Economic Statecraft
Xi Jinping's Foreign Policy Thinking and Sino-Russian Cooperation in the Changing of the International Order

The close bilateral relationship between China and Russia is one of the most important features of the evolution of international relations in the early 21st century. At the same time, the changing international order has also created new areas for Sino-Russian cooperation.

Today, politicians and scholars from the PRC habitually refer to the changes in the modern international order as “a big change not seen in a century” (百年未有之大变局). Xi Jinping’s foreign policy thinking is actually the main guiding principle of modern Chinese diplomacy, as it vividly reflects the basic approaches of modern China to international relations, great power politics and international institutions.

Xi Jinping’s Foreign Policy Thinking: From Regional to Global

In general, Xi Jinping’s foreign policy thinking can be divided into two levels: the logic of decision-making and political practice. At the level of decision-making logic, the Chinese President emphasises that Chinese diplomacy is grounded in the leadership of the Communist Party, and that the adoption of important diplomatic decisions by China should be promoted by the CPC Central Committee within the framework of unified planning. At the same time, this thinking also highlights the importance of the Sinicisation of Marxism and the fact that the country’s diplomacy should serve the cause of the rebirth of the Chinese nation.

At the level of political practice, especially when it comes to China’s understanding of the current international order, Xi Jinping’s foreign policy thinking consists of three main concepts.

The first concept is great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics (中国特色大国外交). China emphasises the non-confrontational nature of Sino-American relations, the stability of Sino-European relations and the possibility of cooperation in Sino-Russian relations.
However, the United States already considers China its main competitor. Therefore, Beijing’s main goal is to keep bilateral relations from breaking through the “red line fence”. In interaction with Europe, attention is focused on the fact that both sides must continue to develop stable and predictable economic and cultural ties, while also facilitating interaction between markets.

Cooperation between China and Russia as partners rather than allies actually maximises the flexibility and space for adjusting relations between Beijing and Moscow. At the same time, the two states recognise that “friendship has no boundaries, and there are no forbidden zones in cooperation,” and that it “is not directed against third states”. Therefore, despite the difficulties in economic cooperation between China and Russia under the influence of Western sanctions and the international situation, Beijing still regards Sino-Russian relations as a “classic model of great power relations”.

The second concept is the Community of the Common Destiny of Mankind (人类命运共同体)). The political elite of the country believes that as overall power rises, China will be able to exert more influence on international institutions. Therefore, the leadership led by Xi Jinping has proposed numerous frameworks for cooperation, including the Belt and Road initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Within the framework of the Community of the Common Destiny of Mankind, countries can form a more effective interdependence, as a result of which they will be able to reverse the “zero-sum game” and the “security dilemma”. On the one hand, this stems from the ideas of classical Chinese philosophy, and on the other hand, from the practical experience of contacts between China and the East Asian states at the beginning of the 21st century.

The third concept is international relations of a new type (新型国际关系). According to Xi Jinping, existing interstate relations, especially between large states, are unlikely to be able to address the new challenges of the 21st century. Therefore, it is necessary to establish a “concept of joint, sustainable security”. At the same time, compared to other Chinese leaders, the President of China considers the country’s active participation in global governance as an important source of legitimacy of the country’s power in the international system. As a result, Beijing has shown a more active attitude towards global problems. At the same time, China pays great attention to the development of rules in the field of new international governance, including cyberspace, the Arctic, and digital technologies.

Changing the International Order: Elements and Evolution

International relations scholars usually emphasise three key elements in the creation of an international order: the power structure, the guiding idea, and international institutions. From this point of view, we find that the international order of recent years has undergone accelerated evolution with respect to all three elements:

First, a complex process of bipolarization is taking shape in the power structure. The US sees China as the only country capable of systemically challenging US dominance in the future. But at the same time, the complicated economic, political, and security ties between the two countries have made it difficult for Washington to end all-round engagement with China. In view of this, two hierarchical systems have emerged in the Asia-Pacific region: a security system centered on the United States and an economic system centered on China. The vast majority of medium and small states at the same time maintain close ties with the United States and China and do not want to “choose a side.” Engagement + Hedging will continue to be a long-term policy choice for most Asia-Pacific countries.
In this process, the stability of Russian-Chinese relations is extremely important for China. Their 4,000 kilometer common border is fundamental to China’s stability, as well as a strategic rear for Russia.

More importantly, the essence of the Sino-Russian partnership based on “equality, consideration of each other’s interests, and non-direction against third states” does not contribute to strategic confrontation.

Second, a change in the leading idea should be noted, which is reflected in two aspects. In the sphere of great power rivalry, this change manifests itself as a replacement of the principle of combining the political and economic interests of the country with the principle of separating these interests. The principle of separation of political and economic interests has long been the main cornerstone of the development of interstate relations in the Eurasian region. However, as the Sino-American and Russian-American rivalry intensified, this concept began to break down. The US uses customs duties, sanctions and even technological blockades as a serious weapon against competitors. This situation most clearly manifested itself after February 2022, greatly destabilising the global market and value chains. Meanwhile, in the realm of great power cooperation, the impact of climate change response cooperation is increasing. China, the US and Russia have already issued policy papers in this area. The climate problem and “green development” are becoming one of the dominant concepts which will have an important impact on economic and energy cooperation.

Third, there is the diversification of institutions of multilateral cooperation. For a long time, the international institutions that the United States and Europe created have served as an uncontested form of participation in the world market and production chain for various countries. But as emerging markets collectively rise and China’s influence on international governance increases, institutions of multilateral cooperation are diversifying and competition between them is emerging. For example, in East Asia, there are simultaneously the Belt and Road initiative developed by Beijing, and the B3W and IPEF initiatives put forward by the Biden administration. There is also the European Union, led by the Western European countries, and the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Russia is the core. The emergence of such diverse institutions of multilateral cooperation has actually increased the uncertainty of the future development of globalisation.

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Sino-Russian Cooperation During the New Period: Themes and Problems

The changing concept of Chinese diplomacy and the evolution of the international order are jointly shaping China’s policy toward Russia. In this context, Sino-Russian relations should also be directed towards a joint search for new areas of cooperation:

First of all, when it comes to changing the power structure of the international order, supporting the further development of Sino-Russian strategic partnerships is a key component of “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics”. The current conflict in Ukraine has not only greatly changed Russia’s security environment, but has also had a major impact on international relations in the Asia-Pacific region. In such circumstances, China and Russia are aiming for cooperation in two respects. First, preventing the “NATOisation” of the East Asian security environment. The Ukrainian crisis has already confirmed that it is difficult to solve the security dilemma in a region with an exclusive NATO-style security organisation, so such pitfalls in the international governance of East Asia should be avoided. Second, strengthening trilateral cooperation between China, Russia and India. In connection with the Indo-Pacific strategy that Washington consistently promotes, further strengthening of the trilateral cooperation between China, Russia and India will play a very important role in preventing the escalation of confrontation, stabilising relations between the great powers.

Also, China and Russia can jointly determine the direction and nature of the construction of the “Community of the Common Destiny for Mankind”. High-intensity US and Western sanctions in the short-term will not be able to threaten the internal stability of Russia, but undoubtedly create obstacles for the future scientific and technological development of Russia. At the same time, competition between the US and China in the high-tech sphere proceeds unabated. Therefore, China and Russia need to cooperate in the field of semiconductors, artificial intelligence and high technology.
Russia has experience in combating the technological blockade of the West and a professional scientific base, and China’s capital funds and market can provide for joint development.

At the same time, against the backdrop of climate change, energy transformation and green development should also become new areas of Sino-Russian cooperation. Climate change is an important topic in China’s Community of the Common Destiny fir Mankind, and provides an important way to realise innovative development in Russia. Cooperation between the two countries in this area will not only help both sides expand the channels of interaction, but also strengthen the position of Moscow and Beijing in the future scientific and technological revolution.

China and Russia can contribute to further linking multilateral institutions for the development of global “international relations of a new type.” Currently, new formats of regional cooperation are emerging in the Asia-Pacific region, including RCEP, CPTPP and IPEF. Beijing and Moscow are able to maintain the stability of the production chain by linking their multilateral institutions. This includes deepening cooperation between Russia and RCEP so that Russia acts as a key partner in promoting economic development in the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, China and Russia can also continue to promote a free trade zone idea as part of the interface between the Belt and Road Initiative and the Eurasian Economic Union, in order to strengthen geo-economic stability in the “heart” of the Eurasian region.

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