The China-Russia Limited Partnership


A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on Rajon Menon’s paper, “The China-Russia Relationship, What it Involves, Where It Is Headed, and How It Matters for the United States.” While I titled that post “The China-Russia Strategic Relationship,” I think the title of this post more accurately reflects where the relationship stands today.
To help us understand the relationship between Moscow and Beijing, Stephen Kotkin recently published a review in Foreign Affairs of Bobo Lo’s new book Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing, and the New Geopolitics. Lo directs the Russia and China programs at the Centre for European Reform.
Kotkin’s basic conclusion is similar to Menon’s. He says that “In many ways, the China-Russian relationship today resembles that which first emerged in the seventeenth century: a rivalry for influence in Central Asia alongside attempts to expand bilateral commercial ties, with China in the catbird seat.” Another way of framing the relationship would be to say that it is at bottom a tactical exchange of Russian weapons and energy for Chinese cash, with a dose of Russian hedging against American hegemony on top.
A few points from Kotkin’s article caught my attention:
-Under the terms of a major energy deal agreed to in February, China will receive 300,000 barrels oil a day from 2011-2030 (a total of 2.2 billion barrels) and will pay less than $20 per barrel! While the price of oil in 2030 is anybody’s guess, $20 per barrel certainly seems like a good deal for the Chinese. The unbalanced terms of the deal are an indication = not only the asymmetrical nature of the Chinese-Russian relationship but also of Russia’s “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” perspective with regard to China and the United States.
-Kotkin also points out that – in stark contrast to the United States – China bends over backwards to appear gracious and respectful toward Russia at all times. The clearest manifestation of this is China’s terming of the relationship with Russia as a “strategic partnership.” Failing to treat the Russians with respect during the 1990s dooms the U.S.-Russian relationship to this day.
-Kotkin quotes Russian political analyst Yuri Federov who says that Russia is “doomed to be a junior partner to everyone,” and Kotkin’s article lends weight to Federov’s pessimism. Indeed, after reading Kotkin’s article, it is difficult to avoid agreeing with the substance of Vice President Biden’s remarks with regard to Russia’s medium to long-run future. Russia has sustained its international position in large part due to its friendly relations with China.
But it is likely that Chinese and Russian interests will diverge more sharply as Chinese power increases. For instance, China will eventually develop its own arms industry to a point where it will no longer be as dependent on Russia. Furthermore, as Beijing becomes a more assertive diplomatic player, it will have an interest in limiting Moscow’s international decision-making role.
I found Kotkin’s entire review informative, and look forward to getting my hands on Lo’s book.
— Ben Katcher


7 comments on “The China-Russia Limited Partnership

  1. thomas gomart says:

    As usual, the key person in a relationship is the third (wo)man. Lo explains how both countries are obsessed by the US for different reasons.
    His piece is a very stimulating one. Lo does not present Sino-Russian relationship in melodramatic terms, as it is the case in some Western experts circles.
    May I draw your attention on one of his developments on the nuclear balance between both countries, and the understanding of the strategic depth by the Russian elites (p. 76-77).
    It is worth reading Kotkin’s article in parallel with a provocative article from Z. Brzezinski (also published in FA, Sept-Oct. 2009), who rethinks NATO in its relations with CSTO, and possibly SCO. In his words, part of the deal for the Russia-NATO relationship is certainly to engage China.


  2. JohnH says:

    I don’t know why Wigwag’s shorts are all in a knot. I already said I oppose China’s slave labor and that I’m not a big fan of China period. I don’t think Ben Katcher is either. Now if Ben had written a piece praising China as some kind of paradise on earth, I might have felt motivated to point out a few big warts, like the treatment of peasants, use of slave labor in prisons, etc. I don’t think there is any disagreement here at all.
    Maybe we could all agree to boycott countries and companies who actively pursue sweatshops, prison labor, and condone slave-like working conditions for competitive advantage? (China, Israel, Dubai etc, etc.)
    OA is right about the SCO. Could the US drive to put its military bases throughout the ‘Stans be a motivating factor behind Russian-Chinese cooperation? Why can’t the US leave well enough alone and let Russia, China and India continue their historical rivalry? Why is this a fight the US must insert itself into?


  3. Outraged American says:

    Look up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. I don’t know why
    I seem to be the only “journalist” in the US who seemed to cover it.
    It’s somewhat scary, but it would reveal more about the level of
    cooperation between the emerging powers, Russia and the Stans.


  4. ... says:

    johnh you’ve gotten under wigwags skin… instead of commenting on what he deesm relevant, he opts to continue his narrow battle over what you post…just this if wigwag was moderator for a forum where we would be? yikes… of course wigwag had the same axe to grind on the previous thread with twn posters in general for being selective in their choice of criticism.. i’m critical of wigwag at this point… wigwag, that will have to suffice for now..


  5. Zathras says:

    I’d want to be sure about Kotkin’s facts. $20/barrel for oil through 2030 seems implausible to me. I can imagine Vladimir Putin or other Russian officials letting their pockets get picked because the Chinese don’t give them static about Ukraine or Georgia, but not to that extent. That’s wouldn’t be granting a concession to the Chinese in exchange for “respect”; it would be giving away the store.


  6. WigWag says:

    JohnH, well what do you know, a post about China. Wouldn’t this just be the perfect time for you to chime in about slave labor in China? We know how offended by slave labor you are. Do you think China might play as big a role in encouraging slave labor as, lets say, Dubai?
    China’s pretty bad in the slave labor market, don’t you think? From what I’ve heard in China
    “They rise before dawn in guarded camps, work six days a week at guarded sites and return by bus with time to do little but eat or sleep.” And then to add insult to injury, they may not get paid. But it is good for business–or rather the business owners.”
    Now that we’ve heard your thoughts about slave labor in Dubai I’m sure your preparing to share with us your views on slave labor in China.
    And guess what, China is the topic of the post; you won’t even have to worry about going off topic!


  7. JohnH says:

    Ben: Care to discuss the US interest in all of this? Is there some reason US taxpayers should care what happens between Russia and China? Care to shed light on why the US is trying so hard to establish military bases in places like Uzbekistan? And why is US military expansion in Asia kept so diligently in the limelight?
    [Oh, guess not. It’s for you to know and not share.]


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