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The Unbalanced Triangle
STEPHEN KOTKIN is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University. His latest book is Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, which includes a contribution by Jan GrossSee more by this author
Bobo Lo, a former Australian diplomat in Moscow and the director of the China and Russia programs at the Center for European Reform, in London, has written the best analysis yet of one of the world's more important bilateral relationships. His close examination of Chinese-Russian relations -- sometimes mischaracterized by both countries as a "strategic partnership" -- lays bare the full force of China's global strategy, the conundrum of Russia's place in today's world, and fundamental shortcomings in U.S. foreign policy.
China's shift in strategic orientation from the Soviet Union to the United States is the most important geopolitical realignment of the last several decades. And Beijing now enjoys not only excellent relations with Washington but also better relations with Moscow than does Washington. Lo calls the Chinese-Russian relationship a "mutually beneficial partnership" and goes so far as to deem Moscow's improved ties with Beijing "the greatest Russian foreign policy achievement of the post-Soviet period."
Precisely such hyperbole drives the alarmism of many pundits, who believe that the United States faces a challenge from a Chinese-Russian alliance built on shared illiberal values. But as Lo himself argues, the twaddle about Russia being an energy superpower was dubious even before the price of oil fell by nearly $100 in 2008. Even more important, Lo points out that the Chinese-Russian relationship is imbalanced and fraught: the two countries harbor significant cultural prejudices about each other and have divergent interests that are likely to diverge even more in the future. More accurately, the Chinese-Russian relationship is, as Lo puts it, an "axis of convenience" -- that is, an inherently limited partnership conditioned on its ability to advance both parties' interests.
But even Lo does not go far enough in his debunking of the Chinese-Russian alliance: he argues that it "is, for all its faults, one of the more convincing examples of positive-sum international relations today." This is doubtful. The relationship may allow the Chinese to extract strategically important natural resources from Russia and extend their regional influence, but it affords the Russians little more than the pretense of a multipolar world in which Moscow enjoys a central role.