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FENG Shaolei:What Is the Purpose of Closer Ties between China and Russia?

In a recent address, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated that the current state of Russian-Chinese relations is “the best in history.” Cheng Guoping, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister for Eurasian Affairs, announced at a news conference on August 27 that President Putin will be formally feted by President Xi Jinping during his visit to China in early September. Cheng specifically referred to the “personal friendship” between Putin and Xi, the two heads of state.

In the history of international relations, even with an alliance between two countries, there may not necessarily exist a “personal friendship” between the heads of state. Although China and Russia have not formed an alliance, their heads have established a “personal friendship.” This friendship seems to be far from birthday toasts with vodka or Maotai wine, but rather, is a significant new phenomenon worthy of consideration in the midst of a transition in the international pattern.

Currently, both China and Russia are undergoing various severe challenges associated with economic transition, and are always brushing up against opinions that throw a wet blanket on their cooperation. Due to their different cultural traditions, it is also imperative for both countries that they deepen their mutual understanding in the future. However, how are the countries so consistently able to promote their cooperation firmly and effectively?

The enormous potential of Sino-Russian economic and energy cooperation is certainly an objective background for the convergence of bilateral relations. Nevertheless, this is far from the current reality. In the history of relations between the great powers following the Cold War, it is probably only China and Russia, through enduring efforts that ultimately settled border issues by legal means. This process indicates that both countries sincerely hope to resolve border problems, create regional peace and then concentrate on economic development and improvement of people’s livelihood. Ten years ago, in response to a question I asked President Putin, he said: What challenges cannot be overcome, since such difficult issues between China and Russia have been resolved? Within the international arena, any strategic partnership encounters such difficulties and challenges. The key is whether they have broad vision and shared strategic willingness beyond barriers of civilization and ideology.

In the current relations between the great powers, an important factor leading to strategic misjudgment is a different understanding of the process of domestic transition in both China and Russia. The process of domestic institutional transition, which both countries are experiencing, is not so simple. It could be found that both China and Russia have more profound observations and ways of thinking about internal and external difficulties and the complicated situation during this process. After experiencing all kinds of hardships, the political elite, as well as ordinary people in both countries, become more aware that, on the one hand, we firmly believe that we can never return to the previous highly centralized traditional model, and, on the other hand, we also cannot simply copy any external model under native conditions. This process of modernization will be a long-term and complex one, full of challenges and adaptation.

In contrast, Western countries don’t identify with this. According to Chinese and Russian elites, the western judgment and reaction to both countries’ internal processes is a calculation based on self-interest rather than their ideological positions. At times there seems to be a deficiency on the part of some Western elites in their knowledge or theory regarding the current complex changes. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why both transitional China and Russia, which obviously hope to befriend the West and also learn from Western governance modes and experiences, in the end find themselves facing great geo-political pressures from the West.

The West-dominated international order, which has lasted a few hundred years, still seems to maintain its political influences and economic vigor in many fields, including security. However, it is clear that the West does not have moral superiority, and that its priority in each area is, to varying degrees, sharply or slowly changing. For such a natural process, this change will undoubtedly become crucial for a successful transition in the future global pattern. The question is whether to take a balanced stance, as advocated by Henry Kissinger, to maintain mutual respect and tolerance among all parties during the dramatic change, or, on the contrary, to achieve individual advantages through various “revolutions.”

Sino-Russian cooperation, including re-convergence among emerging countries, does not mean revolutionary changes to destroy the current international order. However, it appears that they are still capable, together with other players on the world stage, of making the future international order fairer, more reasonable, more diverse and more balanced. At the same time, both countries can also achieve their own progress and development during such international exchanges. This may be the significance of the closer Sino-Russian ties today.

Feng Shaolei is Director of the Centre for Russian Studies at the Key Research Base of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Chinese Education Ministry. He is also Dean of the School of Advanced International and Regional Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.