Sino-Russian Strategic Cooperation: Responsibilities on Key Issues at a Critical Moment

On March 25–26, 2016, over 50 well-known experts and scholars from both China and Russia gathered at East Normal University at a conference entitled “Cooperation between China and Russia: The Process and Prospects” to discuss Sino-Russian relations in challenging times. During the conference, both Chinese and Russian scholars highlighted a number of issues currently facing both countries and put forward quite a few constructive comments and suggestions.

This indicates that we are all aware that Sino-Russian relationship has come to a critical juncture, which calls for extensive collaboration in promoting and enhancing the relationship. This shared reflection and concern, in addition to our current responsibilities, serve as an important foundation to push forward Sino-Russian relations.

Over the long run, the following key issues presented at the conference deserve our attention and consideration at a later stage.

I. The great potential of Sino-Russian cooperation is underpinned by similarities between China and Russia both at home and abroad

The experts held that the current Sino-Russian relationship is at an extremely important juncture, although at times it is like sailing against the wind. Nevertheless, the similarities between China and Russia domestically and globally suggest profound potential for cooperation between the two nations. On the foreign policy front, both China and Russia are entering the second stage of international relations after the Cold War: not only facing enormous pressure from the US hegemony, but also having to deal with power diffusion and disorder. While Sino-Russian relations have great prospects, at the same time both countries have important international responsibilities. In terms of domestic policy, state-building in both countries is entering a process that echoes the past but also shows signs of a completely new historic period. That is, in this new stage both countries should advance their economic development and maintain stability on the one hand, while on the other they should let the fundamental role of the market play out and work to improve both countries’ democratic decision-making. This is a difficult transition. But if China and Russia learn to rely on each other, they can unleash their win-win potential. Another major challenge posing a problem for further development of Sino-Russian bilateral relations was also discussed. Facing an ideological and institutional framework that the West has been constructing for several hundred years, how can China and Russia work together to change it? In order to do so, both countries need to engage in an all-out and systemic effort to migrate away from such ideological practices and institutions. Otherwise, we can neither cope with Western strategic pressures nor really implement a series of President Xi’s concepts regarding Sino-Russian relations in parallel with China’s foreign policy strategies. But we cannot afford to wait: both Chinese and Russian politicians and academics must put forward new ideas on the development of bilateral relations without delay.

II. Sino-Russian economic and trade cooperation needs to look past existing theoretical models and creatively evolve with the times

The many complementary characteristics between China and Russia have not yet transformed into an impetus to promote bilateral economic cooperation. More than a decade ago both countries promoted traditional forms of trade and economic cooperation, such as free trade areas and trade facilitation. However, so far, such initiatives have not been implemented and therefore have yet to pave the way for any tangible progress. Therefore, we find that existing integration models and theories are insufficient for current business practices of China and Russia. Being two very large countries in transition and with developing economies that share a common border, Russia and China’s bilateral cooperation experiences indicate that we can neither adopt traditional ideas of integration and regionalization, nor can we employ simple market approaches to clearly understand Sino-Russian economic relations. Instead, we should promote bilateral cooperation with modern-day theoretical models, experiences and lessons, advancing with the times and incorporating innovative ideas. Furthermore, these new approaches must be combined with both conventional and unconventional means in order to promote cooperation between both countries. For instance, we can adopt an approach of having an “incomplete market economy” while pursuing “political economics during times of crisis,” including seeking the appropriate FTA models for developing Sino-Russian relations, especially through wide-ranging political consensus, to guide Sino-Russian cooperation.

III. Currently, Sino-Russian regional cooperation is facing many conceptual problems that require new breakthroughs

Some experts characterize the process of Sino-Russian regional cooperation as being one of too much talk and not enough action. The reasons include, but are not limited to, perceptions of bilateral cooperation, the lack of theoretical background, and insufficient preparation in coping with important problems during bilateral regional cooperation. In addition, there are too many projects influenced by top-down decision making during the implementation of cooperation plans and strategies, and this leads to more long-term disconnection between the government and business. Russian authorities have recently, however, changed substantively their attitude towards social and economic development in Russia's Far East and Siberia, showing their determination in making efforts to change the status quo. However, it is still difficult to construct norms, especially facing obstacle after obstacle. This indicates that Russia is not well prepared mentally to challenge the status quo. Meanwhile, China tends to compare Sino-Russian cooperation with their experiences with the West, causing China to focus more on Russia’s problems than on its inherent potential, especially under a lot of special development conditions. In other words, China pays more attention to its contributions rather than focusing on its own issues needing attention and improvement. In particular, China must implement the instructions of President Xi through long-term, patient and pragmatic work.

IV. There are debates on how to better coordinate operations between the SREB and EAEU. The trial and error method should be employed to promote cooperation

In general, experts propose four possible scenarios for cooperation: bilateral coordination arrangements (1+1), whereby each member of the Eurasian Economic Union can participate independently in the SREB Initiative; coordination between China and the EAEU (1+5); coordination within the SCO framework (2+1); or multilateral cooperation, much like Sino-Russia-Mongolia trilateral cooperation. Overall, the current scenario of coordination between the SREB and EAEU needs a breakthrough, particularly in how major projects are implemented, establishing models on the one hand; but on the other hand, this scenario also needs to focus on strengthening all levels of communication with those countries with whom China experiences difficulties (Russia, for example). First, we could deepen comprehensive cooperation with existing breakthroughs, say, by advancing the cooperation with members of the EAEU and possibly through the FTA with Georgia. Secondly, we can achieve win-win results with better concepts for cooperation, say, to achieve wider space for SREB and EAEU in Central Asia through Sino-Russian cooperation in the Far East and Siberia (in particular, with China pledging greater investment). Third, both China and Russia “look southward” in order to take advantage of Sino-Russia-India cooperation mechanisms while seeking breakthroughs in Southeast Asia multilateral cooperation. In addition, for better coordination between the SREB and the EAEU it is necessary to handle correctly its competition with existing regional mechanisms and cooperation initiatives, while actively exploring areas of possible interaction and cooperation. Moreover, China should also consider the current international environment, including the US and European sanctions against Russia, the crisis in Ukraine, TPP, TTIP, the new energy revolution and so on. “The Highest Good Is Like Water” could be a guiding principle in this respect. It means that the coordination between the SREB and the EAEU is just like the flow of water, which does not collide with any existing regional institutions or mechanisms, and does not pursue “the winner takes it all” strategy.

To sum up, first, we need to think outside the box, combining conventional and unconventional strategies, while being mindful of the reality, both in theoretical and policy terms. The academic community should take more responsibility in this process. Second, Chinese scholars, coming from a harmonious and sound cultural background, must appreciate this breakthrough, which allows them to have such frank discussions and debates. Since the Sino-Russian relationship is a much closer friendship, this frankness is especially important. Unlike the past, we don’t claim that all is good and that there aren’t any problems between us, but at the same time we also don’t say things are going quite well, and if there is a problem, it must be yours. President Xi says we should stand in other’s shoes. Third, our Russian friends have their Russian dream, just as we Chinese have ours and the key is how to implement all of our dreams.

To this end, during this meeting, scholars have raised questions, exchanged views and tried to understand each others’ respective positions. But what is more important is how to translate them into a concrete agenda for cooperation.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.