Last month I took part in a workshop run by the Transatlantic Academy in Washington on the development of the relationship between China and Russia – and its consequences for the West. Immediately after the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea, President Vladimir Putin signed a series of trade deals with China, including a $400 billion deal to export Russian gas to China. Since then, the two countries have also agreed to “co-ordinate” the development of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt. Beyond China’s need for energy and Russia’s need to replace trade with, and investment from, Europe, the two countries also share an interest in challenging U.S. power and in creating a “multipolar world”. So should the West worry about a relationship? And if so, how should it respond?
It seems to me that the answer depends in part on what exactly we mean by “the West”, which is both a geographic and a normative concept. In geographic terms, “the West” basically refers to Europe and the United States – thus when we speak about “Western interests”, we really mean the interests of these two powers (though it sometimes also includes other aligned countries with developed economies). In normative terms, “the West” refers to a set of values that go back to the European Enlightenment – in particular, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Obviously, the geographic and the normative are connected – so much so, in fact, that it is often difficult to disentangle them. In particular, the two meanings of the West intersect through the idea of the liberal international order, which is both the embodiment of Western values and of the interests of what E.H. Carr referred to as “have” (as opposed to “have not”) powers – that is, Europe and the United States.
However, it is important at least conceptually to distinguish between the normative and the geographic because, as the global distribution of power shifts from the (geographic) west to east, the danger is that what the German historian Heinrich August Winkler has called “the normative project of the West” will also be undermined. (For the sake of clarity, I will use a capital “W” when I mean the West in a normative sense and a small “w” when I mean the west in a geographic sense.) It seems to me that, in order to prevent this from happening, we need to enlarge the normative project of the West to include non-western powers within it. Particularly important will be “global swing states” – that is, non-western democracies such as Brazil and India. This means we should be emphasizing the normative version of the West and de-emphasizing the geographic version of the west.
Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit have written about the long history of what they call “Occidentalism” – a concept that is implicitly also based on a distinction between the geographic and normative versions of “the West”. “Occidentalism” refers to a declaration of war against an imaginary West. In other words, “occidentalists” are not simply those who oppose western power – as many who are motivated simply by a desire for a more equal world do – but rather those who construct and oppose an idea of the West. Thus “occidentalism” is a negative ideological project. For me, one of the most interesting questions about the relationship between China and Russia is whether it is an expression of such a negative ideological project – a kind of “Anti-West”. China and Russia are often seen as hyper-realist powers. But perhaps this is wrong and there is there an ideological element in their foreign policies – and in the relationship between them?
Most of the experts on China and Russia who took part in the Transatlantic Academy workshop suggested in different ways that ideology did play a role in relations between China and Russia. For example, Bobo Lo argued that China and Russia share a belief multipolar or polycentric world and a desire to constrain U.S. power, oppose democracy promotion and color revolutions and Western moral interventionism and reject West’s assumed moral superiority. Alexander Lukin argued that the two countries share values – though not internal political values. “They don’t care whether you’re a democracy or not” he said, “but this is also a value”. In other words, China and Russia share not a positive ideology, as in the era of Mao in China and the Communist era in the Soviet Union (though Gilbert Rozman argued that the legacy of Communism continues to influence their foreign policies) but a negative ideology.
Analysis of the relationship between China and Russia tends to focus on how far it can go – in other words how durable or brittle it is. In particular, there has been much debate about whether the relationship will evolve into some kind of informal or formal alliance. There seemed to be a consensus among the analysts at the workshop about the limitations of the relationship, though they expressed it in different ways: Alexander Lukin quoted former Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying’s description of China and Russia as being “close but not allies”; Christina Lin quoted Yun Sun’s idea of “alignment without alliance”; Bobo Lo sees the relationship as an “axis of convenience”. But this question of how far the relationship can go is distinct from the question of whether it is based on interests or values. One can imagine a durable relationship that is based on shared interests rather than values; conversely, a relationship based on shared values could be brittle if interests are not aligned.
The question of whether the relationship between China and Russia is based on interests or values may seem academic, but it has implications for European and U.S. policy. Western policymakers have so far focused on how much they should worry about co-operation between China and Russia. The assumption seems to be that if the relationship is durable, they should worry and change policy, whereas if it is brittle, they needn’t worry and don’t need to change policy. But the question is not just how much the West should change policy but what kind of policy the West should pursue. For example, John Mearsheimer’s claim that the Ukraine crisis was “the West’s fault” is based on an assumption that Russia is a realist power that inevitably felt threatened by, and reacted to, the enlargement of NATO. In order to avoid the next crisis, understanding the role of ideology in Chinese and Russian foreign policy matters.