Challenging The US Order

The Limits of the ‘No-Limits Partnership’

Patricia M Kim

On February 4, 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing. After talks, the two sides released a joint statement declaring that China and Russia’s bilateral partnership was greater than a traditional alliance and that their friendship would know “no limits”. Twenty days later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Putin’s brazen gambit immediately cast scrutiny on Beijing; many observers perceived that it had backed Putin’s offensive or, at best, wilfully ignored it. Russia’s tight embrace of China since then comes as no surprise, given its dire need for partners in the face of global isolation. More striking is Beijing’s steadfast refusal to distance itself from Moscow, despite the costs to its global image and its strategic interests. Even as Russia has become a pariah, Beijing has not paused bilateral exchanges and joint military exercises or dialled down its public exhortations on deepening strategic coordination with its friend to the north.

Beijing’s resolve to maintain ties with Moscow is partly practical. Chinese leaders want to keep their nuclear-armed neighbour and former rival on their side as they look ahead to intense, long-term competition with the United States. But China’s alignment with Russia is not only a matter of realpolitik. Beijing sees Moscow as its most important partner in the wider project of altering a global order that it perceives as skewed unfairly toward the West. In this order, according to the Chinese and Russian line, the United States and its allies set the rules to their advantage, defining what it means to be a democracy and to respect human rights while retaining the power to isolate and punish actors for failing to uphold those standards. Beijing and Moscow purport to seek a “fairer,” multi-polar order that better takes into accounts the views and interests of developing countries.

Such revisionist aspirations undoubtedly resonate in the global South and even in some quarters of the developed world. But Xi’s designation of Putin as a key ally in the push for a less Western-centric world has ultimately set Beijing back in accomplishing its objectives. China’s association with a revanchist Russia has only drawn more attention to its own aggressive posture toward Taiwan and India. The perception of a hardening Chinese-Russian axis has, in turn, reinforced ties among U.S. allies and partners. And China’s proximity to Russia has undermined the credibility of Beijing’s claims of being a champion for peace and development.

In short, the Chinese-Russian alignment has proved far more threatening to the U S-led order in its conception than in its operation. To be sure, the partnership can still cause damage—for instance, by shielding the likes of Russia and North Korea from punitive measures at the United Nations and enabling their continued aggression. But Beijing’s and Moscow’s conflicting priorities and the latter’s generally dismal prospects limit the pair’s ability to revise the existing global order in a truly coordinated and radical way. Western leaders should nevertheless accept that efforts to push Beijing to cut its ties with Moscow are likely to fail. In the near term, the United States and its allies should focus instead on preventing the partnership from veering down a more destructive path by taking advantage of Beijing’s strong interest in the preservation of global stability. More broadly, Washington and its allies should recognise that China and Russia are channelling real disaffection with the existing international order in many parts of the world—and should get to work bridging the gap between the West and the rest.

Since Xi’s rise to power in 2012, Russia has become one of China’s key partners with the steady strengthening of economic, political, and military ties. Moscow and Beijing may have started off as allies in the early days of the Cold War, but decades of rivalry and mistrust followed a split over ideological differences that emerged in the late 1950s. Beijing and Moscow have been brought together again in the twenty-first century by shared grievances with the West and the clear parallels they perceive in their respective situations, with Russia accusing NATO of encirclement and China feeling hemmed in by U S alliances in Asia. Chinese and Russian leaders also share a fear of “colour revolutions”—popular uprisings that have ousted autocratic governments around the world, including in former Soviet states—which they allege are Western-sponsored attempts at regime change.

Last year’s rhetoric about a friendship with “no limits” followed an earlier upgrade to relations in 2019, when China and Russia announced they had forged a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era” during Xi’s visit to Moscow. China accords this deliberately long moniker to relations with no other state. And by invoking “a new era” (a phrase Xi coined to reflect China’s bid for national rejuvenation in a shifting geopolitical landscape), the label also underscored the two states’ intention to work hand in hand during a period of strategic opportunity.

In recent decades, China has shunned formal alliances for both pragmatic and ideological reasons and has criticised the United States’ vast alliance network as a “vestige of the Cold War.” But Beijing has increasingly resorted to semantic gymnastics to talk about its alignment with Russia. Chinese statements regularly insist that the bilateral partnership is “not an alliance” and “not targeted” against any third party while also making the case that China and Russia’s relationship “surpasses” traditional alliances. Even before the joint statement in February 2022, Beijing had stressed that no areas of cooperation were off limits and that the partnership would stand firm in the face of international headwinds.

Hard military ties have grown alongside this rhetorical camaraderie since the first joint Chinese-Russian military exercise conducted in 2005. Since 2012, the two sides have engaged in increasingly ambitious and frequent training, including naval exercises in the East China and South China Seas and joint engagements with third parties, such as Iran, South Africa, and members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a China-led grouping of states. In late 2021, China and Russia made headlines by holding their first joint naval exercise in the western Pacific, during which their vessels sailed through key waterways around Japan.

Economic ties, too, have deepened in the last decade, with the two sides signing dozens of agreements outlining cooperation on energy, infrastructure, agriculture, finance, and technology. Bilateral trade has grown in volume over the last two decades, but it has also become increasingly unbalanced, with China’s economy rapidly eclipsing Russia’s. As of 2021, China accounted for 18 percent of Russia’s total trade, while Russia only accounted for two percent of China’s. Russia’s top exports to China are natural resources, such as gas, oil, and coal, that may be important today but will become less so as Beijing turns more toward renewable energy sources. China’s top exports to Russia, however, are largely manufactured goods, such as machinery and electronics. Russia depends overwhelmingly on the more advanced Chinese economy for technology imports, from semiconductors to telecommunications equipment.

This material relationship sits alongside an intensifying ideological alignment. China and Russia both seek to challenge what they perceive to be a Western-dominated global order that allows the United States and its allies to impose their interests on others. The two countries have frequently protested the primacy of “Western values” in international forums and have argued for a conditional understanding of human rights and democracy, defined “in accordance with the specific situation in each country.” In their joint statement from February 2022, China and Russia insisted that they, too, are democracies and took a swipe at “certain states” for using the “pretext of protecting democracy and human rights” to sow discord among other countries and intervene in their internal affairs.

Beijing and Moscow accuse Washington of unfairly using its economic power, including the privileged position of the U S dollar in the global financial system, to impose punitive measures on its rivals. China and Russia have both pushed back on Western sanctions, despite employing economic coercion themselves against others. Beijing has argued that sanctions levied outside the auspices of the UN violate states’ “right to development,” a framing that has its roots in the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests to prioritise the “right to subsistence” above civil liberties and political freedoms. Although China no longer struggles with concerns about basic subsistence, Beijing has criticised high-tech export restrictions and other decoupling measures adopted by the United States and its allies as unfairly constraining China’s development and “right to rejuvenation.” Beijing has also used this language to object to Western sanctions on Russia regardless of its offences, claiming that the sanctions infringe on Russia’s economic rights and have damaging side effects on developing countries.

In the global South, China continues to market itself as an apolitical champion for development, a position that Russia supports. The two have extolled the virtues of Chinese projects, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, a vast infrastructure development programme, and the more recently announced Global Development Initiative, a still vaguely defined scheme seen as a successor to the BRI that, according to Beijing, brings development “back” to the centre of the global agenda. Such initiatives, along with Chinese messaging about development, have found receptive audiences in the global South, given that many low-income countries want rapid development but remain averse to international scrutiny on their domestic governance.

Xi and Putin have met in person 39 times since 2012.

Over the years, Beijing and Moscow have advanced various measures to weaken U S control of the international economy. They have cooperated to create alternative financial institutions and mechanisms to dent the dollar’s dominance and blunt the impact of Western sanctions. This effort has gained greater urgency since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent cutting off of major Russian banks from the SWIFT international payment system. Since Beijing and Moscow agreed in 2019 to boost the use of national currencies in cross-border trade, the Russian central bank has significantly reduced its dollar holdings and increased its investment in Chinese yuan. About a quarter of Chinese-Russian trade is now settled in renminbi and rubles, and this percentage will increase following the announcement last fall that China will begin to pay for Russian gas half in renminbi and half in rubles. Beijing and Moscow’s efforts to reduce the dominance of the dollar have been warmly welcomed in friendly groupings such as the SCO and the BRICS, which brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

At the heart of China and Russia’s ideological alignment is a common desire to weaken the vast U S-led alliance architecture in Europe and Asia. The two countries accuse Washington and its allies of violating the principle of “indivisible security” by advancing their security interests at the expense of others’. The Kremlin has employed this argument to justify its war in Ukraine and to redirect blame for the conflict on NATO. And this narrative has caught on in many parts of the global South, thanks in part to Chinese state media amplifying Russian talking points. In Asia, Beijing has pointed to the strengthening of the U S alliance network—including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a security partnership between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, and AUKUS, a partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—as evidence of the U S-led containment of China. But Beijing faces an uphill battle in challenging the U S presence, given that many Asian governments are concerned about China’s aggressive behaviour and welcome the United States’ balancing role in the region.

Despite seeking to change elements of the current global order, Beijing and Moscow do not wish to revise all elements of the existing architecture. They continue to stress that the United Nations and UN Security Council should play a leading role in the international arena. This position is unsurprising, given the privileges China and Russia enjoy as permanent members of the Security Council and their ability to rally developing world partners at the UN.   

[Source: Foreign Affair]

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Vol 55, No. 38, Mar 19 - 25, 2023