"Sino-Russian Strategic Partnership: A Threat to American Interests?"
By Gang Lin
Asia Program Associate
Steven I. Levine
Mansfield Professor of Asia Pacific Studies, University of Montana
Alexei D. Voskressenski,
Professor of Asian Studies, MGIMO-University, Moscow
Jeanne L. Wilson,
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Wheaton College
Visiting Fellow, the Brookings Institution
One decade after the end of the Cold War, the United States faces the challenge of a potential Sino-Russian strategic realignment, a possibility that rekindles memories of the Sino-Soviet alliance in the 1950s. Retrospectively, the development of this renewed Sino-Russian strategic partnership has been facilitated by the delimitation of the long-disputed border between the two countries, their common interests in economic and military exchange, and their shared opposition to a "uni-polar" world order dominated by the United States. To what degree will China's economic potential and Russian arms sales to China enhance the two countries' strategic partnership? What will be the political impact of increasing Chinese migration into the Russian Far East on the two countries' bilateral relations? To what degree will U.S. national missile defense proposals promote the further development of a Sino-Russian strategic relationship? Four China and Russia experts explored the prospects for a Sino-Russian strategic partnership as well as its implications for U.S. foreign policy interests during a seminar co-hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program and the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies.
Steven I. Levine of the University of Montana argued that the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership emerged as an expression of the two countries' unhappiness with the post-Cold War world order dominated by the United States, but emphasized that it cannot offer a concrete alternate paradigm to the present international system. The Russian-Chinese strategic partnership, as a "second-tier" relationship, could serve to exert pressure against the West in order to reinforce the "first-tier" relations that Moscow and Beijing must develop with the West. Russian and Chinese leaders therefore need to strengthen their strategic partnership, primarily by focusing on areas of bilateral concern, without jeopardizing their links with the United States. The disparity in power and wealth between Russia and China provides both opportunity and danger for their bilateral relations. In order to enjoy a strategic partnership with China, Russians must swallow their pride and be willing to play second fiddle to the Chinese virtuoso, at least temporarily. While both countries pledge to respect each other's territorial integrity, it is not certain whether the Russian Far East will be an arena of cooperation or conflict between Russia and China over the next half century, Levine cautioned.
Alexei D. Voskressenski of the Moscow-based MGIMO-University agreed with Levine that Russian-Chinese relations cannot be an alternative to their relations with the United States and do not constitute an "anti-Western block." Partnership with China is important for Russia in the intermediate term, as it provides market and labor resources for Russia and psychologically compensates for Russia's vulnerability in Eurasia. For China, partnership with Russia is the major factor bolstering its efforts to transform itself into a global power. Voskressenski noted that the Kosovo crisis had a profound impact on the development of the Russian-Chinese partnership. As a result of the crisis, it became clear that the world was far from moving towards multi-polarity. The swift enlargement of NATO towards the East or the acceleration of American missile defense programs, however, would push the Russian-Chinese relationship toward an anti-Western alliance, Voskressenski warned.
Jeanne L. Wilson of Wheaton College pointed out that both Russia and China are motivated to develop a strategic partnership based on independent assessments of their convergent mutual interests. These include the maintenance of peaceful, stable and secure relations along the Russian-Chinese border, the Russian sale of weaponry and its related technologies to China impelled by a commercial imperative, and the hope to influence the foreign policy behavior of the United States. Wilson observed several constraints on the development of Russian-Chinese strategic partnership, including Russian fear of the "Sinification" of the Russian Far East and the marginal development of trade and economic cooperation between the two countries. Like Levine and Voskressenski, Wilson believed both Russia and China are more concerned with their relationship with the United States than their relationship with each other, but she joined with Voskressenski in arguing that the presence of the United States as the predominant actor in the world serves as a powerful stimulus impelling Russia and China toward the development of a strategic partnership.
Alexander Lukin of the Brookings Institution emphasized the geopolitical dimension of Russian and Chinese strategic partnership in his commentary. According to Lukin, Russian-Chinese partnership is not based on their marginal economic exchanges, but is driven by their shared desire to maintain the status quo in world politics; such a view was enhanced by NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia without the endorsement of the United Nations. The prospect for a Sino-Russian strategic partnership is contingent upon their relations with the United States. The more the United States acts unilaterally, the more likely Russia and China will be drawn together to check the uni-polar trend, Lukin concluded.