western-led order.
The moves by Russia and China outlined above could be dismissed as purely tactical. Xi Jinping, visiting the UN General Assembly, aspired to present China as a ‘benign’ or ‘responsible’ rising power and aimed at diluting the negative fallout of its assertive moves in the South China Sea. Vladimir Putin aimed to demonstrate to the West that Russia will not be isolated from key international security affairs and remains an indispensable player to be reckoned with. Yet, the difference in Russian and Chinese responses suggests that more than mere tactics is at stake. These recent moves reveal fundamental differences in how the two states see their contribution to solving global problems and what kind of global order they are looking for.
The drive to gain recognition and respect - in other words, to elevate their status in international politics - is common to Russia and China. The elites of both states feel underestimated by the West, which, they believe, ignores their fundamental interests. However, the paths they have taken to boost their international status differ substantially.
Russia has now overtly demonstrated to the West that it cannot be squeezed out of the game and retains significant potential to spoil Western endeavours. If it does not become part of the solution, it will be part of the problem. The Russian elite is afraid of external disorder but for the last two decades it has turned out to be more than able to thrive on instability. For this reason Moscow could afford to play a double game with regard to international crises, without fully committing to finding a solution. The Iranian case provides insight into the thinking of Russian elites - as much as Russia does not want Iran to get the bomb, it is nevertheless prepared to live with it.
China’s perspective on world affairs and its own role within the global order differs strongly from that of Moscow and prompts Beijing to employ different means. China has become entangled in the web of economic ties throughout the world. As a result it requires certain international rules to work to its advantage. Contrary to Russia, China has a lot to lose from instability and change. The Libyan or Yemeni crises forced Beijing to evacuate its citizens from war-torn places and exposed China’s vulnerability that comes with growing interdependence with the outside world. Although Chinese elites may dislike the US-constructed global order, they have no other alternative in sight, at least in the short- to medium-term perspective.
Russia and China tend to stress that they share an approach to the international order and global governance, using their annual summits for regular Western-bashing. But when it comes to details, Moscow and Beijing part ways. China reaches for the cheque book, propping up global multilateralism. Russia resorts to arms, reinforcing its own beliefs in self-reliance on the one hand and multipolarity on the other.