The China-Russia Axis
by Robert Skidelsky
published in Vedomosti | Thursday, March 27, 2008

How strong is the Chinese-Russian axis? This, and not Tibet, was what I wanted to discuss when I called in on the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing last week –even though the response of western media to the Chinese ‘crackdown’ in Lhasa gave part of the answer to the question.

In the Far East, there is obviously a strong commercial axis. There has been a large influx of Chinese immigrants into Russia, cultivating previously unused land, providing labour for mining and forestry, and setting up retail outlets. The Chinese also control trade across the frontiers; local Russian politicians seem content simply to take their cut. Then there is the oil pipeline which the Russians have yet to decide whether to take all the way to Vladivostok. What is being re-created is the single economic space which linked northern Manchuria to eastern Siberia a hundred years ago. Even today the centre of Harbin has the look of a Russian city of the belle-époque.

But what about the political relationship? China and Russia both subscribe to ‘multipolarity’ and there is some foreign policy and security coordination. At the Security Council both countries uphold the UN Charter which forbids coercive intervention in the domestic affairs of member states; eleven years ago they set up the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a regional counterweight to NATO expansion. Both powers opposed the NATO attack on Yugoslavia in 1999, and both are against the independence of Kosovo today.

For both countries ‘multipolarity’ is a defensive doctrine, which aims to resist the pretension of the dominant power, the United States, to reshape the world according to its own interests and values. They are highly suspicious of the doctrine of national self-determination which threatens to dissolve their multinational states. For the Chinese, ‘multilateralism’ is simply the American attempt to make ‘unipolarity’ acceptable to the Europeans. The opposite of unipolarity is not multilateralism but multipolarity, which implies acceptance of a plural world order i.e. live and let live.

I asked: ‘How does multipolarity differ from the ‘balance of power’? The Chinese official explained that whereas a balance of power system presupposed a jungle of predators held in check by countervailing force, the Chinese conception was more that of a harmonious picture whose different forms, shapes, and colours find their rightful place and expression.

But why, in that case, were the Chinese rearming? Because, he explained, each ‘pole’ needed to be strong enough to protect its territorial integrity. China was not aiming (even together with Russia) at military parity with the United States, not even an equal voice in shaping the affairs of the world. It accepts that the USA will remain the dominant power for the foreseeable future.

I was then given an elegant disquisition on China’s situation as viewed from Beijing. Historically, China had been the least aggressive of the great nations of the world. The overwhelming preoccupation of its leaders had been to prevent internal disintegration and preserve its independence against foreign invasion. Today, domestic harmony required redressing the huge income gap between its eastern and western provinces; external harmony required that the west recognize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and Taiwan. The disquisition ended with an appropriate quotation from the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu: ‘it is satisfying enough for us to be able to defend our borders from foreign invasion. What necessity do we have for reckless killing?’

The China-Russia axis exists, but it is a marriage of convenience, not a love affair. Russia is inescapably western in its obsession with global power politics; China is inescapably eastern in its proud and massive aloofness. But globalization is a western project and it remains to be seen how far the maxims of Confucius, Mencius, and Du Fu, pragmatically interpreted, offer serviceable navigation in these waters.