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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

Russia and China have always had, and will always continue to have, diverging and even conflicting interests. It is possible that competition between the two countries will even intensify in the future. It is more important for Russia and China to arrive at a common understanding of the fundamental rules of the game in the new system of international relations. It was this understanding that enabled the great world powers in 1945 to lay the foundations of the new world order, which have served all of us fairly well for the past seven decades.

Speech at the 5th International Conference “Russia and China: Cooperation in a New Era”

It has become de rigueur among speakers at Russia–China events to open their speeches with a quote from one great Chinese philosopher or another. In keeping with this tradition, let me quote from Confucius: “If chaos comes knocking at your door, do let it in. Perhaps it will help you put your place in order.” Chaos has already done the knocking at the door of our common house, which is the current global political system. In fact, it has already seeped inside through the unlocked doors, open windows, cracked walls, and crumbling ceilings.

Can this chaos put everything back in order? Apparently not just by itself. However, it is clear to me that it would be extremely unwise for both Russia and China to cling to a world order that will soon be gone forever.

There is this opinion that Russia and China are the two largest revisionist powers of the contemporary world. In fact, if we look past the hackneyed political stereotypes, Moscow and Beijing have always tried to preserve the status quo. Russia wants to maintain the status quo in the current global security system, including the traditional arms control regime and the traditional understanding of strategic stability. Beijing, for its part, is eager to preserve the current balance in the global economy, so it acts as an advocate of free trade and opposes the advance of protectionism. Like many other countries, Russia and China often get fixated on prior grievances, appeal to erstwhile agreements and hold on to obsolete international practices.

However, the old world order cannot be rescued. Any policy aiming to preserve the status quo is doomed to fail, one way or another. The old structures may still be in place somehow, but they are not going to withstand the pressure of the problems of the 21st century for much longer. To rephrase [former President of Kazakhstan] Nursultan Nazarbayev, those who do not lament the disintegration of the old word order have no heart and those who wish for its restoration have no brain. One cannot go forward while looking back. The chaos that has penetrated our common house is making new demands of Russia–China cooperation, including in terms of the interaction of the expert and analytical communities of the two countries.

While not at all belittling the significance of the work done to date and the results achieved, I would like to propose a somewhat controversial thought: cooperation between Russia and China still lacks a strategic perspective. Beyond bilateral ties, Russia–China cooperation often boils down to reactions to emerging crises, such as those in Syria, on the Korean Peninsula or in Venezuela. The two countries do their best to counter the attempts of the United States to undermine the sovereignty of independent countries, apply double standards to global politics, and use sanctions and trade wars. Russia and China hold joint military exercises and consult each other as part of multilateral organizations. All this ad-hoc cooperation is very important, but it lacks a long-term strategy.

In my view, a strategic approach needs to include something bigger than coordinated voting in the UN Security Council and even the joint efforts to combine the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and the Russian plans for the development of the Eurasian Economic Union. Strategically, the two countries should match their views of the desired future world order and coordinate efforts to create it. What is the Russia–China vision of the world five, 10, or 20 years from now? What threats to global security and development do they consider to be the most critical? How should the two countries develop the international legal system and the system of international institutions? The list of strategic questions could, of course, go on.

The discussion of the future of Russia–China relations in both the East and the West often comes down to one question: Will Moscow and Beijing become allies? I do not think that this is the correct question to ask. In fact, it is not entirely clear what “allied relations” means in the 21st century. Both the United States and Turkey are NATO members but do we really want Moscow and Beijing be on the same terms as Washington and Ankara?

Russia and China have always had, and will always continue to have, diverging and even conflicting interests. It is possible that competition between the two countries will even intensify in the future. It is more important for Russia and China to arrive at a common understanding of the fundamental rules of the game in the new system of international relations. It was this understanding that enabled the great world powers in 1945 to lay the foundations of the new world order, which have served all of us fairly well for the past seven decades.

I am not entirely sure that Moscow and Beijing have arrived at this common understanding yet. Russia and China often use the same terms to describe the future they desire: multipolarity, a post-Western world, the indispensability of the rule of law, the indivisibility of security, and so on. Sadly, however, most of these terms remain predominantly proclamatory; there is no concrete meaning to them. If you dissect any of these notions with the sharp scalpel of a depoliticized analysis, you will find numerous latent contradictions, internal conflicts, and incongruities. The “lite” approach to global politics based on the “supporting everything positive and opposing everything negative” principle has never worked in the past, and there is no reason why it should work in the future.

I would like to address those in the audience who represent the intellectual communities of both countries. This event has gathered together people who perform the crucial function of providing informational and analytical support for the bilateral relations. In addition to serving as evidence of the combined achievements of Russia and China, this function also entails great responsibility for both countries. Heads of state, diplomats and officials are inevitably constrained by rigid spatial and temporal limitations. Their greatest concerns are preparations for the next official visit, the next G20 meet or the next APEC summit.

Experts, scholars and analysts have certain advantages over politicians and officials. We can afford to think not only about what will happen tomorrow or in a year’s time, but also about what may happen 10 or 25 years from now. How are we going to ensure global security amid the new revolution in military technology? What are the most effective ways of managing global energy, food, information, and even human resources given the inevitable future shortages?

History teaches us that the value of ideas grows as humankind approaches each new global bifurcation point. On reaching that point, the combination of mature ideas is fairly capable of outweighing any other economic, political, or military factors, forces, and influences. However, that combination of ideas cannot be focused exclusively on constant (albeit substantiated) criticism of the West, all the more so on proposals to reinstate the old, hackneyed world order. If we choose this path, then the new world order will be built without us. We will find ourselves in the shoes of a critic appraising a book written by someone else.

When speaking at our conference before lunch, Professor Li Yongquan reminded us of the words of Deng Xiaoping that closing the door on the past means opening the door to the future. I cannot but agree that, in their interaction over the past several years, Russia and China have not fully accomplished the first objective: the contradictions, disagreements, and conflicts accumulated through the centuries of these countries’ joint past have not all been ironed out yet. That said, it appears to me that the second objective, that of opening a door to the future, is even more important. That objective has yet to be achieved.

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Poll conducted

  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
    Demilitarization of the region based on Russia-China "Dual Freeze" proposal  
     36 (35%)
    Restoring multilateral negotiation process without any preliminary conditions  
     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
     22 (21%)
    Armed conflict still cannot be avoided  
     12 (12%)
    Stonger deterrence on behalf of the U.S. through modernization of military infrastructure in the region  
     4 (4%)
    Toughening economic sanctions against North Korea  
     2 (2%)
 
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