An Exchange with Alexander Lukin on Russo-Chinese Relations: The New Rapprochement

Below is a dialogue consisting of questions asked by Gilbert Rozman after reading the new book and responses by Alexander Lukin clarifying the arguments of the book. First are some comments to set the stage, considering that Russian thinking about East Asia is important in the 2018 context of intense diplomacy over North Korea, rising Sino-US tensions, and reorganization as China’s presses for the BRI and the United States and Japan for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

On June 1 Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Pyongyang and extended an invitation for Kim Jong-un to go to Russia for a summit with Vladimir Putin by year’s end, which was accepted. He also called for the phased lifting of sanctions on North Korea. US criticisms of Russia’s approach to sanctions already treats it as an outlier in hesitation to impose them, willingness to violate them, and refusal to recognize the merits of “maximum pressure.” The image has spread also that earlier Russian talk of multipolarity in the Asia-Pacific region has by now grown hollow as ties to India, Vietnam, and Japan—the three cornerstones of balancing China ties—have arguably frayed. This leads to greater consensus that Russia has grounded its regional policy even more on closer ties to China. Under these circumstances, there is added reason to take seriously the analysis of one of Russia’s leading China experts, Alexander Lukin, on the strength of the Sino-Russian relationship, examining his recent book closely and questioning him about it.

Rozman: Your book, China and Russia: The New Rapprochement, is recently out in English. It makes a strong case for the depth and durability of the Sino-Russian relationship. As someone who agrees with that conclusion, I found lots of evidence of why wishful thinking in the West on the fragility or temporary nature of this partnership was misplaced. The bulk of the book presents a compelling case based on how Chinese view Russia, Russians view China, and the evolution of the bilateral relationship. Yet, as I went through the book, I kept flagging questions that seemed drawn from ideological assumptions, despite your denial of any ideological premises. Airing my list of questions and the reasons for them, I look forward to your responses and our exchange.

You say the rapprochement is a natural outcome of developments in international relations and China and Russia share similar views on the geopolitical situation. I agree, and so do many in DC. Are you raising a strawman, repeating the outdated theme that skepticism prevails in the West? In DC seminars and official statements, I find the prevailing view is that this is a strong bond.

Lukin: As a researcher I do not write to fight different opinions or confront anyone, but to describe the real situation as I see it. There are smart people in the United States, who believe that the current Sino-Russian rapprochement is not just a “marriage of convenience,” but that it is based on the fundamental changes in the world situation and of the worldview of the elites in both countries. I mention some of them in my book. But these people do not represent the mainstream expert opinion in the US and exert very little influence on government policy.       

Rozman: You fault writings for pigeonholing Russia-Chinese relations according to a particular IR theory, but I do not think that IR theory is taken very seriously any longer in most writings in the West on this relationship. You see IR theory as a source of ideology, you repeatedly refer to Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” as if it is taken seriously, and you assume that writings on Russia-China relations that view them as strong and deepening have no significant impact on US and European foreign policy. Are you not misreading the West of late in all of these arguments? Rather than see optimism about US capacity to shape the world in a desired direction, I see deep pessimism with clear awareness that history has resumed with a vengeance after a period when Fukuyama’s thesis was roundly ridiculed, and neo-cons never won an intellectual consensus. Also, those who have sought more overtures to either Moscow or Beijing have generally felt so discouraged by the responses, that they have concluded neither actor is seriously interested.

Lukin: I see IR theories as part of dominant Western ideology—mostly about how to secure Western interests and domination in the international system. If by “theory,” you mean my use of the terms multipolarity or bipolarity, this is not a theory, but reality. The world has always been multipolar, safe for a very short period after World War II. It is just returning to the normal situation.  Fukuyama’s “end of history” is a good symbol of the mainstream Western thinking, although formulated in the most primitive form. But even Western realists, like Kissinger, would agree that the world is generally moving towards the ideal society which will be based on Western values and a “democratic” political system. Their disagreement with liberals is only about tactics; they claim that the road is not that short and easy and that for the time being one should take into consideration the interests of large barbarian countries.   

Those in the United States and Europe who argue that Sino-Russian understanding is deepening because of various factors—of which Western policy is one—do not influence practical policy. If one were to believe that these ties are a challenge to the West, one would try to use either Russia against China, or China against Russia. This is the kind of policy that was pursued by Kissinger and Brzezinski, and it is still recommended by realists, like Kissinger or Mearsheimer. Politically they are completely marginalized by the hawkish lobby of ideologues who pursue a policy of putting pressure on Moscow and Beijing at the same time. The best ideological support for this kind of policy is theories of “marriage of convenience” and the like. They let the ideological lobby feel comfortable by saying that their course would not lead to a Sino-Russian alliance and, therefore, is not counterproductive, but safe and fruitful. For that reason, they tend to exaggerate differences between Russia and China and go out of their way to persuade both to fear each other. This is a head-in-the-sand approach which pays off domestically.  

Rozman: You argue that many conclusions raised by those who point to asymmetry in Sino-Russian ties are doubtful, and you say it is premature to speak of China’s overall superiority, and it remains difficult to predict the balance between the two states. This appears to me to exaggerate the comprehensive national power of Russia, as seen in China as well as in the West, with serious consequences for geopolitical as well as geo-economic analysis. What would be the impact of accepting a different assumption about today’s relative power and its trajectory? If you convey no optimism about Russian economic reforms, how do you arrive at optimism about its power?

Lukin: There are two aspects to this question. First, the actual balance. It is true that China is stronger economically, and the gap is broadening—but Russia is still much stronger militarily, more experienced in international diplomacy, and has far more natural resources that China needs? Second, it is not easy to predict. Japan failed to become the world’s first economy, as many had once predicted. China has even more problems than Japan. Its political system cannot afford changing one party in power to another with almost the same name and identical policy in case economic troubles cause serious problems. The concentration of power by Xi Jinping makes it impossible even to change a faction within the ruling party to calm down popular dissatisfaction. And there surely will be dissatisfaction since economic growth cannot last forever and people cannot be always satisfied. What happens to China in that case is not very clear. Is it going to survive democratization and become a big Taiwan, or stabilize authoritarianism and turn into a big Singapore? In any case the weakening scenario is not inevitable, but it is also not impossible.

As for Russia, it is even less clear what happens to it, especially after Putin. It may continue gradual degradation or it may find a way of speedy development as happened several times in history. Russia is very unpredictable. Few people expected it to collapse in 1991 or to return to power politics in the 21st century. What happens if the gap continues to deepen. I think that even in this case that conflict is not inevitable. There are many different neighboring countries that do not fear each other. It all depends on mutual interests and the level of trust.       

Rozman: You argue that when Russia and China reach similar closeness as Canada and the United States (as they are continuously moving closer) the last mutual fears will be allayed. Is this not a far-fetched analogy unsupported by recognition of the ties that bind Washington and Ottawa and the elements of national identity in China and Russia with potential to revive mutual fears?

Lukin: I have been to Canada and had the feeling that the attitude there toward the United States is much stronger that in China towards Russia. There have been and still are many problems in US-Canadian relations. Political systems and philosophy of government are very different. But the two countries share fundamental values and basic strategic interests. The same can be said about France and Belgium, or Britain and Ireland despite multiple historic grievances and remaining bilateral problems. The whole idea that non-Western nations are somewhat different in this respect from the civilized NATO members, that they cannot develop mutual trust and are only thinking of jumping each other’s throat if not controlled by altruistic democracies is a remnant of Western jingoism and colonialist ideology.  

Rozman: Assumptions about hierarchy permeate your volume. Russia agreed in the early 1990s to join the Western system as a junior partner. Russian authorities hoped for equal cooperation. Western intellectuals have long held colonial theories of Western supremacy, which they are insistent on imposing along with a totalitarian ideology of democratism. Russia cannot establish friendly relations with the United States and Europe without its complete political submission. America is trying to contain China, blowing the “Chinese threat” out of proportion. China advocates an equal partnership with Russia. There is an assumption about what constitutes equality and how it could be achieved that is left underdeveloped and probably would fly in the face of the prevalent IR thinking in the West. Is this some sort of ideological shorthand? Does this not ignore other factors in China and Russia interfering with cooperative relations? Not a word is said about bullying neighbors, corrupting economic ties, etc., and how they can complicate relations and make negative reactions appear to some to be signs of inequality.

Lukin: It is not difficult to define equality in foreign policy. An equal relationship means peaceful coexistence: respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, and non-interference in internal affairs. This means that even if one sees his or her country as Heaven on Earth, this is not a problem. The problem is when one country is trying to spread its Heaven by imposing it on others. If creating Heaven on Earth becomes the main goal of foreign policy, I call such policy totalitarian since the goal is a uniform world in its totality. Supporting what they call “democracy” in the United States (i.e. its own political system) is the official goal of Washington’s foreign policy.  Many civilizations understood their own way of life as superior and were trying to spread it to other nations. But in today’s world, this kind of policy is seen by many as outdated. There are only two forces in the contemporary world that stubbornly stick to totalitarian ideologies and are driven by utopian foreign policy goals: Western alliances and radical Islamists.     

Russia has rejected its utopian goals with communist ideology, and China has also done it gradually over the time of reforms. Beijing does not support communist movements in Asia any longer; on the contrary, based on pragmatism, it cooperates with any regime in any country, that effectively controls the situation regardless of its ideology. It claims that the Chinese type of communism is good for China but it is imposing it on no one. Russia is also not imposing its political system on anybody; it even does not have a concept of its superiority.

The largest Western center of power wants to “civilize” and “democratize” all. In that situation despite all differences the countries of the non-Western, non-ideological world have to cooperate with each other. This is the reason for the growth of influence of such non-Western groups as the BRICS, SCO, ASEAN and others.

All leaders in Moscow since Gorbachev made an attempt at first to become equal and constructive partners of the West but failed and became disillusioned. Putin is not an exception. The Russian elite have come to conclude that this is impossible and that the wish to dominate the world is in the nature of Western international ideology. A recent article by one of Putin’s aids, Vladislav Surkov, who predicted Russia’s 100 years of geopolitical solitude, is a good indication of that tendency. At least six years are guaranteed.  

By “bullying neighbors,” you probably mean the tendency of Russia and China to actively secure their interests around their borders. I see it as a natural desire of all big countries. The world has always worked like that. Various utopian ideologies could never change it. The communist government in Moscow armed the Kuomintang forces because according to Leninist theory an oppressed nation was a natural ally of World Communism. However, when Chang Kai-shek secured his authority in most of China he quarreled with communists and the Soviet Union as he saw them as rivals. But Moscow did not learn its lesson and armed Mao’s forces since Chinese communists were seen as even closer allies. After coming to power, they turned into adversaries once again.

Both China and Russia use their influence and sometimes sanctions to ensure that their neighbors are friendly or at least neutral towards them. This is a natural wish. The United States and its allies are also quite naturally trying to enlarge their spheres of influence. The problem with them is that they created an elaborate and highly hypocritical smokescreen theory to cover their natural wishes. They supposedly object to other great powers having spheres of influence and protect independent choice of smaller states. In reality, however, this means that they want the entire world to be their exclusive sphere of influence and other centers of power to follow their rules. In view of the growth of non-Western centers and the diminishing relative power of the United States and its allies, this approach seems to be rather unrealistic.

Competition or even conflicts between rising non-Western centers are also possible. We can see it from rather complicated China-India relations, which suffer not only from territorial disputes, but increasingly from quite obvious struggle for influence in some island states, Nepal, Bangladesh and elsewhere. Can something like this happen between China and Russia? Theoretically it can, but in the foreseeable future it is highly unlikely. For this to happen, several things should change: a radical nationalist government should come to power in China; Russia should become much weaker than now; and the West should support one side against the other. As long as the threat from the West is seen as the major challenge by both countries, they will develop even closer cooperation. They just have no other choice.      

Rozman: You charge that the United States and the West try in every possible way to contain the growth of Chinese influence. That is demonstrably incorrect. Were the Six-Party Talks so intended? You add that Russia stopped the West from advancing closer to China’s borders. What does advancing mean? You write as if everything is zero-sum and economic ties such as an FTA mean advancing. Yet, have China’s economic ties not grown in all directions with scant obstruction from the West?

Lukin: Beijing surely believes that United States and the West try to contain the growth of Chinese influence. I agree with this view, although, in foreign policy, nothing is absolutely consistent. In fact, American leaders are quite open about their goals. Trump’s National Security Strategy calls China and Russia revisionist states who want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests. It says that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.” This means that even China’s economic growth is seen as a threat. As for FTAs, it was not Trump, but Obama who famously said while supporting the TPP: “The US, not China, should write the rules of the global economy.”

A revived quadrilateral format is another obvious attempt to isolate China. Started as mostly security, it now seems to create a new cooperation mechanism alternative to China’s BRI. And while China invites everybody to join the BRI, the United States and its allies deliberately do not allow China (and Russia) to participate in their initiatives. When Obama was promoting the TPP, during a visit to Russia in an interview in November 2015 John Kerry invited Russia and China to join. The Russian embassy in Washington was immediately instructed to enquire about the specific mechanism for joining. The Russian diplomats were told that Kerry was misunderstood. Russia can join, but it should apply not as an original member but only after the TPP is formed. Moreover, just like when it was joining the WTO, it will have to talk with every original member state and ask its permission. I am quite sure that China was told the same thing. So, the entire talk of all-inclusiveness was mere propaganda and the real aims of the United States became clear.   

Washington asks for China’s cooperation in solving some international issues, including most obviously, the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, because China is becoming an increasingly influential country and the United States depends on it. But it would rather not. If China were weaker, it would be dealt with as North Korea or Russia: sanctioned and ordered to obey, or even bombed and destroyed, like Iraq or Libya. A good example of the part the United States would like to assign to China is the G2 idea put forward by such a Sinophile as the late Zbigniew Brzezinski in 2009. It has not become official policy, but it is quite indicative of the US establishment way of thinking. Its main idea was to acknowledge China’s role and to give it the honor to solve US problems around the world. China respectfully refused to be a US high-ranking servant. It is still quite obvious that the United States wants China to submit to its rules and give up any policies that Washington does not like, calling these rules “international law,” despite the fact that it is not a member of many international organizations and processes and disregards decisions of the UN Security Council. (US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal is the most recent example).

Rozman: If the nuclear arms race on the Korean Peninsula is the main problem for Russia on its Asian territory, why has Russia been reluctant to support strong sanctions that would and eventually did drive Pyongyang to the table to agree to denuclearize? You write that the United States refused to negotiate with North Korea, when at many times it has been eager to do so. Are you not misstating the nature of the struggle over North Korea? You are also positive about Russia’s relations with South Korea, again omitting the problems. Why do you evade discussion of tensions with Russia, at least to the end of 2017, over how to deal with North Korea?

Lukin: I do not agree with your analysis of the situation. Trump’s claim that it was sanctions that drew Pyongyang to the negotiating table is nothing but propaganda intended mainly for domestic consumption. In fact, the very idea that Kim Jong-un agreed to talks with the US president is wrong. North Korean leaders have not only never refused to do that; they have demanded such a direct summit for decades. So, it was not him but Trump who agreed. What Kim did agree on was to give up nuclear weapons (at least he says so). But here he played a very smart game. North Koreans have always wanted the United States and Europe to pay for some concessions. They created nuclear bombs not as a deterrent that they did not actually need (conventional artillery is more than enough to prevent a strike since it can destroy Seoul in minutes) as a bargaining chip. Kim actually made Trump agree to a summit, which was rejected by all previous US presidents. This does not mean that Trump was wrong to agree. On the contrary, it was a bold step. But Trump will find himself in a very difficult situation. Kim will demand a lot: economic aid, possibly diplomatic relations and limiting the US military presence, etc. If Trump thinks that is too much and disagrees, he will lose. The international community will think that it was his fault since Kim fulfilled his part of the bargain. Russia and China definitely will not support new sanctions; so, it would be useless to threaten North Korea. Now Kim is skillfully securing the support of China and South Korea, and even of the American public (by releasing US prisoners). This makes it more difficult for Trump to walk out of the talks without any result.      

Russia supported sanctions against North Korea because it is concerned about nuclear weapons near its borders. This is a threat to Russia’s security. But the threat to its security coming from Washington is much more dangerous. Besides, the real aim of the US sanctions is regime change. So why should Russia help the US to change a regime in Pyongyang and possibly bring its troops closer to Russia’s borders at the time when it itself suffers from US sanctions? Besides, Russia (unlike China) has very little influence on North Korea.

Now, from what I know, Russia’s relations with South Korea are very close. Bilateral trade is growing; Seoul refused to join sanctions against Russia despite strong pressure from Washington. I have not heard about any major problems in relations. After Moon Jae-in came to power, the situation has become even better since his government’s position on North Korea is much closer to that of Russia. Whenever I meet South Korean politicians, they always complain that they would want stronger ties with Russia, but Washington does not allow them to go ahead with many plans (for example, buying Russian weapons). By the way, this is one example of the real situation with the free choice for smaller countries.

Rozman: On THAAD you cite most Chinese experts that it is useless against Pyongyang and would give the United States a major advantage in any conflict with China, charging that this was the only missing link in an anti-missile system encircling China. That is so contrary to what is written in the West on THAAD. Why do you not cite contradictory evidence?

Lukin: I cite Chinese sources to explain China’s approach. The book is about Russia and China, not about the West and China.

Rozman: How does expanding the SCO to include India make it a more effective counterweight to the United States when India sees the United States as a vital strategic and economic partner versus China? Russia seeks to develop closer relations with China but not an alliance, which could hinder its ability to cooperate with third-party countries, you write. Has that not already happened, as with India and Vietnam as well as Japan? You write that expansion of the SCO is turning it into a functioning and authoritative international organization, but putting India and Pakistan together hardly promises that outcome. You claim that New Delhi shares a common vision on restructuring the world with Moscow and Beijing. Do they agree on restructuring Asia, beginning with the BRI? You insist that China’s interests in Central Asia coincide with Russia’s, while listing a minimal set of interests. Are there not other interests? Why has Russia blocked China’s economic aspirations at the SCO if interests coincide?

Lukin: I have never argued that SCO is meant to be a counterweight to the United State in a military sense since it is not an alliance but a regional cooperation structure. But as a non-Western organization, it is surely a phenomenon of the emerging multipolar world: it is not controlled by the Western center of power. As I mentioned earlier, India—as a growing center of power in its own right—has natural differences with China resulting from the intersection of their growing spheres of influence. In this rivalry with China, India uses cooperation with the West to a certain degree. However, New Delhi’s general vision of the future world is much closer to Beijing’s than Washington’s. It subscribes to the idea of democratization of international relations, standing against domination and dictates by the West. India values democracy, but it rejects US policy of imposing it on others, especially by force. India’s concepts of “unity in diversity” and “cooperative pluralism,” which it applies to international relations, are almost identical to China’s traditional principle “和而不同” (divergence in harmony), which the government often uses as a Chinese ideal for the international system. This vision is very different from the US approach of promoting “international standards” (e.g. its own interests) by force around the world. This is the basis of Sino-Indian geopolitical cooperation which manifests itself in working together in the SCO and the BRICS among other things.

Russia was not the only country that was insufficiently active to promote economic cooperation within the SCO. In a number of Central Asian states there exist reservations about China’s overenthusiastic promotion of FTAs because of the weakness of their markets. Nevertheless, I think that this was a mistake and that China’s disillusion with the economic potential of the SCO was one of the reasons for Beijing’s decision to push forward the BRI. However, the reason was Moscow’s wish to prioritize the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), not a conflict with China. Now that the process of EAEU-China cooperation is under way, this mechanism, but not the SCO, is likely to be the basis for a Eurasian economic cooperation system. The SCO will play a greater role in the security area. All this does not mean that Russian and Chinese basic national interests in Central Asia diverge. Both countries need regional political stability, secularism, and economic development, although some economic competition and even disputes among individual businesses and companies may also occur.

Rozman: You seem to minimize the economic problems as in Russia’s fulfillment of its 2009 promises of border cooperation with China, although you do blame Russia for some problems, as in the 1990s. A lack of reflection about what has been occurring inside Russia casts a shadow on much of the analysis here. How do you explain this omission?

Lukin: My book is not about Russia’s internal problems; I have written about them elsewhere. As you probably know, I am not a great fan of Russia’s domestic economic policy. Corruption and inefficiency surely negatively influence Moscow’s foreign economic exchanges including those with China. China has its own problems in this area. The point of my book, however, is that despite all that, we are still moving forward, and the main reason for that is increasing convergence of geopolitical interests.

Rozman: Who is feeding the Chinese demographic expansion myth in the late 2010s? Nobody serious, I would assume, although you make it seem as if US mass media are broadly guilty.

Lukin: I often hear and read about China’s alleged demographic expansion not only from Americans, but from anybody who is unhappy about Russia’s rapprochement with China and wants it to change sides: Europeans, Indians, Vietnamese, Japanese, Russian government critics (both pro-Western and radical nationalist), and others. The reason for that is not a realistic analysis but wishful thinking. The logic of those who sanction Russia is particularly pathetic: we are going to punish you, but you still have to be friendly with us because we are good people and wish you well, while the Chinese are intrinsically evil. I don’t think that the Russian government or the political mainstream is going to subscribe to this argument in the foreseeable future for two main reasons. First, it is not in Russia’s interest since at the moment the real danger for Russia is Western expansionism, which is much more real than any possible future challenge from China. Second, Chinese demographic expansion to Russia does not exist.

Rozman: You stress success in relations with Japan and an environment conducive to concluding a peace treaty without any mention of the troubles that have slowed progress in relations and the pessimism in Japan that Russia is willing to do what is needed for a peace treaty. What success are you claiming apart from the numerous summits?

Lukin: I do not think that Russia actually needs a formal peace treaty with Japan since there is no war anyway. I only quoted some Japanese opinions on that. If by peace treaty you mean solving the territorial dispute, I believe that Russia managed to persuade Prime Minister Abe Shinzo after he came to power for the second time in 2012 to develop a broader relationship despite the inability to immediately resolve it. This meant a de-facto agreement to accept a strategy that had been put forward by Russia for a long time: to develop economic cooperation and deepen mutual trust first, and to look for new ideas on how to solve the territorial dispute on this basis thereafter. This can be seen as a diplomatic success, although Abe had his own reasons for that decision. However, the situation became increasingly complicated in 2014 as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, which led to worsening of Russia’s relations with Japan’s main ally. and forced Japan to put on hold some of its plans of expanding economic cooperation. Despite this, economic cooperation is growing, and the general atmosphere is much better than before.

Rozman: Greater Eurasia is taken very seriously by you, as if China and Russia agree on it, it gives Russia a position equal to China’s, and it is a realistic roadmap for restructuring Asia. Really? Only in one sentence do you hint at problems but dismiss them as if they are irreversible. This is a vague notion; so why are you so confident?

Lukin: China and Russia do agree on Greater Eurasia. Talks on Greater Eurasian partnership are going on between them. It is already agreed that the first step will be creating a Eurasian economic partnership based on EAEU-SREB cooperation, and the SCO will also play a role. I think the process is irreversible although some minor differences may naturally appear.

Rozman: You say little or nothing on what Russia can do to improve relations with countries other than China. Are there any suggestions you want to add to the book in light of developments in late 2017 and especially 2018?

Lukin: I was writing an academic research, not a policy paper, so it was not my aim to give advice to anyone. However, if Russia asks me for an advice, I would say that to improve relations with other countries it should become economically strong and to do this it would need to change its domestic economic policy and concentrate on internal development just like China did in the late 1970s. If you are rich, others tend to be friendlier with you, or at least they cannot afford being too nasty toward you.