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    Central Asia
     Apr 25, 2009

Ungainly friendship
Axis of Convenience by Bobo Lo

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Creative commentators have coined neologisms like "Chimerica" and "Chindia" for key bilateral relationships in world politics. But few envisage a "Chirussia", even though Sino-Russian ties today are at their highest level in history. Limitations to their "strategic partnership" emerge every now and then, most recently during the Russia-Georgia war over South Ossetia. But anti-Western commonalities to the Sino-Russian tango are equally evident from their exuberant language of "multipolarity".

What has been missing in studies of the partnership is a credible intellectual framework to assess its strengths and weaknesses. Former Australian diplomat Bobo Lo fills the lacuna with a new book arguing that the Sino-Russian friendship has contradictions which cannot be papered over.

The present world system is in transition, with a declining United States but no single state replacement in sight. Lo posits a "new geopolitics" where short-term opportunistic and tactical alignments are the norm of diplomacy. With fast morphing domestic and international circumstances rendering "permanent national interests" transient, the author avers that China and Russia cannot afford to enter into a committed marriage.

The book's opening chapter surveys the burden of history on contemporary Sino-Russian relations. Although both countries' leaderships harp on present-day and future opportunities for partnership, the ghosts of the past have not been exorcised. The Mongol occupation of Russian city-states (AD 1223-1480) solidified the notions of "yellow peril" and "the East as an abiding source of threat in the Russian mind". (p 18) Russian popular attitudes to this day picture China as alien and menacing.

The "unequal treaties" imposed by Russia's Tsars on Qing China in the mid-19th century fostered a lasting Russian assumption of superiority and corollary Chinese humiliation from loss of territory. In the 1920s and 1930s, Joseph Stalin's support for president Chiang Kai-shek caused friction between the Bolsheviks and the Chinese Communist Party. Post-1949 relations between "older brother" Moscow and "younger brother" Beijing were cagey, especially due to the former's fathering of an independent Mongolian state.

When disputes over the undemarcated border led to a mini-war in 1969, Moscow contemplated using nuclear weapons should Beijing launch a "mass attack" using sheer force of numbers. The Sino-Soviet split reinforced mutual stereotypes and kept relations frosty and suspicious. Rapprochement came only in the late 1990s, when Russian president Boris Yeltsin moved his country's foreign policy away from a "Western-centric" approach. Convergence between Russian and Chinese positions improved before the new millennium, thanks to American double standards and "humanitarian interventions".

Yet, tensions lingered over settlement of the border dispute and growing Russian animosity to Chinese migration into Russia's Far East. In Yeltsin's later years, Moscow envisaged partnership with China as leverage against Washington, but Beijing viewed it in practical terms as insurance for Russian weapon exports and for frontier security. This owed to Moscow and Beijing's "diverging perceptions of their respective roles in the post-Cold War order". (p 37)

Since the ascent of Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russia's former president, now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, Sino-Russian relations are more substantial than ever before, even expanding to military-to-military cooperation. But once again, Moscow's approach to the partnership differs from Beijing's. For Russia, it is an "anti-relationship" to counterbalance the US's hegemony. Putin understands that Russia needs "other powers if it is to exert a serious influence in international affairs". (p 43) By befriending China, he aims to avoid strategic confrontation on two fronts (the West and East), reflecting Russian wariness of a potentially aggressive China.

Hu, on the other hand, sees no need to balance American power and is not interested in allowing the nation's partnership with Russia to ruin China's closeness to the US. Fearing repercussions to its domestic economic modernization, Beijing wants to avoid being seen as anti-Western. Lo clarifies that, for China, the partnership with Russia is of "secondary importance, lagging well behind more substantial ties with the US, the European Union and the countries of the Asia-Pacific". (p 47)

Though both Russia and China boast an "identity of views", Beijing was unpleasantly jolted when Putin initially endorsed a US troop presence in Central Asia after September 11, 2001, blithely accepted the US's abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and concluded a Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty with Washington in 2002. In all these moves, China was kept out of the loop by Russia. The Kremlin's "Western-centrism" has from time to time rattled China.

Despite formal settlement of the territorial dispute under the watchful gazes of Hu and Putin, the demographic imbalance between a depopulated Russian Far East and the heavily populated northeastern provinces of China has stoked Russian nervousness and xenophobia. In cities like Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, writes Lo, "anti-Chinese sentiment is rarely far from the surface". (p 219) It is furthered by cross-border trade tilted heavily in favor of Chinese interests, arousing fears of Russia being reduced to a raw materials appendage of China's manufacturing colossus. Russians also worry that Chinese nationalists could resurrect Mao Zedong's demands that the Russian Far East be returned to China.

The Sino-Russian relationship is unequal, argues Lo, due to the gradual shift in the bilateral balance of power in China's favor. Russia's aggregate military strength still exceeds that of China, so much so that the former does not hesitate to sell hi-tech weaponry to the latter. But in the economic sphere, China is the dominant partner as a knowledge-based and "post-modern" industrial juggernaut, while Russia remains a petro-state. The bilateral terms of trade are so asymmetrical that it looks as though "a modernizing China is exploiting a backward Russia for its energy and timber". (p 85)

China's entry as a major player in Central Asia after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 has perturbed Moscow. In response, the Kremlin has played on Central Asian apprehensions about Chinese economic domination. In 2005, it attempted unsuccessfully to scupper the sale of PetroKazakhstan to the China National Petroleum Corporation. For years, Moscow has been trying to get India to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to stave off Chinese domination of regional structures. But Russia realizes that ejecting the US military from Central Asia is a grander objective for which a tactical alliance with China is exigent.

While Russia has tried to showcase the SCO as an alliance to oppose American hegemony in Central Asia, China's first priority is that the organization helps secure its far western Xinjiang province, instead of countering the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. China's calls to steer the SCO towards regional economic integration through a free-trade zone have not been music to Russian ears, as it portends Central Asia's dependency on China. One reason for Moscow's flotation of a separate Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is to reassure itself that it has a regional forum from which China is absent.

In East Asia, Russia does not desire to witness one hegemony (the US) being replaced by another (China). Lo reasons that an overly powerful China in the Asia-Pacific could "undermine Russian attempts to play a more active part in the region's affairs". (p 119) Beijing, on its part, does not intend to assist the re-entry of Russia as another great power into this contested area. Lack of progress on the Russo-Japanese dispute over the southern Kuril Islands benefits China, as it compels Moscow to be "China-dependent" in East Asia. Pending a Russo-Japanese thaw, Beijing is confident that Moscow will remain a "bit player" unable to undermine China's leading position in the region.

The Sino-Russian energy relationship enjoys complementarities, but it, too, has not evaded inclement weather. China's bargaining ploys to obtain Russian oil and gas at discounted rates mean Europe remains a far more attractive market for Moscow. Flip-flops on the East Siberian-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline are symptomatic of the uncertain energy links between China and Russia. The pipeline agreement unraveled in 2003 when Japan offered Russia a more lucrative deal to construct a pipeline that bypasses China altogether. But the Russo-Japanese arrangement collapsed in 2006 due to their territorial dispute, turning the tide back in Beijing's favor. The unpredictability of Russian decision-making has led Beijing to restrict its demand for Russian oil to "non-dependent levels". (p 147) Putin's blueprint of "Asianizing" Russian energy markets have therefore floundered.

The later chapters of Lo's book focus on Russia-China-US "triangularism" in global geopolitical contests. Since 1996, Moscow has employed the "China card" to try to persuade Washington to be more responsive to Russian interests. Russian resurgence under Putin severely deteriorated relations with the US and generated a "new cold war". But China is not disposed to globally challenge American influence, despite professing a preference for "multipolarity". Unlike Russian leaders, Chinese elites have no anti-American "genetic make-up", (p 167) and are happy engaging with both Russia and the US on their own merits. If China intends in any way to undermine American power, says Lo, it "will be an evolutionary and uncoordinated process" rather than in alliance with Russia. (p 169)

Sino-Russian relations are currently at their peak, but they signify only a limited partnership due to a variance in strategic orientation of the two countries. The partnership is at its apogee right now because of the long-term presence of the US military in Central Asia. But the future holds many unknowns for the bear and the dragon. Much will ride on the direction of Sino-American relations. Lo prophesies that a "Sino-American condominium" would cut Russia down to "little more than a secondary regional power". (p 186)

While direct enmity between Moscow and Beijing is improbable, even in the long term, Lo predicts "strategic tension" in coming decades. If China keeps growing as a global power and if the bilateral relationship grows more asymmetrical, Russian frustrations will multiply. The prudent management of this tension will have a crucial bearing on the coming world order revolving around Asia. "Chirussia" may be a non-starter, but Lo's erudite analysis leaves readers better off about the subtexts of this complex friendship.

Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing and the New Geopolitics by Bobo Lo. London, 2008, Chatham House. ISBN: 978-0-8157-5340-7. Price: US$ 32.95, 277 pages.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, New York.

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