Russia’s Revived Debate on China: Historical Perspective and Implicit Significance

Gilbert Rozman

In the fall of 2018, the case is again being made that Russia is likely to be amenable to distance itself from China despite the recent tightening of their bilateral relationship. Here, I first assess the strengths and weaknesses of that case, while pointing to its neglect of how recent Russian coverage of China has evolved. The bulk of this article differentiates three schools of thought in Russia on China in the summer of 2018, leading to a conclusion on what they mean for prospects of the kind of Sino-Russian split that is regarded as promising by some in the United States.

The Case for Rebalancing the Sino-Russia-US Triangle through a Russian Turn to the West

Richard Ellings argues in the new National Bureau of Asia report “Axis of Authoritarians” that a number of factors could tip the balance away from Russia leaning to China: Russian sensitivity to growing Sino-Russian asymmetry; latent competition deriving from their geostrategic proximity; a shift by China to use its leverage more punitively even toward Russia; the haunting impact of history reflected in Chinese irredentism and Russian concern about the vulnerability of the Russian Far East; a Russian awakening to the reality it cannot recapture its hegemony including in areas where China is most active; the appeal to Russia of economic ties and balance from other Asian powers; the wisdom at the right time of substantial US overtures to Russia; and, finally, the absence of a shared ideology such as that which binds democratic states. He makes an informed and powerful argument cognizant of the way relations have kept strengthening through the summer of 2018.

A counterargument appears here and there in the same report, since authors were not agreed on this point. A counterargument centering on China’s thinking about Russia and why it is unlikely to proceed as predicted could also be made. Below, I raise a counterargument centering on what I perceive to be Russian thinking about China not because I am confident that I am correct, but to add a point of view that, I think, should be juxtaposed to Ellings’. It is followed by a breakdown of Russian schools on China, something I have been doing, on and off, for 35 years, highlighting the importance of interpreting national identity, not just concentrating on national interests.

Ellings writes, “in the longer term the two countries would seem to share no significant interests other than avoiding nuclear conflict. Without credible partners with which to balance China, Russia’s long-term prospects appear bleak, to the point that the country risks declining into a vassal of China.” This dismisses identity issues, as does note 67, which sees such rhetoric as no different than that of all autocrats and not worthy of further consideration as a factor in relations.

On Russian sensitivity to growing asymmetry, this argument was first heard in the 1990s and never confirmed by a Russian backlash unless one links the reluctance to sell arms around 2005 to it. Sensitivity to actions by the West has been far greater and is likely to remain so. On latent competition due to geostrategic proximity, this is a longstanding reality, too, and it has not played out as many in the West predicted. Competition with the United States has been much greater. What specific arena of competition is likely to rise to the fore in the next decade, we are not told. Why would China use its leverage more punitively toward Russia if Russia keeps playing along? Fear of arousing such a reaction restrains Russia, and it is not clear when that concern will lessen. As for the impact of history, one could argue that haunting memory of the price exacted by the Sino-Soviet split trumps the fear of irredentism. That is evident in Russian writings and in recent willingness to drop some barriers to Chinese involvement in the Russian Far East. Supposedly when Russia awakens to the reality it cannot recapture its hegemony, it will blame China and turn elsewhere, but hegemony is not all or nothing and arrangements with China have already worked sufficiently and could continue to do so. It is unclear why the appeal of Japan’s economy would be greater in the 2020s than it was in the past three decades unless there is an abrupt shift in Russia’s economic strategy, and even that would be more likely to lead to China. US overtures are vaguely suggested without specification of what might suffice; the US-China rapprochement in 1972 is cited without any indication of what might be sacrificed by both parties in a deal. Indeed, faulting Obama’s reset for not showing strength to Russia, Ellings seems to contradict the idea that Washington has to offer Moscow a better deal on matters critical to its identity. Finally, the absence of a shared ideology is taken for granted by dispensing the role of ideas and the writings in both countries that increasingly bring them (national identity) to the forefront.

Historical Perspective on Russian Debates on China

It has never been easy to grasp the essence of the debates on China taking place in the Soviet Union and Russia. The debate in the first half of the 1980s largely proceeded below the surface as the dominant “gang of four” stifled direct expression on many themes, making it appear that there was no serious Russian search for normalization of relations between the socialist giants.1 The debate in the mid-1990s was largely ignored in the West, as if demagogic rhetoric about the “yellow peril” was the dominant mood in Russia.2 The debate at the end of the 2000s and the beginning of the 2010s was low-key and of little outside interest due to fixed assumptions about national interests rooted in prevailing geopolitical and economic logic.3 In 2014-17 an upsurge in anti-US and anti-Western sentiment left few Russians inclined to criticize a further policy drift toward China although disappointment about unrealized expectations was increasingly visible.4

In the summer of 2018, it is still rare to find direct criticism of Russia’s pronounced turn to China in what many see as a new cold war, but a groundswell of indirect warnings can be identified against the backdrop of a wave of assertive or even triumphal writings on Russia joining China to forge a new world order as the West falls into disorder and decline.5 Writings are once again polarized, where one side makes its unabashed case and the other hints at counterarguments. Actually, the exchanges are inherently three-sided: pro very close ties; wary of such ties in hope of more balanced ties to the West or others in Asia; and resistant to both China and the West.

Russian thinking on China has mattered heavily for reasoning about the balance of power and national identity in each of these periods. It is viewed by the mainstream in Russia as having led to the colossal failure of the Sino-US strategic alliance, leaving the Soviet Union in an exposed position in the 1970s-80s. Moreover, the flawed thinking of Gorbachev and Yeltsin on this and other international relations is blamed by the mainstream for a myopic foreign policy reducing Moscow unnecessarily to the global periphery. In contrast, Yeltsin’s about-face toward China and Putin’s strategic wisdom in thinking about China are credited with propelling Russia back to the front ranks of great powers. Getting China right is a matter of utmost importance, and that is again recognized in the renewed exchanges about that country visible in the summer of 2018.

At the core of the current debate about China are four themes, which are unevenly covered in publications: 1) the strategic triangle with the United States and the West; 2) the character of the future world order and Russia’s place in it; 3) the contours of Greater Eurasia, including the linkage of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt and Road Initiative; and 4) the integration of the Russian Far East and Northeast China as well as the Northern Sea Route following the coast of the Russian Far East. Three orientations are discernable in the Russian materials. First, there is boosterism for the Sino-Russian quasi-alliance, effusively praising it and calling to strengthen it. As in the case of the hostility to China prevailing to the mid-80s, this is the official line, which is best resisted indirectly through avoidance of pointed allegations of any possible policy mistakes. Second, one finds resistance on the left arguing that Russia can thrive without relying heavily on China or toning down its hostility to the West, but this view is not pronounced in the standard set of publications since Putin has generally co-opted the left well after China became their favored partner in the 1990s. Third, resistance on the right has intensified but remains concentrated in a community that parallels the Moscow think tank world of the 1980s and also is cautious in its arguments despite the fact that it benefits from more freedom of expression and organizational autonomy. Attacking China today is easier than praising it in the 1980s, but there are parallels.

This article paraphrases and interprets the voices of Russian authors in August and September 2018 at a time of deepening US sanctions on Russia, an accelerating US trade war with China, and a growing sense of foreboding (some argue, of opportunity) that the international order is undergoing its greatest change since the end of the Cold War. The feigned euphoria in Russian writings on China after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas, followed by the suppressed disappointment in 2016 that China would not be Russia’s economic savior, and then the confused ups and downs of thinking in 2017 and the first half of 2018 that Trump would somehow bring Russia back into international normalcy, have given way to mainstream writers becoming reconciled to a new cold war. Having been intoxicated, several years back, by the idea that Russia can become the center of Eurasia, some remaining unilateralists still cast doubt on yielding much to China, while accepting the cold war logic. In contrast, multilateralists try to open people’s eyes to the problems in working with China (caused by both sides) and find hope still in ties to other Asian states or the West without clearly endorsing the inevitability of a looming cold war. The bilateralists are predominant in writings about the big picture, while the multilateralists, who often keep the focus narrow, are vocal about specifics in bilateral relations and, increasingly, as seen in the Country Report: Russia, about BRICS as well.

A clarification is in order since bilateralists are prone to call themselves multilateralists and to associate with some of the reasoning of unilateralists. For instance, in one Valdai Discussion Club Report of September 2018 covering the ideas behind Russia’s turn to the East, Russia was called the “midwife of history” in influencing the rise of Asia, the “assembly point for Greater Eurasia,” a country due to its “cultural diversity…well suited for maintaining geopolitical and ideological balance between rival Asian countries,” a country shaking off ”Sinophobia” and not falling into the “view of China as a godsend,” and a country “able to place China, the inevitable regional leader in a web of ties, institutions, and balances that excludes a possibility of even a soft hegemony.”6 This optimism is not based on analysis of China or on Russia’s ongoing ties to other Asian countries; rather it is a statement of faith that enables further bilateralism to proceed.

The Bilateralists

The mainstream view in 2018 is enthusiastic about Sino-Russian relations, praising what they have accomplished for a quarter century and optimistic about strengthening them in the coming years. They often do not shy away from suggesting that an alliance would be welcome if conditions are still shifting as they have of late. They reflect thinking in the Kremlin, acknowledge few hiccups in the relationship, and make assumptions about Russian national identity and national interests that predominate in the media. Geopolitics and civilizational assertiveness are hallmarks of their reasoning, although economic themes are not absent. While details about China are of secondary concern, arguments about the world order are prioritized. They are prone to harshly criticize the analysis of relations between Moscow and Beijing in the West as ideological at the same time as they attack US policies toward both capitals as the root cause of this strengthening dyad. At its core, the logic of the bilateralists (despite insistence that they support multipolarity) is rooted in an image of a strategic triangle unbalanced in favor of the United States that must be rebalanced. Their optimism is expressed as certainty that this rebalancing is inevitable and advancing quickly.

On September 14 in Rossiya v Global’noi Politike Sergey Karaganov wrote about how to win in a cold war, insisting that the international situation has turned in Russia’s favor and an entirely new narrative on international relations is required. He sees a new cold war, treating Russia as the victim of much that occurred in the original Cold War. All will lose, but the question is who loses less. To prevent China from becoming the first world power, he adds, it has been necessary to destroy Russia, which is on China’s side, as a more convenient target. Maintaining its nuclear potential and restoring its other capabilities, Russia has deprived the West of the possibility of sustaining its hegemony with military force, finally giving other states the ability to build their competitive advantages and boost their will to fight for own their sovereignty and security. The balance of forces has radically shifted in the past 10-15 years. Triumphalism led the West into a fatal mistake in the 1990s, demanding Russia’s full subjection, ideologically, geopolitically, and economically. Recently, with growing dissatisfaction in the West, threatening control over the political system, there was a need for a new external enemy, which became “Russian hackers.”

While the confrontation was inevitable from about 10 years ago, it needed the United States and others to size up the new situation and throw everything into the battle. Washington is driving Moscow and Beijing to respond. As for the ideological struggle, the West has an advantage, since people associate its high standard of living with democracy, but of late the popularity of democracy has been falling as images of inequality and interventions spread, and capitalism is contradictory to democracy through social justice, although the presence of communism forced greater concern with that. Karaganov links the progressive resistance against what he calls aggressive liberalism historically (implying that Soviet communism was on the right side of history as is Russia with its values including patriotism, adherence to sovereignty, cultural openness, and service to family, society, and country) with what he sees happening now. He appeals for Russia to boost its propaganda against the lingering fixation on the West found in the thinking of Russia’s intelligentsia and its economy, although Russians are already much more comfortable.

Karaganov sees the bright side of things: the end of the Cold War meant getting rid of unreliable and expensive allies in Eastern Europe, reducing a great burden; ties to Vietnam shifted to more favorable conditions; Russia no longer had to subsidize the SSSR republics as many there lost income and came to Russia as labor migrants; a rising Asia means the non-West is winning; the emerging Russian elite no longer feels marginal European and now identifies as central Eurasian; and Moscow’s relations with Beijing are virtually that of an ally, which is positive since China’s rise is good for Russia and China is inevitably in conflict with the West. If China avoids the path of hegemonism and becomes the first among equals in Greater Eurasia, the close Sino-Russian relationship will transform the balance of forces in the world, he asserts. In the new cold war, the United States and its allies will face an equal or surpassing force. Thus, Russia is in a much better position than was the Soviet Union and can withstand a cold war and join in forging a new world order, but it needs sound policies in order not to repeat the mistakes of the earlier Cold War and an economic upsurge through a more concrete approach to the Eurasian project and rejection of the idea of regaining a foothold in the prior world economic system. He calls for deepening and widening the SCO and EEU backed by a really new foreign policy concept.

Karaganov, whose substantial influence in Moscow is well recognized, offers a warning about China being unwilling to stop as the first among equals (claims of equal relations are fading in the face of obvious realities), but he sets that aside in counting on a Sino-Russian alliance to manage the new cold war. Together, he insists, they will forge a new world order. In contrast to some who argue that Russia is wary of joining China, he says that China’s rise is good for Russia.

Alexander Lukin is the best-known Russian expert on China and writes a lot in English.7 He fits the mold of the bilateralists for: his repeated assurances about the strength of the relationship and its positive contribution to the international order, which he denies is a liberal order; his steady arguments about overlapping Russian and Chinese interests and visions of the world order at odds with what he calls the US efforts to overturn the Security Council centered order; and his confidence in the “infrastructure of cooperation” binding Moscow and Beijing on all issues. He tends to eschew the ideological orientation of some in this camp—concentrating on shared opposition to Western ideology rather than on any emerging Sino-Russian ideological consensus—and intimates that the die-hard anti-West crowd in Russia tends to be opposed to close Sino-Russian ties rather than eager for them. Yet, he does not delve much into how the national identities in Russia and China or the legacy of communism keeps drawing them closer together.    

On September 2 Iurii Tavrovskii assessed the Sino-US trade war, calling it part of a much more serious hybrid war. Unlike other US trade disputes, this is aimed at containment, depriving China of advanced technology, openly arousing separative tendencies in Taiwan, continuously “showing the flag” in the South China Sea, and forging a new military union in the Indo-Pacific region. To this he adds pressing for a fall in the value of the yuan and China’s markets. One possible consequence is rising political tension within the Chinese elite as rich eastern provinces lose markets and some see limits on their personal accounts and property, as has occurred in the Russian case. Liberal and communist ideas are now at odds, he adds, in soft criticism of the current leadership for departing from the norm of collective leadership and Deng’s advice to take a low profile. Now it is already clear that an unproblematic period of rising power, which lasted for 40 years, is coming to an end, after the 2017 party congress had heard from Xi that the “China Dream” would be realized no later than 2049. Unconvinced by such claims of inevitability, elites in the United States have finally put China with Russia as the main opponents. Driving Trump are not only trade statistics, showing a deficit with China of $375 billion in 2017, but the image of “Made in China-2025” with its emphasis on high-tech sectors. Materials abound in China about the Chinese superiority over the United States, arousing patriotism and feeling of being the “new masters of the world,” which leads them to ignore oral and written agreements against past business ethics. Calls are now heard to pull back from triumphalism, moving from proclaiming successes to rallying around the party and top leadership in conditions of containment. This means obligatory singing of revolutionary songs, warnings that China’s vast currency reserves can create colossal problems for the United States, and claims that goods can be reoriented to China’s internal market. After the Party Congress, the course of reviving socialist values is becoming even more pronounced. More stimulus through big infrastructure projects may follow as well as lower taxes, and increased wages and pensions could boost demand. Beijing may speed up construction of an alternative global financial system, avoiding use of the dollar with partners. Another response may be drawing closer to Russia to the point of a military-political alliance. As this hybrid war continues, as in the case of Russia, talk will turn to fighting for the right to make a civilizational choice, Tavrovskii predicted prior to the September Putin-Xi Vladivostok summit.

Familiar threads amid the critique of Chinese triumphalism are: reassurance to Russians that China is not so successful that it can go alone, the assumption that Russia is ready to form an alliance and China now is considering it more seriously, and insistence that the West is forcing countries that seek to maintain their own civilizations into a zero-sum choice of antagonism. By pointing to problems in China that will hold it back, authors ease concerns about Russia falling into the state of a junior partner and imply that China will have to take account of Russia’s needs. The hallmark of the bilateralist school is praise for the success over more than a quarter century of Sino-Russian relations, assuredness about further strengthening of relations, minimalization of problems in relations, and a clear image of the two working together to shape the world order.

Unilateralists

Pavel Gudin on September 14 in Rossiya v Global’noi Politike looked at China’s ambitions in the Arctic, charging that it is in favor of maximum internationalization through some abstract international community rather than the exclusive arrangements sought by Russia. China’s stance was clarified in its January white paper, fully detailing what it seeks and revealing its ambitions, which contradict the national interests of the states bordering the Arctic Ocean. One argument is that the melting of ice in the Arctic Ocean through global warming will have devastating effects; so China, in its fight against climate change, has big stakes. China claims a say in all aspects of the Arctic, omitting only military-strategic matters, clashing with Russia’s (and Canada’s) position that it has full control of the transport artery to its north, which has never been an international route, and can prevent civil suits and naval vessels. The main opponent is the United States, insisting that the conventional right of free passage be guaranteed. For China, seeking Russian mineral and energy resource and inclusion of the route in its BRI for use in exporting Chinese goods, freedom of navigation would free it from Russia’s strict regulation. It would be naïve to expect Moscow to change its position, and it is very dangerous for China to tie itself to the US position, Gudin argues, and call itself a “near-Arctic state” while pressing for an inclusive approach against Russia’s national interests and unable to win support in the Arctic 5.

Unilateralists are prone to view China as encroaching on Russian sovereignty or a presumed sphere of influence, not cooperating adequately economically or in organizations where Russia should have at least an equal say, and insufficiently focused on the joint struggle against the West. While some of their criticisms overlap with those of the multilateralists, they center on Russian autonomy and are more critical of the West. They focus on what Russia should do for itself, but they lack the sharp critique of the multilateralists on failure of market reforms, the investment climate, and Russian openness to the West, at least economically, as its own fault.

Multilateralists

Aleksandr Gabuev in the September 4 Vedemosti analyzed how the Silk Road has become the universal method of designating any Chinese foreign policy activity. In the five years since Xi Jinping introduced the term in Astana it has energized many and, along with BRI, become in the eyes of the beholder something without clear direction or timeline. For Xi the Silk Road refers to his successful, wise leadership as the China Dream goes from victory to victory, as on August 28 when a gathering in Beijing on the anniversary of the idea praised the amount invested in the countries on the Silk Road, the number of workers’ places created, and the scale of trade. Others focus on benefits to China in exports, jobs, and economic growth or permits and subsidies from the top to achieve the objectives of various entities. Associating with this ideal brings money to many in and out of China, but for some others it is a threat of expansion by China or a force that drives them into a debt crisis. Attraction to the Silk Road is driven not only by personal motives but also by the mystical belief that China unlike other powers has a strategic plan with long-term goals rather than is practicing the art of masking deals with a good chance to fail, as in Malaysia and Sri Lanka, and by the objective rise of China’s influence through trade, investment, tourism, military presence, and innovative companies. Gabuev repeats growing doubts on China’s aims.

In Russia, he adds, discussion about China’s Silk Road played an unexpectedly positive role in thinking about bilateral relations, as it was first viewed as intrusion into Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia and thus a threat to the EEU, but after Crimea, it was taken as another channel to draw Chinese credits. When a period of disillusionment followed due to the results for Russia’s economy being largely limited to investment in Yamal LNG and the “power of Siberia” as well as to transit of Chinese goods to Europe through Russian territory, a consensus formed in private (as opposed to official situations, which extol the bilateral friendship and Xi’s personal role in projects) that the Silk Road is not a danger to Russia but that it is not a very attractive economic partner for China. If prior concerns that slowed Russian cooperation with China were concocted by Russians with narrow views of opening the country, and it is not necessary to fear the Silk Road or to believe in its majestic qualities, the key, Gabuev insists, is to reform Russia’s own economy and improve its investment climate. This is an invitation to more openness not only to China’s companies, but to those of the West, and, above all, to domestic reform. As in the late 1970s to early 1980s, writings critical of the mainstream on China are as much about the need for reform at home as they are about shortcomings of a foreign policy with little payoff.

On August 22 Ivan Zuenko asked for the Carnegie Center why the nine-year Sino-Russian border cooperation project failed. Despite high hopes and dire warnings for the program, almost nothing happened, and little is said, as one awaits announcement of a new program, perhaps at the Eastern Economic Forum. The 2009 document was a standard collection of localities urging the center to make large investments, not a complex, coordinated strategy with mechanisms for realizing its aims and input from businesses supposed to carry out the initiatives. The program had four parts: cross-border infrastructure, cross-border economics, investment projects, and non-material projects such as cooperation in higher education and language study. The projects realized by 2018 were already going forward before 2009, while others stumbled before financial and bureaucratic hurdles. What was not finished before the APEC 2012 summit did not get done, e.g. the 5-star Hyatt hotel in Vladivostok. Crossing the border can take six hours, and in the one 24-hour border post in the Zabaikal’sk area one group of Chinese tourists in 2017 spent the night at the customs post. It is unclear what happened to the money set aside for reconstruction of border crossings. The Blagoveshchensk-Heihe bridge started with agreement in 1995 was inserted into the 2009 program and a joint company for building it began in 2016 and started work in December of that year. The Nizhneleninskoe-Dongjiang railway bridge was the 2007 idea of a Russian company seeking to transport its produce to China and part of the 2009 plan, the Chinese side finished its part in 2016, and only in 2017 did the Russian side begin. On one side there are funds, but not on the other. Yet, there are problems also on the Chinese side for projects started after September 2009, given the recession in Northeast China. The program was doomed from the start, suggests Zuenko, in the way it was handled, and a new program needs to be qualitatively different. He suggests to: omit small projects since officials do not have total control over business; concentrate on infrastructure, which stimulates interest by the central and regional bureaucracy; and coordinate with institutes of development, designate concrete mechanisms, and only include projects to which officials and experts have already given their approval. After all, it is noted, each failed project raises skepticism about Russo-Chinese regional cooperation.

There is little sign of a debate, where the facts exposed by the multilateralists are contested, but there was no open clash in the years of past subterranean struggle before differences came to the surface under Gorbachev. Blame is concentrated on the Russian side and on economic policy without a broader message about international relations. Another strand of multilateralism has been to point to the importance of boosting Russian ties to Japan, South Korea, India, Vietnam, etc. There does not seem to be much of that anymore, suggesting that, as 35 years ago, analysis is channeled into the outlet most acceptable for openness—today, it goes into the need for economic change. 

Comparisons of the Three Russian Schools in Historical Perspective

The national identity of the Soviet Union became defined in such a way that Mao’s China and also the first stage of Deng’s China were anathema. The official line, which brooked no dissent but left some openings at its edges, demonized China, hinting first at excesses reminiscent of the Stalin era and later at deviations indicative of the rightist heresy of selling out to the capitalist enemies, albeit tinged with lingering Maoist elements. One line of opposition was to foresee Sino-Soviet reconciliation and eventually welcome China’s reforms as a model for the Soviets or an example of opening to the West or the Asia-Pacific, but this was censored, forcing an oblique approach. A second line was to treat China’s deviation as a threat Moscow had to guard further against, by tightening the line against liberal reforms. This gathered steam after June 4, 1989, when China no longer was treated so negatively—both due to normalization of bilateral ties and China’s crackdown and alienation from the West. Viewed through the prism of both Soviet domestic battles and the state of bilateral relations, China was the object of a mainstream view, which for two decades from the late 1980s to the late 2000s became more openly contested.     

In 2018, Russian national identity has been reconstructed in a manner that privileges China for both its domestic system and role in international relations. While censorship is more relaxed and there is more doubt about China’s prospects (useful for boosting Russia’s importance to it), a particular image of China has again become critical to how Russians view themselves and the outside world. Rather than open dissent, the unilateralists pin their hopes on Russia’s rise while carefully refraining from serious criticism of China. Similarly, the multilateralists do not just pay lip service to rosy-eyed claims that close ties to China are compatible with this objective, but point, however narrowly it may be advisable, to serious problems with Moscow and Beijing realizing the goals they set together and to steps that could lead to improved relations with the other major players in East and South Asia. The pretensions of the Sino-Soviet dispute about how Moscow would emerge successful by demonizing China, and the parallel pretensions of the current time of how success comes from lauding China both stand in contrast to the analysis of the true multilateralists who take a more nuanced approach to China and a more realistic attitude toward relations with other Asian states and, presumably, the United States. Four decades ago the stifled debate about China had disastrous consequences for Soviet foreign policy, when it was very difficult to find a way around the mainstream stranglehold on policy discourse. There is a strong possibility that today’s mainstream will play a similar role if it marginalizes the opinions of those who narrowly register their dissent, with negative consequences once again.

In the hidden debate of the late Cold War era, there were internationalists seeing opportunities in China’s reforms to jumpstart Soviet reform and in China’s opening to the West and other Asian states to open up their country. Today’s multilateralists also do not need to differentiate whether they support leaning more to the West (talk of a pro-West school of thinking on China appears outdated from the evidence at hand) or recasting ties to China as part of a more market-friendly, open Russia with multilateral appeal in Asia. In both periods, China is a secondary concern in writings about it. The real struggle is about Moscow’s thinking and policies. The unilateralists have lost clout from the 1980s given the weaker hand available to Moscow. The bilateralists are ascendant, arguably, because they are the heirs to the national identity legacy of the Soviet era, whereby the United States and the West are demonized, but this time China’s role has been turned on its head. The multilateralists remind one of the think tank risk-takers who struggled against what they saw as a stagnant economic course and a short-sighted approach to Asian dynamism. Much depended earlier on whether China’s self-destructive leftism was unbreakable in an Asia-Pacific region unable to sustain dynamism and today on whether China’s rise is inexorable in a newly polarized world. US policy in the 1980s beckoned to Beijing and then to Moscow, altering the calculus in both capitals, but only after their leadership rejected unilateralist thinking and put bilateral thinking on the margins. With US policy being a question mark now and bilateralism in the forefront in both countries, the debate in Moscow over China has yet to suggest a new direction.

#BRI #BRICS #China Dream #Cold War #EEU #SCO #Silk Road #Yellow Peril