Solid basis for partnership
This year will be momentous for Russia and China. Both countries will see a change of leaders. Russia will elect a new president next Sunday and, in China, the 18th Congress of the Communist Party will hand over power to the “fifth generation” of leaders in the autumn. People in both countries are wondering whether the changes will make a difference to Moscow and Beijing’s foreign policy, and, in particular, their bilateral relations.
There are reasons to believe that relations will continue to progress under the new leaders. The likely leaders, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, have much in common. They are of a similar age; they made their careers in party and government structures; and both have been promoted to leadership positions by the respective elites.
It was during Putin’s first presidential term that Russia invigorated its Asia policy, especially relations with China. The framework bilateral Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness Friendship and Co-operation was signed in 2001.
The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) was officially created in the same year. In 2004, a mutually acceptable compromise was reached on the remaining disputed issues of border demarcation, ending territorial disputes. The official status of “strategic partnership of coordination” was conferred on relations between the two countries.
Sino-Russian relations go back almost 400 years. The models have varied. The present strategic partnership is one of equals, requiring close co-operation. The two countries have gone through great changes in the second half of the 20th century in attaining that model. It was aided by the normalisation of relations that started in the late 1970s, after a reformist government came to power in Beijing, and was crowned by Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic visit to China. At the time, in May 1989, the paramount Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, uttered a wise phrase: “let’s close the past and to open the future.” History has shown that allied relations between the two are hardly possible. A succession of governments in Russia and China entered into allied relationships at least three times: in the late 19th century, in 1945 and in 1950. Each time, the union proved ineffective and lost its meaning long before the treaties expired. Suffice to say that, in the late 1960s, when bloody clashes occurred on the Soviet-Chinese border, the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, signed for a term of 30 years, was still valid.
At the same time, strategic cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, falling short of an alliance, has a good chance of succeeding, because it is based on real geopolitical and economic interests, not on ideological unity or similar political systems.
Russia needs good relations with China for political and economic reasons. China is an important strategic partner. It is thanks to links with China and other Asian partners that Russia can become a centre for world influence. China is a key economic partner for Russia, which needs to co-operate with it to develop Siberia and its far eastern regions. China is Russia’s important regional partner. Both countries are working together in the SCO to solve problems in Central Asia, fight religious extremism and terrorism, support secular regimes, and economic and social development of the states in the region. Co-operation with China within the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) group is also very important. China also needs Russia as a geopolitical and economic partner. Beijing would like to see Russia as a counterweight in its complicated partnership-rivalry relations with the United States and Europe, as guarantor of its “independent” foreign policy. Stability on the border with Russia is important for China’s economic development. Finally, Russia is a key source of some goods that China cannot buy from other countries – weapons – or, in sufficient quantities, oil, timber and other commodities. That is why China has been working persistently to solve border, migration and bilateral trade problems.
Even though there may be differences, and despite the natural rivalry between companies in the two countries, there is a solid basis for a strategic partnership. That is why it is sure to progress, no matter who assumes power in Moscow and Beijing.
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