Sara Jolly reviews ‘China and Russia: the new rapprochement’ by Alexander Lukin

13 September 2022

by Sara Jolly

Sara Jolly reviews China and Russia: The New Rapprochement by Alexander Lukin, Polity, Cambridge, Oxford, Boston, New York. Paperback 2018. pp272. £16.99 ISBN 9781509521715.

The cover of this book, published by Polity Press in 2018, shows a rather crafty-looking panda playing ping pong with a large, shaggy, brown bear.  The panda has just struck the ball, which hovers mid-air, right above the net, while the bear readies himself to whack it back.  Of course the original phrase ‘ping pong diplomacy’ refers to the exchange of table tennis players between the USA and China in  1971, which  led to Nixon’s fabled visit to Beijing the following year. But it certainly provides a fruitful analogy for the long relationship between China and the Soviet Union/Russia. Playing any kind of competitive sport involves a degree of co-operation between opponents, an agreement on the rules of the game and, of course, a healthy dose of rivalry and determination to get the better of one’s opponent.  

Russia’s position vis-à-vis east and west has long been a balancing act.   The Chinese-Russian border, the sixth-longest international border in the world, is 2,615 miles in length. Today, two thirds of Russia’s territory is in Asia, but the majority of the population lives in the European part of the country. The double-headed eagle, the coat of arms of Imperial Russia, which was re-adopted in 1993, seems to be facing  east and west simultaneously.     

Alexander Lukin, the author of China and Russia: the new rapprochement is certainly well-placed to describe and analyse the ebbs and flows in this relationship.  Currently head of the International Relations Department at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Professor Lukin speaks Chinese, has held distinguished positions in Chinese universities and been awarded medals by the Chinese authorities for his contributions to Sino-Russian relations.  He also has a DPhil in Politics from Oxford and has been a fellow at Harvard and the Brookings Institution.  As there is no translator credited, one must assume he himself wrote this book in English. However, Professor Lukin is no fan of the West, his opening chapter fairly crackles with hostility:   

After the collapse of the Soviet Union…

…infatuated with victory,  [the West’s] leaders saw no reason to show any regard for the interests of other countries: the whole world would soon be at their feet anyway as all nations could not wait to melt into the West on the basis of its “universal” values, the only correct ones.

And more in the same vein:

It was not Russia, but the West that destroyed the idea of creating a new system of global politics based on international law when that opportunity arose following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was not Russia, but the West that, believing in the “end of history”, used its temporary omnipotence to create a world in which powerful states could seize anything that was there for the taking, destroy any borders and violate any treaties for the sake of a “good cause”.

In general, the United States and Europe, as well as faraway Australia and New Zealand, and so a lesser extent Japan, should be viewed as one center of power cemented together by the common totalitarian ideology of “democratism”, that is, the desire to impose their model on the rest of the world.

This book may well be out of the comfort zone of some readers  – it contains almost no meaningful reference to human rights; movements that the west would consider as independence struggles are routinely described as extremism/separatism/terrorism, and the India of  Narendra Modi and the BJP is praised as “actively combating ethnic nationalism, separatism and religious extremism.”  But perhaps this rather alien and uncomfortable perspective should be considered an incentive, rather than a deterrent to reading the book. 

In fact, despite, or perhaps precisely because of what Lukin perceives as Western arrogance and hubris, he addresses his book specifically to an English-speaking readership, and seeks to redress the weaknesses (as he sees them) of previous English language works on the subject.  One of the faults he identifies is the inability of the authors of these works to draw fully on original language source material.  The authors might be able to read source material in Russian or in Chinese, but, Lukin asserts, rarely in both.  

The great strength of Lukin’s book is that his analysis is consistently supported by quotations from a wide variety of Russian and Chinese sources, ranging from excerpts of speeches by Putin and Xi Jinping and their top advisors to quotes from articles in recondite specialist journals in both countries.  He himself has not just had a ringside seat, but played an active part  in the development of relations between the two countries, having contributed to the formation and development of the influential Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Lukin wants to promote a much more positive and less cynical interpretation of the current and developing relationship between Russia and China than that portrayed by authors such as Bobo Lo, a Chinese Australian foreign relations expert, who sees the Moscow-Beijing alliance as merely an ‘axis of convenience,’ or the Polish academic, Marcin Kaczmarski , currently a lecturer in Security Studies at Glasgow University, who emphasises the asymmetry in the relationship between Russia and China and the growing economic imbalance, leading to Russia’s dependence on China. 

For Lukin, the new rapprochement between Russia and China is primarily about the shared goal of creating a multi-polar world, as an alternative to the uni-polar, hegemony that he believes is the goal of the West.  

China, for its part, has developed what is now officially known as the doctrine  of creating a ‘harmonious world’.  Lukin traces in considerable detail the evolution of the relations between The People’s Republic of China, founded in 1949 and the Soviet Union/Russia, a history that passed through various stages, from an alliance (when the Soviet Union was the leader of the international communist movement and China was its ‘younger brother’), to a period of confrontation (early 1960s to the end of the 70s), followed by the normalisation of relations, which was one of Gorbachev’s main foreign policy objectives. This    culminated in today’s ‘strategic partnership and cooperation’ (starting in the early 21st century).  

Lukin identifies Putin’s accession to the presidency of Russia as having had a positive impact of Russian-Chinese relations.  After the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, China valued ‘order’ and had been perturbed by the erratic policies and behaviour of Yeltsin.  In 2001 the two countries signed the Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation’.  In 2002 the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was formed, with the aim of co-ordinating regional co-operation between China, Russia and other former Soviet countries that shared a border with China:  Kazhakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan (plus Uzbekistan). These countries shared a common interest in the struggle against Islamic extremism in Central Asia but also identified potential common interests in the economic, scientific, educational and cultural fields. Over time, it became clear that such an organisation could provide a strong counterbalance to Western economic and political structures, especially if it expanded to include India and Pakistan, making it potentially the second largest  international organisation in the world after the United Nations in terms of the combined populations of its member states. (India and Pakistan were admitted simultaneously to the SCO in 2017.)  Lukin highlights the fact that ‘the very existence of an international organization whose working languages are Russian and Chinese, but not English, attracts to the SCO more and more new interested partners from other regions’.  Lukin compares the SCO’s potential as a ‘non-western center of gravity in Eurasia’ with the potential of the BRICS group to become an alternative to Western structures in terms of global governance.  

What Lukin consistently refers to as ‘the crisis in Ukraine in 2014’, i.e. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the subsequent imposition of Western sanctions, gave added impetus to Moscow’s ‘political and economic pivot towards the non-western world’.  Lukin observes that in Russia after 2014 ‘China experts were suddenly in great demand’.  He notes the importance of ‘the pivot occurring in the minds of Russian officials and business people’ and asserts that ‘public opinion has passed the point of no return: the majority in Russia has learned to look at the US and the EU member states as enemies’.  The double-headed eagle that used to look simultaneously towards both west and east is now definitively swivelling both heads towards its eastern neighbour.

Cultural, scientific-technical and economic ties have all accelerated rapidly since 2014.  The book contains  a fascinating section on the all-too topical subject of energy cooperation between the two countries. In 2014 Gazprom signed a 30-year contract, worth US$ 400 billion, to supply gas to China, involving the construction of a 2,200 kilometre pipeline from Yakutia to Blagoveschensk  on the border with China. In 2015 the Russian government reversed previous policy and  invited Chinese partners  to purchase controlling stakes in strategic gas and oil fields in Russia. The Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant  on the coast of the Yellow Sea is a joint venture co-owned by the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation and Atomstroyexport, a branch of Rosatom.  In 2016 cooperation deals were signed on the building of a high-speed Moscow-Kazan railway (the first step of a projected high-speed Moscow-Beijing line), and on joint ventures in space exploration. In 2017 defence ministers from the two countries signed ‘a road map on military cooperation for 2017 -2020’. 

By 2016 there were 20 applicants for every place in the Chinese language department of Moscow State Pedagogical University, which trains secondary school teachers,  and Chinese was the second most popular language (after English) in many Russian universities. In China, in many cities and provinces  there are large enclaves of traders and people working in the tourism industry who speak Russian, and signs and product names are routinely produced in both languages.  

While Lukin paints a generally rosy picture of  the new rapprochment, he does acknowledge that there is resistance to it from some quarters in both countries. For example, in Russia there are persistent scare stories, supported ‘in some political circles, both “liberal” and “patriotic” ’ about millions of Chinese migrants moving to Russia. In China there are ‘non-official views in China’s academia on relations with Russia’. This category ‘includes nationalists who argue that … China has now become so strong  that it can behave on a par with the United States’ and who consider that Russia is too weak to be taken seriously. 

What is certain is that in 2022 Russia is even more urgently in need of a friend in the east than it was in 2014.  Presumably its pariah status in Europe will change the balance in power between the bear and the panda in the ongoing  game of ping pong. One wonders if Professor Lukin is even now at work on an updated edition of this fascinating and provocative book?

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