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What Is So Special about Beijing-Moscow Security Cooperation?

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Earlier this week, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu visited Russia on his first trip overseas in this role and predictably got a very warm reception in Moscow. Li had a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This trip attracted a lot of international attention, especially since it took place less than a month after a historic Russia-China summit in March of this year. Most of the Western media focused on the alleged China’s supplies of the military hardware to Russia. Just a couple of days before Li ‘s trip to Moscow, a leaked US government document suggested that China had approved deliveries of massive lethal weapons’ aid to Russia for its special military operation in Ukraine, providing that such shipments remain completely secret.

Both Moscow and Beijing flatly have denied these allegations on many occasions. In the Kremlin they continuously argue that Russia does not need such assistance from China and has never asked for it. The official position of Beijing is that China remains neutral in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and calls for a peaceful resolution to the hostilities. Still, the West remains highly suspicious of the security dimension of Russia-China cooperation, which US has been desperately trying to block or, at least, to slow down to the furthest extent possible. Incidentally, Li happens to be one of the victims of these unsuccessful attempts: In 2018, the US blacklisted him as the then-head of the Equipment Development Department of China’s Central Military Commission for engaging in “significant transactions” with Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms export entity.

It seems that the ongoing hype around alleged China’s arms supplies to Moscow overshadows other more important aspects of the China-Russia security cooperation that could and probably should be of concern to the West. The recent trip of Li suggests that Beijing and Moscow are consistently moving to a new model of such cooperation, distinctly different from the existing Western patterns, a model that might look quite appealing to a broad range of international actors in the Global South.

First, both Russia and China prioritize the principle of sovereignty as a foundation of their respective foreign and security policies. This principle sets clear constrains on the two states’ willingness to participate to any political or military alliances that could limit the sovereign decision-making power of Moscow and Beijing. The visit of Li confirmed once again that the two sides are not going to consider a formal defense or political bloc as many in the West predict. Accepting the value of sovereignty for each other, Moscow and Beijing refrain from any actions that the other side could interpret as a direct or indirect interference in its internal affairs or as an attempt to limit its freedom of action in world politics.

Second, the security cooperation between the two sides is based on the maximum flexibility and the readiness to accept diverging positions of the other side on specific matters. Since both Moscow and Beijing retain the fullness of their national sovereignty, and since their national interests cannot be fully identical with each other, some differences in their positions on important issues of world politics (for example, on India or on Ukraine) are natural and even inevitable. Russia and China today are ready to “agree to disagree” without jeopardizing mutual trust or undermining opportunities for their strategic cooperation.

Third, the visit of Li reconfirmed that China-Russia security cooperation is based not on the balance of power, but on a balance of interests. Traditionally, geopolitical and military cooperation within the international system was defined by the balance of powers between the major participants to such cooperation, more specifically—by the correlation of their military forces.  A stronger partner always had the upper hand—this is clearly not the case with the China-Russia security cooperation. There are multiple asymmetries between the two states: For example, in terms of its nuclear missile capacity, Moscow is significantly superior to Beijing, while in conventional naval forces, China has some undeniable advantages over Russia. Such asymmetries, however, do not impede bilateral cooperation, since in each specific dimension of relations the parties seek to find a balance of interests. Russian-Chinese security cooperation emerges as relations between two equal partners capable of successfully levelling numerous specific asymmetries in a more general context of bilateral relations.

Fourth, China-Russia security cooperation, unlike traditional military alliances, is not targeted against the interests of any third countries. This cooperation has its own dynamics and is not hostage to the changing geopolitical environment. It can be assumed that even a potentially significant reduction of tensions between Beijing and Washington or between the Kremlin and the White House would not lead to a parallel decrease in the interest of Russia and China in working with each other. Though, of course, one cannot deny the fact that the presence of common geopolitical opponents leads to further consolidation of the Russian-Chinese partnership, at least in the political and military and security domains.

Fifth, Russian-Chinese security interaction includes a diverse combination of bilateral and multilateral formats. The visit of Li included discussions of multilateral mechanisms (SCO, BRICS) that are supposed to compliment bilateral dimensions of the China-Russia cooperation. Such an extension allows the two sides to demonstrate that they are not trying to forge any kind of a bilateral “axis” in order to divide “spheres of influence” at the expense of their smaller and less powerful neighbors.

Of course, Beijing and Moscow still have to do more in order to convince the broader international community that their security cooperation can make a meaningful contribution to global public goods. The two sides should pursue not only their narrowly defined national interests, but also the interests of the international system at large. They have to meet the challenge of making the global security system more manageable, predictable and inclusive. Hence the joint or parallel proposals aimed at improving the efficiency of the UN, initiatives affecting regional crises (Northeast Asia, Middle East, North Africa), ideas to improve the efficiency of global resource management (information, energy, climate, space, migrations, etc.).

The Russian-Chinese cooperation on global public goods should not be perceived as an exclusive agreement between Moscow and Beijing. It should be as open as possible to other international actors—big and small, rich and poor, representing the Global South and the Global North. It is also very important for the two countries to avoid unnecessary competition in promoting their security projects or duplication of each other’s efforts in various corners of the world. The urgent need for more intense coordination between the two nations is visible at all levels—from conceptual understanding of the emerging global agenda to working on detailed roadmaps for the implementation of specific incremental security proposals. The visit of Li to Moscow was an important step in this direction.