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«KIN4593 - Master's Thesis in Chinese Society and Politics (30 ECTS) Department of Cultural Studies and Oriental Languages, University of Oslo Autumn, ...»

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The Bear and the Dragon

Prospects of Sino-Russian alliance, rapprochement,

rivalry and the things in between

Michael Kuliani

KIN4593 - Master's Thesis in Chinese Society and Politics (30


Department of Cultural Studies and Oriental Languages,

University of Oslo

Autumn, 2012


When I started writing this thesis, I had delusions of grandeur. With my fluent

Russian and passable Chinese, I thought that I would’ve uncover something that the

rest of the scientific community couldn’t. Then the reality hit me. As I was nearing the end, I came to a realisation that maybe my master thesis wasn’t as revolutionary as I hoped it would be. There are several reasons to that – dubious quality of Chinese academic articles, no access to Russian academic articles (apart from those I found on the free net), short amount of time, the demanding format of 30 credit thesis, some personal reasons, but most of all because I didn’t put in as much work into the thesis as I would’ve ideally wanted to. But who does?

To say that I brought something new to the table would be a lie. I was disappointed but still happy to be done. The process of writing this paper was filled with stress, anguishes, feeling of guilt, and lack of sleep – pretty much the usual stuff. Therefore I want to thank all the people that made my life a little bit easier. First of all, I want to thank my professor, Rune Svarverud, for his mails and advice. Thank you for guilt tripping me Rune or I would’ve never finished this thesis in time. I also want to thank Øystein Tunsjø of FFI for giving me advice on the theoretical part. Lastly, I want to thank my parents, all my friends and my 同学 that’ve supported me throughout the semester.

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3 Summary Discussion and debate about Sino-Russian relations is on the rise and attracts the attention of experts and policy-makers around the world. Russia and China are arguably two of the biggest players in the international system and their strategic partnership already possesses a great geopolitical weight. Through detailed investigation of this bilateral relationship over a variety of issue areas, I argue that the Sino–Russian rapprochement is externally driven rather having its own structure and dynamics. More specifically, realism’s balance of power theory and balance of threat theory provide a relatively convincing explanation regarding the driving factors of Sino-Russian rapprochement. The West is still a top priority for Russian and Chinese policymakers and will still be in the near future. But as China enters the 21century apparently poised to become a new superpower, Russia will have little choice but to make China a priority in its own right, independent of Moscow’s relationship with the West. But right now, the relationship of between China and Russia is largely driven by the dynamics of superpower polarity rather than having a structure of its own.

1. Introduction

Discussion and debate about Sino-Russian relations is on the rise and attracts the attention of experts and policy-makers around the world. Russia and China are arguably two of the biggest players in the international system and their strategic partnership already possesses a great geopolitical weight. China is on its meteoric rise through economic development, while Russia still is considered as a military superpower. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the relationship between the two giants has been dramatically improving. At the 2011 summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has expressed that the frequent exchanges between the two countries' leaders have fostered a high level of political mutual trust and facilitated the development of bilateral ties.1 The bilateral trade between two countries is also growing at an unprecedented pace. But a closer look at this partnership will reveal many diverging interests and differences.

Xinhua 2011.11.08: Chinese, Russian PMs reach consensus on major issues 1 http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2011-11/08/c_122247772.htm 4 There are differing opinions among scholars on the nature and the future of SinoRussian partnership. A bullish view on the subject would be a further rapprochement between the two countries, eventually leading to somewhat of an alliance.2 A bearish view would write the partnership off as being “long on rhetoric and short on substance”.3 So where is this relationship going? This paper aims at addressing the above question in a comprehensive way.

On theoretical level, the paper tries to examine the following questions: Is SinoRussian partnership largely determined by the dynamics of superpower polarity at the global level or does the partnership has its own structure and dynamics that either override or interact with those at the global level?

In the first part, the theoretical framework of analysis is developed. The framework seeks to take a closer look at what spurs alliances, balance, opportunities for cooperation, by looking how factors like states' intentions, trust, dependence, defensive and offensive, capabilities play into alliance building. My proposed framework sits in a realist interpretation of state behaviour and alliance building.

According to Stephen Walt4, the changing distribution of power, or balance of threat is what that drives states to seek alignments with others. Therefore, only from a systemic perspective, can we identify the underlying dynamics of the Sino–Russian rapprochement in the post-Cold War era. The second part focuses on giving an insight into foreign policy modus operandi of Russia and China. In order to understand how Chinese leadership views the Sino-Russian partnership, it is important to understand how Russia fits into China’s overall foreign policy framework and worldview and vice versa. With this chapter, I want to demonstrate that neither Russia nor China is originally interested in entering into a formal alliance. The third part focuses on the formulation of current state of Sino-Russian relations, focusing on current state of energy, economic, military and foreign policy cooperation. Through this chapter, I want to illustrate and underline that the rapprochement is not driven by internal, or bilateral factors, but rather by external

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2. Theoretical framework

2.1 Alliance formation From 1939 to the present, leading theorists and policymakers have continued to view the world from a realist point of view. Realist school of thought puts its emphasis on interests, rather than ideology, seeking peace through strength and recognition of that Great Powers can coexist despite their opposing values and beliefs. As argued by Robert Keohane, the fact that Realism offers something of a manual for maximizing the interest of a state in a hostile environment explains in part why it still remains “the central tradition in the study of world politics”5.

The unifying theme around which all realists base their views on is centred on the assumption that world politics unfold in an international anarchy, or a system with no overarching authority. This means that states are the paramount actors and because the one’s survival cannot be guaranteed under anarchy, the first priority for state leaders is to ensure continued existence of their state.6 In other words, “national interest is the final arbiter in judging foreign policy”7.

Because states operate in anarchical environment and because all states must pursue their own national interests, other countries and governments can never be completely relied upon. This brings us to another important concept of realist thinking, the self-help principle. This principle states that each state is responsible for ensuring their well-being and survival. In order to do that, states can augment their power capabilities. Smaller states or states with relative disadvantage in power capabilities, thus engage in what is called the balance of power. Most common definition of the balance of power holds that smaller states should enter into an alliance to counter a threat from a larger state or hegemony. The purpose of the Keohane 1989: 36 5 Dunne & Schmidt 2004: 164 6 7 Jackson & Sørensen 2002: 68

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Kenneth Waltz, a major contributor to the development of the theory, expressed in his book, "Theory of International Politics" that "if there is any distinctively political theory of international politics, balance-of-power theory is it." In international politics overwhelming power repels and leads others to balance against it. Waltz’s point of departure stems from his view of distribution of power in the international system, as a key variable to understanding important international outcomes such as war, peace, alliances and the balance of power. According to the logic outlined above, there are several goals instrumental to preventing hegemony. One is to maintain the independence of other states in the system; another is to maintain power equilibrium through combination of individual state capabilities and aggregation of state capabilities in coalitions.8 This in turn leads to possible balancing formations against the potential hegemon.

Extending this logic to China and Russia, purely from theoretical point of view and acknowledging U.S.A as the current hegemon, both countries should’ve engaged in a balancing alliance against the latter. This has not yet happened. On the other side, since the end of the Cold-War and emergence of U.S.A as the sole superpower, none of the other states have engaged in overt counterbalancing alliances against the hegemon, mainly because America never showed aggressive intentions toward them. Empirically speaking, one can say that states only engage in balancing activities against those who they perceive as a threat – a core argument of the balance of threat theory proposed by Stephen Walt in his article titled “Alliance Formation and Balance of Power”.

Instead of looking at alliances simply as mechanisms to balance power in an international system, Walt9 sees alliances arising as a response to a "threat”.

This would mean that a state’s alliance behaviour is determined not by the state’s Paul, Wirtz & Fortmann 2004: 32 8 Walt 1987: 17-49 9 7 power capacity but rather by the degree of threat they perceive from other states.

Walt identifies four criteria states use to evaluate the threat posed by another state:

its aggregate strength (size, population, and economic capabilities), its geographical proximity, its offensive capabilities, and its offensive intentions. Walt argues that the more other states view a rising state as possessing these qualities, the more likely they are to view it as a threat and balance against it.

Although not viewing China as an immediate military threat, Russian leaders are nonetheless wary of the rising China. After analyzing several Russian and Chinese scholarly articles, one can discern a threat perception gap existing in both countries.

In general, the prevalence of “China threat” theory is much more discussed in Russian academic articles, with the “Russia threat” almost non-existent among Chinese counterparts.

In Chinese academic discourse, although still being seen as a “pole”(极), Russia is no longer a superpower on equal footing with United States.10 The strategic distrust towards USA, is today of much greater concern for Chinese leaders than Russia. This was underlined in a monograph by Lieberthal & Wang, which concluded that “U.S. China strategic distrust is growing” and “is potentially very corrosive”11.

In Russia, China’s role as a competitor is much more prevalent. For example, Russians are much more wary of Chinese economic penetration especially in regards to Russian Far East (RFE).12 A prominent Russian scholar, Alexander Lukin, wrote that the main obstacle to successful economic co-operation is “the aggressive and selfish manner of China to uphold its trade interests, not always taking its partners’ interests into account”.13 Extending Walt’s theory to the situation, one might argue that Russia seeing China as a threat chooses to engage in the act of balancing against China, thus effectively putting roadblocks to further rapprochement.

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Lieberthal & Wang 2012 11 12 Lo 2008 (b): 4 13 Lukin 2007: 145 8

2.2 Is Sino-Russian alliance a possibility at all?

For realists like, John Mearsheimer14, prospects for cooperation are far too grim in general. This is because states are power maximizers either because it is the means by which they can ensure their security or because they want other values that power is believed to bring. The situation concerning alliances is akin to that of prisoners' dilemma in game theory, where the players are unsure of the intentions of their partners, so that both choose not to cooperate. The premise for such an outcome is that the pay-offs from non-cooperation should be higher than those from cooperation. Because many alliances are structured in a way that the states can expect more payoffs from cheating or exploiting the partner, it seems inevitable that those alliances will eventually fail. Unfolding this logic to its maximum extent, China will continue to maximize its power in Asia, pushing it inevitably to the edge of conflict with Russia. But is this scenario very likely?

Waltz would argue that an alliance between China and Russia is very much plausible as long as USA maintains its position as a global superpower. Walt on other hand will focus more on threat perceptions and how they develop over time. Thus altering of Russia’s perception of China, or China’s threat perception of USA can have an impact on relationship between the two countries.

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