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
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
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.
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
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,
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