The Anarchy of Russia and the Anarchy of China

President Putin’s sensational statement about Moscow helping Beijing build an early warning system to detect intercontinental ballistic missile launches is yet another proof of the transition in relations between Eurasia’s two great powers to a new strategic level. This has given Russian observers grounds to speak about the rise of a Chinese-Russian alliance, even though this has not been proclaimed as an official goal. Indeed, China and Russia are rapidly moving towards a new level of strategic partnership, partly because of pressure from the West, whose paranoia serves to strengthen mutual attraction between Moscow and Beijing, and partly because they want to protect their common space more securely from external threats.

The influence this potential union can have on international security in general is a subject for a separate in-depth discussion. Subjectively, both Russia and China have similar views on the majority of global political matters and similar views when it comes to the principles of international relations. This allows them to maintain a balanced dialogue and to coordinate their views on issues of global importance. However, they have different strategic cultures and they set their long-term targets in a different way.

It would be strange and even shortsighted to downplay these differences, especially at the current stage of bilateral relations. If we compare Chinese-Russia rapprochement to the Russia-Europe rapprochement after the Cold War, we will see that the sides’ inability to at least start coordinating a common strategy for the future gradually became an increasingly crucial negative factor in their relations. In relations with China, neither party so far views the other side as a natural resources development area or as a “pupil” who should join projects advocated by the “teacher.” However, the situation may turn out to be less clear than it would seem.

Differences in the sides’ views on international affairs will influence their ability to move to the next stage in their relations, from an effective opposition to the undemocratic world order promoted by the United States and its allies after the Cold War to the development of a new world order. China and Russia have not even coordinated their views on what this new world order should be like, as we can conclude from the numerous discussions attended by Chinese and Russian researchers, for example, the Annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club held in early October, where the Russian president made the abovementioned announcement at a plenary session.

In other words, relations between Moscow and Beijing have risen to such a high level, and their importance for international politics and security has grown so much that we must start asking basic questions, primarily questions about the sides’ interpretation of the main categories of international relations. The strategic cultures of China and Russia developed in different conditions under the influence of formally and essentially different factors. However, the need to understand each other’s strategic culture and mentality will increase as there is more interaction between the sides.

China’s strategic culture is directed inward and is based on the experience of thousands of years of the great Chinese civilization. This experience is the subject of study and deep knowledge for experts on China, and it would be futile and counterproductive to try to compete with them in this short essay. However, it is a fact that the majority of processes and periods experienced by the European civilization as a community of different, though kindred nations, China underwent within the framework of the integral Chinese civilization with a common language and culture. The deep splits and confrontations, which accompanied the rise of independent sovereign subjects of international affairs in Europe, as well as in Russia, were nothing more than dramatic periods of discord and domestic strife within a united nation in China. Overcoming the divide and uniting the nation are clearly positive achievements that open the door to progress and prosperity.

The most impressive discussions we had with our Chinese colleagues at the Valdai Club meeting had to do with the concept of “a new ethic of responsible behavior” in the age of anarchy, which was analyzed in the club’s annual report. This concept is based on the idea that “anarchy is a more natural state of international relations,” which should help strengthen the nations’ responsibility in the field of foreign policy. While international institutions and the “world order” could be seen as external restraints and protection against individual irresponsibility, their absence is a positive, if dramatic, factor, especially since the pernicious nature of weapons created by humankind is enhancing mutual respect for each other’s interests and values. In other words, anarchy as presented by the reports’ authors is a purely analytical notion used to describe the state of affairs in international relations in 2019.

However, our Chinese colleagues’ views were rather different from what we expected in the context of the European science of international relations. Judging by the comments made by respected Chinese scientists, anarchy is an inherently unacceptable state of affairs that must be remedied through the use of all available methods. This position is certainly deeply rooted in Chinese history, where periods of anarchy, including in the greater part of the first half of the 20th century, were periods of countless calamities. For China, anarchy is an axiological rather than analytical category, and hence is unacceptable as a factor of relative order. The conclusion is, therefore, that what Europeans see as a purely analytical category can have a dramatically different essence in other, in particular Chinese, strategic cultures. When it comes to practice, Russia, just as any other European country, feels at relative ease in an anarchic environment, whereas China and the Chinese concept of international relations does not accept this.

Of course, the Russian foreign policy vocabulary and official target setting are focused on attaining a degree of order in international affairs, maintaining the primacy of cooperation institutions and international law, and scaling down mutual mistrust. China has the same goals exactly. But Russia and China differ in their interpretations of the same events and notions.

This difference is one of many in the Russian and Chinese views on the world and international politics. The closer their relations become and the more the future of the world depends on them, the more attention they should pay to the analysis of and discussions on these unavoidable differences. Russia and China can eventually create a relatively integral and seamlessly translatable system of notions. The stability of Russian-Chinese relations and, ultimately, international security in their common Eurasian space depends on this as much as on their achievements in mutual defense planning.


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