As attempts to integrate Russia into the West have largely failed, culminating in the sharp rupture over Ukraine, the Kremlin feels it has no choice but to move toward China, something it is reluctant to admit in order to avoid being portrayed as weak.
Instead of a revived Transatlantic Europe, the world is now more likely to see a Eurasia from Kaliningrad to Shanghai. In contrast to the “wider Europe” idea, this arrangement will be based on pragmatism, instead of cultural affinity. Its success will depend on whether Russia and China can complement each other, instead of competing for primacy in Central Asia.
Under this scenario, the challenge for President Vladimir Putin is to convince his political elite to sacrifice its dream of becoming a full-fledged member of the European community of nations for the immediate benefits of a closer relationship with China. In addition, given that the Russian leadership has historically been reluctant to accept an inferior status in any relationship, it will be hard for Russia to manage such a partnership – clearly unequal, being based on the assumption of a preeminent China.
In order to do so, Russia will have to develop a distinctive role for itself both with regard to China as such, but more importantly with regard to the Central Asian states. It is clear that Russia will be unable to outmatch China in terms of economic prowess and the sheer resources that it can invest in these countries. At the same time, Russia can offer its political clout and security experience, given its military presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In addition, terrorism and drug proliferation threats in this region can serve as common challenges that will further unite Russia and China.
If successful, the Russia-China cooperation could provoke a fundamental shift in world politics. It would empower the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which will add India and Pakistan in 2015) and decidedly move the international system toward multipolarity. At the same time, the potential Russia-China axis would not be directed against the West, as it would compete with it most of all economically.
The main challenge for Russia is to avoid getting lost in this arrangement. Regardless of the distribution of economic power between Russia and China, the relationship will have to look equal in order for both sides to accept it as legitimate. In this sense, Moscow can even enjoy the fact that is now being portrayed as one of the greatest threats to the US-led world order as this only boosts its importance in the eyes of the Chinese leaders – and of Russian public opinion.
So far China itself has been shrewd in allowing Moscow to have a formally equal status both in Central Asia and within the SCO, where the two powers assume a co-leadership role. This could be a lesson for the European Union and NATO, whose failure to accommodate Russia over the last 20 years has resulted, among other problems, in an international crisis over Ukraine that has led to thousands of lives lost and broken.
However, Russia itself has not been modernizing quickly enough (economically and politically) for Europe to truly accept it as an equal. It has also failed to become attractive to the Ukrainian people, especially the young. Russia will face a similar challenge with regard to China too. The only way Russia can become a successful, stable and prosperous state in the future is if it develops a modern economy that produces sophisticated products people want across the world. So far Russia has had a poor record in achieving this goal. Under the current pressure from the West, Putin and his main domestic allies will hopefully be forced to move in this direction.
So far the Russian and Chinese people look favorably at each other, recent polls say. According to a poll, conducted by the US-based Pew Research Center, 90% of Russians approve Putin’s handling of relations with China.
At the same time, the Russians and Chinese still know little about each other. In order to achieve better understanding between the two, transportation links will have to be improved. Indeed, this will be one of the pilot projects Russia and China can cooperate on: China will invest in Russian rail infrastructure and provide the know-how. Currently, China and Russia are set to sign an agreement to jointly build a high-speed rail link from Moscow to Kazan. Under this arrangement, Kazakhstan is also set to benefit from improved transportation links.
In economic terms, the North Arctic route, developed jointly by Russia and China, can provide a shorter and pirate-free alternative to the usual Panama and Suez canals. Arctic Sea ports can be connected to China via Russia and thus create a new web of infrastructure there.
During his last visit to Moscow, China’s President Xi Jinping and Putin signed as many as 32 important deals, but one of them stood out. This was a memorandum on the joint development of the two states’ integration projects: China’s Silk Road Economic Belt project and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union.
While it was widely accepted that Russia and China cannot form a long-lasting and all-encompassing alliance due to partly conflicting interests in Central Asia, it seems that both sides are committed to exploring pragmatic opportunities in various areas.
One of the competitive advantages of the Russia-China alliance over the Russia-West one is that Moscow and Beijing have very similar views on the fundamentals of the international system.
Both see it as a value-free system that is based on non-interference. They also see multipolarity as the best form of relationships that balances the interests of several great powers. Both Russia and China see Western democracy promotion and human rights proliferation around the world as a cynical cover for crude foreign policy interests. Overall, Russia and China see the international system as based on interests, instead of values.
Therefore, both Russia and China feel relatively secure about each other for the time being. The Chinese leadership does not care if Putin will rule over Russia for the next decade and vice versa. Unlike in the West, the Chinese media will not criticize Putin for his tough policies against his political opponents and the country’s civil society.
At the same time, it is also clear that this arrangement relies heavily on the will of certain political players and that culturally many members of the Russian elite and its urban middle class will still lean toward Europe. Moreover, the more developed and prosperous Russia will become, the more pro-European its politically-active citizens will be. But this is a challenge for a still distant future.
 Russia will host a joint SCO/BRICS Summit in Ufa this June.