Book Review: ‘China and Russia – the New Rapprochement’

Best of Friends (Almost)

‘China and Russia: the New Rapprochement’. By Alexander Lukin (Polity. £16.99)

The Sino-Soviet split of the 1950s and 60s involved a conflict between the two most powerful countries that claimed to be heirs of Lenin. There were small-scale border disputes and the Chinese leadership denounced the Russian bosses as revisionists. But, with major political changes in both countries since then, they are now ‘close but not allies’. Here Lukin tracks the history of the relationship between Russia and China and its current status, which he says is ‘the natural outcome of developments in international relations’. His book contains a lot of information but is often a rather dry read.

If the Cold War implied a bipolar world, with two large powers confronting each other, the fear in Russia now is of a drift towards a unipolar set-up, with the West (primarily the US of course) ruling the roost. Instead, Chinese and Russian leaders envisage a multipolar world, with not just three powerful camps (US, Russia, China) but more, including India, Brazil and so on.

Currently, China is economically more powerful than Russia but militarily weaker. In the 1990s, after the collapse of Eastern European Bolshevism, China bought various goods, including weapons, from Russia, thus helping much heavy industry in Russia to survive. Nowadays energy resources are the main export from Russia to China, with both oil and gas being supplied in large amounts, but there are concerns in Russia about being overly dependent on one main customer. The arms trade is also important, with Russia selling fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles to China. China is Russia’s main trade partner, but Russia’s ‘pivot to Asia’ means it is keen on expanding trade with Japan and South Korea too. Chinese exports to Russia are primarily machinery, equipment and consumer goods.

In 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was formed, the original members being China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, with India and Pakistan joining in 2017. Central Asia is clearly an area of interest for both Russia and China, as much for security as for economic reasons. The SCO, says Lukin, might be a cornerstone of the emerging multipolar world and ‘could assume the role of a second, non-Western center of gravity in Eurasia’.

On the whole, then, the book deals with the familiar topics of trade, energy supplies, security and power rivalries. As a further sign of developing relations, the teaching of the Chinese language in Russia and of Russian in China are both expanding.   


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