Multipolarity versus Sinocentrism: Chinese and Russian Worldviews and Relations

Gilbert Rozman

On July 3 Hu Xijin of Huanxiu Shibao inserted a needle in the bubble of Sino-Russian harmony, which some may be tempted to equate to Mao Zedong’s response to the 20th Party Congress in 1956.1 He was reacting to a Weibo (blog) in Chinese sent from the Russian embassy in Beijing celebrating the 160th anniversary of the founding of Vladivostok in 1860, which mentioned the meaning of the city’s name, translated as “tongzhi Dongfang” or “rule of the East.”  Hu wrote that this offense to the public’s emotions has “aroused the disgust of many Chinese netizens.” He added that Chinese refuse to use that name for the city, calling it Haishenwei, and reject calls by Russia to remove that earlier name. This incident is one of the first real signs that not only is the territorial dispute not dead but that Sinocentrism is becoming a problem in this relationship.

If China’s 1997 promise for Hong Kong is retractable, is its 2004 agreement to put an end to the territorial dispute with Russia any more reliable? If China is killing Indian soldiers and crossing the existing border that was the scene of war in the 1960s, is it beyond possibility that China will renew border tensions with Russia that also flared in the 1960s? A supremely confident China in 2020 is witnessing an upsurge in impatient calls to settle scores steeped in grievances nurtured by its leaders. Deference toward Russia observed since 1992 may not be an immutable principle.

The second shock to Russians at nearly the same time was the border clash between China and India, reminiscent of the Chinese attack in 1969 on Russia’s border. As Timofei Bordachev said, “It called into question the future of the… (SCO), which Moscow considers the central platform for regional cooperation,” and could test the “ability to build a balance of forces and interests of equal and powerful players that do not depend on it.” He hinted that China is playing into the hands of the US: “Cooperation, reliance on institutions and fair solutions even in the interests of medium and weak players will allow China to reduce its own vulnerability in the face of an enemy that History is now presenting it with.”2 Vasily Kashin warned, “Russia doesn’t feel threatened itself, because right now China can ill-afford to alienate a neighbor that’s an important military and resource power in its own right… still Russia’s government and experts have of course noticed a significant change in Chinese diplomacy and behavior, which sped up during the last several months and especially during the Covid-19 crisis,” noting potential for greater risk-taking to create problems in Russia’s relations with third countries. India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh then traveled to Moscow, seeking accelerated delivery of S-400 air defense systems, scheduled for December 2021. China got its first S-400s in 2018. Alexander Lukin warned that if a serious confrontation occurs, Russia “would have to choose.”3

US regional leadership in the Indo-Pacific has slipped into the background, perhaps to be revived by a Biden presidency. In its place debate has centered on two frameworks—one obscured but palpable in Chinese rhetoric and widely understood to be on the horizon, and the other heavily showcased but differently interpreted in the major players of the region, including its ardent champion Russia and at times China. As we survey various frameworks for the era ahead, it behooves us to look closely at the narratives in support of both Sinocentrism and multipolarity.

Multipolarity has been touted by China (less of late) and Russia, but it also is associated with aspirations in Japan, South Korea, and India—even if alternative labels are preferred. It carries different meaning in their formulations, limiting the great power thrust so prevalent in China and Russia’s rhetoric. Differences include: the weight of the US presence, the significance of middle powers, and the degree to which containing China’s dominance is prioritized. In the Chinese and Russian approaches, US alliances are treated as the main barriers to multipolarity; in these other narratives, continued US engagement with strong alliances is a vital condition for this outcome.

Both multipolarity and Sinocentrism have been subject to reinterpretation. Chinese thinking on the former has narrowed as Russia’s has broadened. Although both take the Sino-Russo-US triad as the core, China has tended to drop other states and to marginalize Russia with bipolarity at the center. Russia began with a troika of Sino-Russian-Indian coordination limiting the United States and adding ASEAN, Japan, and even a “joint” Korea in an Asia-Pacific-centric framework. For the Chinese, India, Japan, and ASEAN all lost standing; not Russia, needed for appearances to be included even if it was marginalized. For the Russians, as China’s weight grew, other actors were essential to keep at least a semblance of balance. Sinocentrism became broader and deeper over time; China applied it more widely and made greater demands as it projected its power further.

This article is divided into two main parts. First, I review Chinese and Russian conceptions of multipolarity and Sinocentrism over the three decades since the end of the Cold War. Second, I assess Sino-Russian ties for how they are impacted by assumptions about the two frameworks, paying particular attention toward the end to developments in 2020. I conclude that, at present, multipolarity is mostly an illusion as bipolarity deepens.

Chinese and Russian conceptions of multipolarity and Sinocentrism

Strong affinity in inherited national identities has undergirded the three-decades long warmth in Sino-Russian relations.4 Yet core ideological tenets in each country carry the potential to rile their relationship. Applying a national identity framework, we can observe currents growing in 2020 to assess how bilateral relations may soon be changing. On the Chinese side, Sinocentrism is an inherent element in national identity, which is gaining new force. On the Russian side, there is continued gravitation to multipolarity as a pathway to Russocentrism. Recent developments
raise the possibility that these two core elements could open a wide gap in national identity. To evaluate this shift, we must ask how changes in Sinocentrism and multipolarity impact relations.

What could change the overlapping sense of national identity solidarity? Chinese arrogance could intensify, infecting bilateral interactions and crossing the line in areas vital to national identity in Russia. At the same time, Russian sensitivity to the degree of China’s great power superiority, to the nature of China’s domestic transformation, and to the intrusiveness of China’s rise at the expense of partners valued by Russia could reach a tipping point. Central Asia, North Korea, Vietnam, and India could be seen in a new light. Shifts in thinking about the US could matter too, given the inherent triangularity of national identity thinking, notably inside Russia. 

The national identity legacy of traditional communism was instrumental in drawing Moscow and Beijing closer in the post-cold war era. Their rigid dogma about ideology had propelled the split lasting three decades to the end of the Cold War, as each gave vent to overconfidence inimical to sustained trust and cooperation. Their affinity during the 1950s was doomed by the irrepressible arrogance of Soviet communism, which was more than matched by the grandiose claims of Mao Zedong. Thus, Russocentrism and Sinocentrism, manifested through talk of ideological purity, undermined the pretense to brotherhood often repeated in the decade of the 1950s. For the two decades of the 1990s-2000s, other elements of national identity dwarfed both Sinocentrism and Russocentrism. Communism had been stripped of class conflict. The superpower mentality of the Soviet Union had been eclipsed, and Deng Xiaoping had steered China toward a modest quest for economic growth with limited room for Sinocentrism. The negative force of national identity was kept in check, while the centripetal weight of their shared history of communism prevailed. Ideology slipped as a force in identity as both leaderships claimed to prioritize pragmatism.

Both Beijing and Moscow were frustrated by the way the Cold War had concluded. At first, they were not on the same wave length—even blaming one another—but by the mid-90s there was considerable overlap in their perspectives on what had gone wrong and a degree of consensus on what should be done.5 Three points stand out: 1) opposition to unipolarity and the expansion of US alliances; 2) insistence on a distinct civilizational identity that would keep at bay all external pressure to embrace so-called universal values; and 3) support for Sino-Russian solidarity on the contours of an international order centered in Asia and extending out to other countries. This foundation was never shaken over the following two decades, but it falls short of a framework. While they agreed on multipolarity in the abstract, this was better left vague as long as possible.

The Sino-Soviet split could have ended with the shared identities of reform socialism and lying low in economic globalization. But in the 1980s the Brezhnev legacy was too entrenched and the Gorbachev hubris of Russo-US equality in building a “common European house” was too rosy to treat China as a guide or true partner in reforming a deeply embedded communist legacy. Wary agreement on multipolarity as the thrust of foreign policy in the 1990s and early 2000s proved insufficient to distract Moscow from looking west and Beijing from looking east. As multipolar logic began to be overridden by Putin’s confidence in Eurasianism and Chinese leaders’ disdain for Deng’s low profile, the two nations had less interest in showcasing a shared identity save for their violent rejection of the US-led, liberal international order, which appeared more menacing.

Soon after the end of the Cold War, China insisted on rejecting the prospect that an era of unipolarity had begun, proclaiming instead the onset of multipolarity.6 It was not long before Russia had joined in this narrative, agreeing that the US, China, and Russia were poles while debating more energetically than China the addition of other poles.7 Chinese writers neglected Asia as a venue for multipolarity, although in the 2000s acceding to elements of multilateralism such as ASEAN centrality, the Six-Party Talks, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In the first case, China did not take long to denigrate the ASEAN through an emphasis on bilateralism, as Russia upgraded the ASEAN as a possible pole and host of the East Asian Summit (EAS) to which it had been eager to join. In the second case, China accepted the role of hosting but had scant interest in the multilateral potential of the Six Party Talks, which Russia eagerly championed as the designated host of the ill-fated fifth working group on a regional security architecture. As for the SCO, for China it was a means to gain inroads into Central Asia and for Russia a means to check China, as both claimed incorrectly that it would be a model of multipolarity despite the two-sided leadership.8 

Neither multipolarity nor Sinocentrism was a serious prospect in the 1990s. Russia was too weak to be a pole, and China was too cautious to raise the specter of Sinocentrism. Taiwan was the key security focus of China to Russia’s satisfaction. It proved easy to find common cause against the US in order to rebuild one’s own national identity with limited concern about one another. In the 2000s, however, the aspirations of both rose, bringing more avid support for multipolarity even if a gap already existed in thinking about it. Russia enthusiastically joined the Six Party Talks and the EAS. China agreed to host the Six Party Talks, but it was indifferent to their potential to forge an architecture for Northeast Asian security in contrast to Russia. Expansion of the EAS to include Russia, India, the US, Australia, and New Zealand satisfied Russia, even as China just tolerated the expansion. The two agreed on establishing the SCO, even making it the centerpiece in their claim to be working together in pursuit of multipolarity. Yet, China aimed to ease economic penetration of Central Asia, and Russia sought a way to limit that penetration. The fear of Sinocentrism began to rise in Russia, while China assuaged concern by acquiescing to some forms of multipolarity without the anticipated substance—a semblance of multipolarity.

The 2010s witnessed a sharp rise in Sinocentrism against a façade of Sino-Russian agreement on new forms of multipolarity. China let the Six-Party Talks fail to which Russia could do little but acquiesce—also willingly putting the blame on the US and excusing North Korean attacks on South Korea. China stopped praising ASEAN centrality and actively undermined its cohesion using economic clout to coopt Southeast Asian states, while Russia was growing more eager to work with the ASEAN as a whole as a pole in Asian multipolarity. Most challenging for Moscow was the bypassing of the SCO by Beijing’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB). Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union was undercut, although it had little choice but to praise the docking of the SREB and EEU as if this were some broader form of multipolarity. Russian insistence that Japan, South Korea, and India would be partners to limit any prospect of Sinocentrism increasingly rang hollow.

The mid-2010s saw a sudden spike in Sinocemtrism under Xi Jinping and of Russocentrism at the behest of Vladimir Putin. To some, it seemed as if the very forces that had driven the Sino-Soviet split were now, on the contrary, leading toward a sort of Sino-Russian alliance. Russia’s preoccupation was Europe, notably Ukraine, and China’s was maritime Asia from Japan to Taiwan, to the South China Sea, to the extended sea lanes of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road portion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For the time being, Russians expressed scant concern about Sinocentrism, while Chinese found no reason to express alarm about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. As China attended to demonstrations in Hong Kong and independence forces in Taiwan, the foreign policies of these two assertive powers appeared complementary.

The year 2020 is widely seen as a turning point in globalization, the Sino-US relationship, and the international order. Prior to this point, Chinese and Russians largely agreed that the single objective overriding all others is to overturn the US-led world and Asia-Pacific regional order. In light of the abrupt change in that order, other concerns are rising to the forefront.9 Already, for at least a decade, Chinese sources had grown less vocal about the goal of multipolarity, even as Russian sources mentioned it with great frequency. Discussions of the regional order were not in sync despite five years of insistent claims that their preferred plans were “docking” together. To 2020, analysts on each side refrained from broaching such differences openly. Looking ahead, we still lack forthright acknowledgment of conflicting approaches to the shape of regionalism at a time of deepening rivalry between Beijing and Washington. Is Beijing more solicitous of Putin in light of greater need for an ally? Is Putin more cautious about Beijing given the impression that China is now better able to flex its muscles in Moscow’s “backyard?” Recent writings from both countries suggest that China is growing less solicitous and Russia is struggling to respond.

Reviewing the three decades before 2020, we discern in the 1990s lip-service that only gave an unbelievable illusion of multipolarity; a façade of multipolarity that China took far less seriously than Russia in the 2000s; and a hollowing out of the meager symbols of multipolarity across the Indo-Pacific region by the end of the 2010s. Only in 2020 did Russians face a time of reckoning as the myth of multipolarity in place of bipolarity in today’s Asia could hardly be sustained. In turn, China’s rhetoric and behavior made Sinocentrism a reality difficult to overlook any longer.

Sino-Russian relations over three decades

The three pillars of improved Sino-Russian relations since 1990 have been: 1) opposition to US unipolarity and interference with “core interests” on or near each country’s borders; 2) defense of authoritarian designs for state-society relations and objection to the export of “universal” values; and 3) reassertion of pride in a history and civilization rooted in communist ideology as the core of national identity. In the 1990s Russians were confused about negative revelations regarding the Soviet era and longings to reassert Russia’s European identity. These were restraints on trust in China. Simultaneously, Chinese were confused about recent memories of Maoist outrages and invitations to join hands in East Asia’s Confucian “economic miracles.” Ambivalence toward the United States as a partner in economic globalization also diverted attention from one another. If the pull factor remained weak, the push factor from the three pillars drew them closer together.

Through the 2000s, these pillars were reinforced. Moscow and Beijing both grew more assertive against US unipolarity as seen in policies toward North Korea. Both governments grew far more authoritarian and prideful about their distinct civilization, as seen in the Beijing Olympics and the rise of Putinism as a cult of personality intolerant of the checks on power allowed by Yeltsin. As for the communist historical legacy, it was emphatically reaffirmed from the top down. These forces of national identity drove bilateral relations closer with scant distraction from other forces. Tensions in relations, including due to China stealing Russian weapons’ technology and Russia failing to fulfill promises to allow open borders, did not rise to the level of national identity challenges.

The impact of national identities in the 2010s is more ambiguous. On the one hand, all three of the pillars are reinforced on both sides. Putin’s geopolitical framework from 2012 when he took back the presidency and Xi Jinping’s from 2012 as he took full charge prioritized the battle against unipolarity, even as US dominance was fading. Putin and Xi also grow more aggressive in opposing the liberal international order and solidifying authoritarianism. Finally, we see cults of the Stalin (more selective in Russia) and Mao eras and of civilizational separateness—aimed at the West. On multiple dimensions of national identity, it became easier to make common cause.

On the other hand, there is greater divergence on multipolarity, Sinocentrism looms in new ways, and Xi and Putin have increasing reason to become distrustful of each other. Multipolarity was mentioned much less in China, as Sino-US bipolarity rose increasingly to the fore. Proposals for regionalism from Xi’s early announcement of the SREB barely obscured the Sinocentric thrust in their format. Moreover, as the gap in national power kept growing between China and Russia, the impact of China’s shift toward totalitarianism and external demands for deference to it was not lost on many Russians. Uneasiness was growing even before Xi 2.0 at the end of the 2010s revealed a more aggressive unilateralism, seizing on Trump and Kim Jong-un.10

Outsiders more than Russians argue that a more unequal relationship with China makes Russia more determined to keep its distance. This reasoning has been repeated over two-plus decades, more emphatically in 2020 as the gap between the two has further widened. Those who take this position assume that Russia wants to avoid entanglement in the deepening Sino-US confrontation rather than that Russia has encouraged it. They also exaggerate the tensions between China and Russia, as has been done since the mid-90s claims that alarm about Chinese migration (“yellow peril”) is dooming the relationship. Warning that the early pandemic border closings at last were straining the relationship to the breaking point or that Russia was distancing itself from China’s latest BRI appeals are additional examples of the rush to find some rupture in this relationship.

On the Chinese side, writings on multipolarity reveal a growing disparity in views on both sides.
Zheng Yu in 2015 explained multipolarity with Russia as one pole,11 while warning that the differences in how China and Russia are addressing unipolar hegemony and remolding the existing order are growing increasingly obvious. He found that Russia after annexing Crimea falls short of being a pole. Reviewing the postwar era, he argued that unipolarity prevailed for at least 15 years to 2008 although trends toward multipolarity could be observed. China emerged stronger from the world financial crisis, while Russia was set back even as it grew more insistent that multipolarity had arrived. One sign of it was the Obama “reset” to Russia in order to contain China, but this proved to be no genuine shift away from containing Russia and did not last long.

Thus, a contradictory situation arose: while China and Russia insisted that multipolarity was accelerating, their increasing closeness and Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and security multilateralism through the “rebalance” to Asia fueled bipolarity. China obscured this tendency by insisting that Russia’s pathway to becoming a future pole is through closer economic integration with China. In 2015 a peak was reached in appealing for multipolarity through integration: catering to Russian fears of isolation due to its aggression in Ukraine and subsequent sanctions; calling for docking the new SREB and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU); and showcasing joint military exercises and celebrations of the 1945 victories. Meanwhile, China came to view other Asian states as falling prey to US-led integration without recognizing other poles. Under the guise of championing Russia as a rising pole, China was pressuring it into a bipolar framework. Russia was faulted for remaining wary of this strategy for “gaining autonomy” as a pole through setting aside any sense of clashing national interests. Zheng Yu recognized new challenges in the Sino-Russian relationship without acknowledging the contradiction in what China was seeking.

Xing Guangcheng in 2019 gave voice to the still flickering Chinese support for treating ties to Russia as part of multipolarity.12 China had grown more emboldened and saw Russia as weaker; its endorsement of multipolarity rang even more hollow. Xing saw 2017 as a fateful year for Russia: ties with the US had worsened in defiance of high Russian expectations for Trump while ties to developing states are not going well and the wars in the Middle East are a problem; signs of trouble in economic development are the biggest challenge, lingering from the transition from the Soviet Union and reflecting negative overdependence on energy exports; and hopes to use conflict situations and wars to gain geopolitical influence are treated skeptically. In light of its bad relations with the West and unfavorable geopolitical situation, Russia has forged the best relations ever with China. Insisting that this results from an equal relationship contradicts the essence of the narrative. China should pay even more attention to Russia’s important role in the world, readers are told, warning against ignoring Russia because China is ever stronger, but also warning Russians against viewing China as a threat because of the growing discrepancy. People in both countries cannot avoid changing their thinking of each other as the power differential keeps growing, but we are still managing relations with Russia well aware that Russia is China’s biggest neighbor and that if relations turn sour it would do great damage to China’s rise. Russia in the face of pressure from the West also needs to tighten ties with China to relieve the pressure. Also, since Russia is an important world “pole” China must tighten strategic cooperation with it.

In February 2020, Feng Shaolei offered an update on thinking about multipolarity, drawing on foreign sources, especially the newly announced agenda to 2024 in Russia.13 He noted that developing states welcome the idea of multipolarity as a way of gaining a voice as great power relations are changing. Bipolarity is reviving, most conspicuously in high tech. Despite Trump’s retreat from multilateralism, the US is keen on sharing the strategic burden with Asian states without them moving toward multipolarity. China is supporting Russia in Central Asia but simultaneously spreading its own development model in Asia. Feng insists that as Russia loses space to operate, it avoids isolation by drawing closer to China. If some there worry about becoming a junior partner and dependent to an undue degree, Russians should understand that ties to China make their country secure. The stark choice is isolation or China; This does not sound like a separate pole, but Feng avoids such clarity. He acknowledges that Russia wants autonomous diplomacy and will keep debating how to achieve multipolarity. Yet given outside pressure, economic troubles, and foreign adventures, Russia’s need for China only grows is the conclusion.

The teleconference on June 22 of Russia, India, and China following the violent Sino-Indian border clash saw Moscow’s unease on display. If Washington has floundered in addressing ROK-Japan tensions, the situation is worse for Moscow because its very understanding of multipolarity is at stake. Moscow is much less trusted as an intermediary than is Washington. Beijing’s aggressive danger to take territory is far different than Seoul’s grievances. Neither partner is dependent on Moscow the way Seoul and Tokyo depend on Washington. India exposes the gap between Sinocentrism on display and Russian unrealistic aspirations for multipolarity, as seen in the illusion it is the only credible honest broker for resolving the Sino-Indian conflict.

In a call with Sergei Lavrov, Wang Yi called for raising Sino-Russian relations to a higher level while lambasting US McCarthyism, Cold War mentality, and bullying to the extreme. The appeal is for solidarity versus the US threat not multipolarity.14 Russia is left as just a reinforcer of China. In contrast, Russians are voicing more concern about entrapment from China’s moves15 and China encroaching more into Central Asia;16 while showing bravado that Russia still matters.17                                       

On July 15 Nezavisimaya Gazeta discussed the state of Sino-Russian relations 19 years after the signing of their treaty on July 6, e.g. the pragmatic, non-ideological nature of the bond and that Russia is different from a communist state and that it does not belong to any bloc18 In a July phone conversation Putin strongly supported China’s Hong Kong defense of national security and Xi Russia’s revised constitution, indicative of a new ideological component to relations. As Xi has gained sweeping control over China, Putin is tightening his grip on Russia, we are told, Yet the article reminds readers of the Weibo piece on Vladivostok, the anti-Russian emotions raised by a Chinese diplomat in Pakistan, and the spillover from the Sino-Indian border clash. At a time of unprecedented tension with the US, China’s leaders do not intend to join in a dispute with Russia, but they are artificially arousing emotions over history. Many experts predict that the world will be bipolar, leaving Russia in not a very enviable position. Lavrov, it is said, does not consider the Sino-US trade war in Russia’s interest, and people in responsible posts say that Russia does not want to get dragged into the confrontation. But can Russia stay out, given its weakness and challenges with the West, while Putin dreams of restoring great power status and enters conflicts without end, narrowing room to maneuver needed to weaken China’s grip.

Mid-2020 Russian articles have acknowledged bipolarity but insisted that the benefits claimed for multipolarity persist. pretenses, It was still assumed that ties to China would not become unduly dependent, reducing Russia’s leverage, and that troubled relations with the US would not hinder Russia’s room to maneuver. Russia would criticize the US, not China. If emotionalism in Chinese society targeted Russia, it was not government-approved. Bipolarity would replace multipolarity, but Russia retained its room to maneuver. The new cold war would see the US try to bring about regime change again, but this time it would be bound to fail. 2020 is a sign of what lies ahead.19

Russia’s claim to be a pole in the Asia-Pacific region rests on three pillars: its relations with other major players in the area; its leadership of Central Asia; and its acceptance by China as an equal or nearly equal force at least in the northern tier of Asia. Yet ties to Japan have faded, and it is being eclipsed by the US in India; Russian influence in Central Asia is being eroded by China, and ties with China have grown increasingly unequal. Russian notions of regionalism are meant to convey strong ties to other states but Greater Eurasia is an illusion. The docking of the EEU and SREB failed, and China is gaining military as well as economic influence in Central Asia. Last, China is only paying lip service to Russia’s role as a pole, while it ignores Russia in the region. China has been content to flatter Russia with words of equality even as it shows reduced respect.  

In mid-July, Ivan Zuenko assessed the situation, arguing that bilateral relations over the past two years have been on the razor’s edge due to anniversaries, convenient and inconvenient.20 In 2019 occurred the 50th of the border clash and the 120th of the forcible resettlement of Chinese from Russia, resulting in the death of thousands. The message on Vladivostok’s anniversary in 2020 drew more than 7 million Chinese followers within one day to ill effect. The Russian embassy’s post is seen as thoughtless, not mentioning the presence of a “Chinese city” on the site and forcing recollections of a sensitive event, although the land was neither inherently Russian or Chinese. Despite the final territorial agreement reached in the 2000s, Chinese visitors consider Vladivostok a “former Chinese city.” Historical facts will not persuade the Chinese, but there is reason not to rub the reality in their faces and arouse the “wolf warriors” who have been silent toward Russia. Chinese sources have said that memories do not signify territorial pretensions, adds Zuenko, implying that Russian officials should do a better job of not stirring such emotions.

Conclusion

In the 1990s multipolarity was an aspiration in a unipolar environment. It assumed that multiple powers would rise in tandem, that China and Russia could count on overall globalization and divergent interests in regional centers, and that ideology would not be a factor apart from the resurgence of civilizational protectionism and sovereignty as a priority. During the 2000s there was a shift in thinking about multipolarity, making room for institutions in Asia to constrain US ambitions. China and Russia were now the core of a rival order to the US-led one, capable of both military and economic influence in neighboring areas with a whiff of ideological distance. In the 2010s Russia clung to multipolarity as China edged toward bipolarity. Decoupling began in China with information and technology in the forefront, while Sinocentrism was now manifest and Russia was relegated to an energy and military supporting role. Remaining keen on forging strategic ties to other Asian states, Russia desperately tried to work Sino-Russian ties into some larger framework. In 2020 bipolarity could not be denied; China would at most pay occasional lip service to multipolarity, while Russia strives to preserve a semblance of it centered on its own presumed capabilities, an illusion of the EEU’s worth, and vague hopes for an expanded SCO. In the course of three decades, Japan faded as a multilateral factor, the Korean Peninsula turned into a bilateral issue, the focus shifted to excluding the US, and India and ASEAN kept some weight.

Multipolarity is intriguing to many but elusive. China has found it convenient for masking plans for Sinocentrism. Russia has sustained it as an illusion even as its substance keeps being eclipsed by new realities. Japan, South Korea, India, and others have allowed it to raise false hopes for a degree of autonomy and leverage that proved ephemeral. In 2020 the prospects for multipolarity have further declined for at least three reasons: 1) the Sino-US divide has widened to the point other states are being pressured to take sides with little leverage to resist; 2) China has become so assertive about its Sinocentrism that other states have trouble conceiving of themselves as poles; and 3) Donald Trump’s leadership failure so exposed the cost of a lack of US multilateralism and steadfastness that countries have new appreciation for US engagement at the cost of multipolar aspirations. Difficult choices lie ahead for Russia, still clinging to its stake as a pole, for India, resistant to taking sides, and for South Korea, desperate to avoid bipolarity. Indeed, a mixed pattern of bipolarity at the core and two would-be poles on the edges may exist in some circumstances, as Russia and India cling to their autonomy, while South Korea as well as Japan find ways to signal the same despite the increasingly unmistakable realities.

Sino-Russian relations continue to be the prime testing grounds for whether multipolarity is more than a slogan and Sinocentrism not a gamechanger. By agreeing to multipolarity, China offered reassurance to Russia, but doubts have been growing on both the Russian and Chinese sides. The imbalance in national power, the way China is becoming more totalitarian and aggressive, as on the border with India, and signs that Sinocentrism applies to Russia too, do not go unnoticed in Moscow. At the same time, Russian reservations about China soon reverberate in distrust from Beijing of Russia’s reliability. Russian notions of multipolarity are perceived as inconsistent with Xi Jinping 2.0, the view of Northeast Asia expounded since 2018 of prime importance to Russia. What the US does matters less for the future of Sino-Russian relations than this identity gap.    

1. Hu Xijin, “胡锡进评俄罗斯驻华使馆微博,” https://mil.sina.cn/2020-07-03/detail-iirczymm0338026.d.html?vt=9

2. Timofei Bordachev, ““Some Uncalled-for Ideas on Chinese Foreign Policy,” Valdai Discussion Club, August 4, 2020.

3. Mark Champion, “China’s Assertiveness Is Becoming a Problem for Its Friends, Too
Partners like Russia, Iran and Kazakhstan also face concerns when it comes to Beijing’s behavior,” Bloomberg, August 5, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08- 05/china-s-partners-russia-iran-face-problems-with-its-behavior?sref=3HD2Fyvy

4. Gilbert Rozman, The Sino-Russian Challenge to the World Order: National Identities, Bilateral Relations, and East vs. West in the 2010s (Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2014).

5. Gilbert Rozman, “Sino-Russian Relations in the 1990s: A Balance Sheet,” Post-Soviet Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Spring 1998) pp. 93-113.

6. Gilbert Rozman, “China’s Quest for Great Power Identity,” Orbis, Vol. 43, No. 3, Summer 1999, pp. 383-402.

7. Gilbert Rozman, “Sino-Russian Mutual Assessments,” in Sherman Garnett, ed., Rapprochement or Rivalry? Russia-China Relations in a Changing Asia (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2000), pp. 147-74.

8. Gilbert Rozman, “Post Cold War Evolution of Chinese Thinking on Regional Institutions in Northeast Asia,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 19, No. 66 (2010), pp. 605-20.

9. Gilbert Rozman, Togo Kazuhiko, and Joseph P. Ferguson, eds., Russian Strategic Thought toward Asia (New York: Palgrave, 2006); Gilbert Rozman, Chinese Strategic Thought toward Asia (New York: Palgrave, 2012)

10. Gilbert Rozmsn, “Xi Jinping’s Geopolitical Framework for Northeast Asia,” in Gilbert Rozman, ed., Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies— East Asian Leaders Geopolitical Frameworks, New National Identity Impacts, and Rising Economic Concerns with China (Washington, DC: Korea Economic Institute, 2020).

11. Zheng Yu, “Shijie duojihua chushi de jiachang yu Zhonge guanxi,” Eluosi Dongou Zhongya yanjiu, No. 5, 2015, pp. 41-45.

12. Xing Guangcheng, “Eluosi shi dangjin shijie duojihua jinchenhzhong de zhonyao yi ‘ji,’” www.cnki.net.

13. Feng Shaolei, “’Ziyou guoji zhixu,’ duojihua yu Eluosi ‘2024 yicheng.’” Eluosi yanjiu, No. 1, 2020, pp. 3-37.

14. “China-Russia relations foreign policy priority, Wang Yi says, while condemning US bullying,” The Standard, July 18, 2020.

15. Yaroslav Trofimov and Thomas Grove, “Weary Russia Tries to Avoid Entanglement in U.S.-China Spat: As its dependence on Beijing grows, virus-hit Russia seeks to walk its own line,” The Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2020.
https://www.wsj.com/articles/weary-russia-tries-to-avoid-entanglement-in-u-s-china-spat-11592654401?mod=searchresults&page=1&pos=9

16. Kanat Shaku, “China and Russia blur lines on "division of labour" in exerting influence over Central Asia,” https://intellinews.com/china-and-russia-blur-lines-on-division-of-labour-in-exerting-influence-over-central-asia-185692/?source=russia Intellinews, June 18, 2020.

17. Finian Cunningham, “Russia Can Play Crucial Role in Calming China-India Conflict,” Strategic Culture Foundation, June 21, 2020.

18. Vladimir Skosyrev, “Moskva i Pekin druzhat protiv obshchego vraga,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 15, 2020.

19. Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, July 8, 2020, articles by Timofei Bordachev and Dmitrii Efremenko. Noting the trend to slip into bipolarity on China’s side while pretending otherwise, Fedor Lukyanov warned in Profil’ on May 20, 2020 of the need to focus on Russia’s problems.

20. Ivan Zuenko, “Kitaitsy o iubilee Vladivostoka: ‘posol’stvo Rossii unizirolo Kitai,’” Argumenty i Fakty, No. 29, July 15, 2020.

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