Russian Perceptions of Sino-Russian Relations

A.V. Lukin ed., Rossiia i Kitaia: chetyre veka vzaimodeistviia—istoriia, sovremennaia sostoianie i perspektivy razvitiia Rossiisko-kitaiskikh otnoshenii [Russia and China: Four centuries of interaction—history, contemporary conditions, and perspectives on the development of Russo-Chinese relations] (Moscow, Ves’ mir, 2013), 704.

As Stephen Blank’s article in this issue’s Special Forum makes clear, the state of Sino-Russian relations is critical to determination of the likelihood that a new cold war is beginning. After far-reaching gyrations in Moscow’s policies toward Beijing over recent decades and the brief halo of the Obama-Medvedev “reset,” many remain uncertain about the direction of Russian foreign policy. When China is more assertive toward others, do Russian foreign policy experts and officials (following the lead of Vladimir Putin) keep their distance or draw closer? One step toward answering this question is to improve our understanding of how this relationship is interpreted in Russia. Keeping the focus on one textbook published on May 27, 2013, this review article evaluates how Russian writings view the trajectory of Sino-Russian relations and the prospects for change this decade.

While the labels for different schools of thought vary, few would disagree that in Moscow today there are three main, divergent groups in thinking about China. First, on the left is what I call the pro-cold war group under academician M. L. Titarenko, director of the Institute of the Far East. It treats the United States as the enemy, rejuvenating the communist mentality of two blocs in unalterable opposition while, unlike the demonizing of China during the period of the Sino-Soviet split, accepting China as Russia’s natural partner in this struggle. Second, on the right is a group that welcomes an international community, among them the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, Dmitry Trenin, and Vasily V. Mikheev, corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and deputy director of IMEMO (Institute of World Economy and International Relations). That leaves a group focused on multipolarity, including the editor of the new textbook, Alexander Lukin, pro-rector of the Diplomatic Academy, and a contributor, and Evgenii Bazhanov, president of the Diplomatic Academy. Often, the case for multipolarity has not been differentiated from the case for working closely with China in opposition to the United States. As China has grown more assertive and Sino-US ties less cooperative, checking to see if this distinction within Russia is widening is now a pressing concern.

In looking for insights into how the trajectory of relations is interpreted, the group oriented toward genuine multipolarity merits closest attention, although, given the heavy hand of Vladimir Putin, even more so since his return as president in 2012, he is capable of tilting the balance to the pro-cold war group if that is his will. The new textbook does not criticize Putin nor does it draw a consistent line against the thinking of the pro-cold war group, but it makes a strong case in the Russian context for a middle-ground position on four dimensions. First, it calls for pragmatism in the face of some who show alarmism toward China and others who idolize it. Second, it revives the idea of a balanced triangle, keeping open policy options that serve Russia as the power balance in the Asia-Pacific is changing. Third, the book recognizes growing Chinese assertiveness, suggesting that the choices Russia made in the 2000s may need recalibration, but not yet. In recommending alternatives to dependence on China alone in East Asia, it refrains from direct calls for prioritizing other countries. Warnings about problems that persist and a crossroads that may lie ahead must suffice in a book that leaves Putin’s policies to China unquestioned.

The inherent contradiction in the textbook is between praise of the positive state of current relations and concern about the potential for serious problems, driving Russia away from China. Arguing that ideology, which drove the Sino-Soviet split, is gone, and that fundamental national interests overlap heavily, the Introduction by Ambassador A. I. Denisov paints a rosy picture of ever-improving relations. In contrast, A. V. Lukin in the final chapter covering relations today and tomorrow acknowledges that a more assertive and powerful China has recently changed the great power equation. While putting much of the blame on the United States for the downturn in Sino-US relations, he warns that China’s greater assertiveness toward its neighbors can affect Russia too. Lukin further credits Russia, even as it sheds its purely European consciousness in recognition that its future depends heavily on Asia, with representing Western values, including democracy and human rights. Likening China’s goals to Russia’s and putting aside his warnings to argue that the two states are in agreement on pursuit of a multipolar world, Lukin seems in various sections to deny what he is arguing elsewhere. Moreover, he strives hard to dispel popular arguments in the West about problems in relations, asserting the falsity of Russian alarmist accusations about “quiet expansion” and the myth of a battle in Central Asia for a sphere of influence. Yet, Lukin makes it clear that he does not agree with some in Russia who see China solely through the lens of confrontation with the United States.

Lukin’s warnings center on changes in Chinese thinking away from the modesty espoused by Deng Xiaoping to a new ideology associated with the “China Dream” before Xi Jinping made that term popular in 2013. He sees a reminder of Nazi Germany and the war rhetoric of Japan, posing an enormous danger to China’s neighbors if this thinking becomes official. Not only elsewhere in the world, but in Russia too, he indicates, people are noticing China’s recent tendency to expand its military abroad to protect its economic interests. Thus, he implies, not only is China at a crossroads with worrisome rhetoric now growing, but also Russia’s pursuit of multipolarity is being tested, and it needs to deepen ties to Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, India, and others around the world that are showing greater concern about China’s intentions. If many in Russia repeat the popular mantra of recent years that Russia must be pragmatic and accept China’s rise, Lukin argues that if nationalist ideology wins in China, including the pursuit of historical justice, then Russia is also at risk. Writing as if this is entirely a matter for the future and drawing closer to China over the past two decades was fully consistent with multipolarity with no impact on the prospects for a new cold war, Lukin goes to great lengths to separate clashing points of view and to avoid criticism of foreign policy decisions in the Putin period.

The major strengths of the textbook are its comprehensiveness and avoidance of polemics. It is richly informative and straightforward in covering the 400-year evolution of Sino-Russian relations. Achievements are documented, problems are acknowledged, and insights are plentiful. No book in any language surpasses this as an account of how this important bilateral relationship has unfolded. Some sense of the diversity of opinion among Russian analysts of the relationship is conveyed, rather than a monolithic version of one viewpoint. Indeed, even for how relations in the past decade are proceeding there are two versions by the same author, Lukin, in separate chapters explaining that the recent period has been filled with success and then that the perspective today is fraught with uncertainty and may require a change of course as a result of China’s behavior.

Other strengths of the book range from its likely impact in prompting readers to be more skeptical of the prospects for bilateral relations to its unmistakable contribution to scholarship on Sino-Russian relations. As a textbook with promise to shape thinking in the next generation of international relations experts, it offers a clarion call to keep the focus on facts, analyzing from different perspectives how relations changed at key points in time. If other Russian writings on Sino-Russian relations take a deductive approach based on assumptions about the state of the world, this book counters with inductive arguments that shift the focus to careful analysis and objective conclusions. In a struggle among competing schools of thought, it clearly breaks away from cold war thinking. For scholars, special value can be found in N. Samoilov’s coverage of little known bilateral cultural relations to the early twentieth century, close scrutiny of cross-border relations by a group of three authors, E. Bazhanov’s insights into the course of normalization in the 1980s, and Lukin’s clarity on how relations improved decisively over the past decade.

The major weaknesses of the textbook are its narrow interpretive frameworks and neglect of critical judgments on aspects of bilateral relations and their linkage to internal matters in both countries. One framework applied superficially based on standard Russian stereotypes of US foreign policy is the strategic triangle. While this framework is at the core of explanations for Sino-Russian policies, it is not considered from different angles, but merely taken for granted due to what is deemed to be threatening US policies and motivations. Another framework vital to the analysis but left largely in the dark is how multipolarity in its regional context can be achieved through Russian policy without a major break with China. While at the end Lukin recommends that if the recent surge of assertive rhetoric in China becomes the basis of foreign policy Russia should strive to improve relations with others active in the region, this hypothetical argument is divorced from any discussions of policies to date. A third missing framework is national identity, as if China and Russia are merely pursuing their national interests, distinct from ideology as a force driving US policymaking. The Russian side is criticized for customs agents and others who distort economic dealings with China and for leaders in the Russian Far East for their past demagoguery. No effort is made to comprehend how Russia’s rejection of Western identity drives it closer to China, since the assumption is made that Russia is part of the West and national interests alone drive foreign policy. Only in discussing the future are readers informed that the “China Dream,” as if it has nothing to do with prior Chinese thinking that Russia has embraced, has the potential to impinge on relations.

The book’s weaknesses are a reflection of the revival of ideology in the Russian government, permeating through the research establishment heavily beholden to it. The impact is pronounced in coverage of relations over the past decade. No interest is shown in the impact of domestic politics and leadership on relations. While narrow approaches may avoid theoretic flourishes associated with failures in Soviet scholarship, they also seriously limit understanding of the dynamics of this relationship. Given the absence of critical perspective on Putin’s strategic thinking or that of recent Chinese leaders, the best that can be done for weighing policy options are comments on how China is changing and Russia should show interest in diversification of partners if this continues.

With the right long since marginalized, publications on Sino-Russian relations are weighted in favor of the cold war group, including V. Ia. Portiakov.1 It takes effort to break away from this, employing the officially approved concept of multipolarity while recognizing Russia’s cultural distinctiveness as a source of differences with China. Elsewhere, Bazhanov and others take this approach in recognizing that Russians are oriented toward the West, know China only superficially, and need the West for multipolarity. While recognizing that the “China threat” thesis would be counterproductive for Russia, the authors warn that in an alliance Russia would lose. The impression left is that China is pressing for closer ties, but Russia is a status quo power in the Asia-Pacific region oriented toward a balance of forces while working constructively with China when it seeks a peaceful international environment.2 The fact that such impressions are only indirectly presented as if to date this bilateral relationship remains a spectacular success means that the debate between cold war and multipolarity is scarcely joined, failing to address the increasingly glaring contradiction between them.

China is mostly a caricature in Russian writings, serving needs generated by its national identity reconstruction. Its politics are deemed too sensitive to discuss in major publications. Its society has rarely aroused much interest. In comparison to energetic, if tightly censured, study of China in the 1970s and early 1980s, there are scarcely any titles in bookstores or journal articles. The sole specialized journal on the region, as in the Brezhnev era Problems of the Far East (its English title), has a predictable ideological bias—now pro-China when it used to be hostile—without high standards. Diverse views of China are published, mostly in sources that rely on deductions from broad, untested generalization. References to China serve to confirm the author’s basic starting point.

This book takes only a small step toward unmasking the overarching myth of the foreign policy of Russia that through multipolarity it is now finding a place at the top of the international hierarchy, becoming a bridge between East and West, emerging as a center of global civilization, and exerting influence as an independent force between the United States and China. It only skirts around these themes, but, at least, it largely avoids the hubris of reinforcing them. When Dmitry Medvedev was president hopes for Russian modernization linked more closely to the West were renewed as the momentum in Sino-Russian relations appeared to slow. Those hopes have been shattered by Putin’s recent resurgence, leaving Russia more dependent on China, as that country veers assertively toward sinocentrism and bipolarity. In today’s Russia, even the modest accomplishment of focusing on tough choices ahead in facing China is worthy of substantial praise.

For more on Lukin’s thinking about Sino-Russian relations, take a look at this issue’s Country Report on Russia. For a Chinese perspective on this relationship, turn to the Country Report on China, where Zhao Huasheng’s viewpoint is reported.


Thirty years ago academics were mobilized to both get the desired message out and write specialized reports primarily to inform officials. Today there is much less concern with controlling the message, apart from television, where most people receive their news if not on the Internet. There continue to be reports to officials and corporate research. The textbook fills a void for those ready for dense reading, a dwindling group dominated by studies of international relations and China, often with business concerns.

Putin’s popularity remains above 50 percent. Gorbachev and Yeltsin are viewed positively by barely one-fifth of Russians, while Brezhnev, Lenin, and Stalin are seen as a positive influence by more than half.3 Even if most Muscovites, including the academic community, favor multipolarity over a new Cold War or even welcome an international community with principles drawn from their understanding of Western culture, as long as Putin leans toward a cold war outlook, while keeping alive multipolarity as an ideal, the chances are high that wariness toward China advocated in this textbook will not prevail.

The case for rethinking Sino-Russian relations in support of multipolarity begins with closer attention to where new assertiveness is leading China, as the textbook reveals. It also requires different frameworks for appreciating the prerequisites of multipolarity: genuine analysis of the strategic triangle; new clarity on regionalism; more informed discussion of North Korea and diplomacy relating to it; introduction of civilizational comparisons rather than the offhand manner this notion has been used; and attention to the arguments in foreign scholarship. That is a tall order for a decimated community of experts on China and a mostly hesitant community of international relations specialists.

1. V. Ia. Portiakov, Stanovelenie Kitaia kak otvetstvennoi global’noi derzhavy [Establishment of China as a Responsible Global Power] (Moscow: IDV RAN, 2013).

2. See Bazhanov and Natalia E. Bazhanova, Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia v XXI veke [International relations in the twenty-first century] (Moscow: Vostok Zapad, 2011).

3.“Brezhnev Beats Lenin as Russia’s Favorite Twentieth-Century Ruler,” RIA Novosti, May 22, 2013.