Russia and China has been aligning ever more closely on a number of international issues, from Syria to Iran to North Korea. Some observers call this a "marriage of convenience". Others refer to it as "an awkward partnership", and some go as far as to suggest China's hegemony over Russia. What is true is that this is an intriguing relationship, which is evolving in a direction where the two countries have never been before. While any return to a Moscow-Beijing axis of the 1950s or the intense Sino-Soviet enmity of the 1960s may not be on the cards, the future of the relationship can definitely affect the geopolitical balance in Asia and beyond.
The chief new element in the relationship is easy to see. It is the historical role reversal. In 1979, China's gross domestic product was a mere 40 per cent of that of the Russian republic within the Soviet Union. Nowadays, China's GDP is between four and five times bigger than Russia's. At the heyday of the Sino-Soviet confrontation, the Soviet Union was a military superpower and the People's Liberation Army was essentially preparing for a "people's war". Today, China's defense budget is the world's second largest, way ahead of the 5th-placed Russia. Even more importantly, China's research and development budget dwarfs Russia's. Ultimately - Russians, who heretofore have never lived with a strong China, need to adjust to the new reality.
The remarkable thing is that, given the enormity of the change and its swiftness, Moscow and Beijing managed to end their 30-year-long Cold War in 1989 and moved toward a generally peaceful and collaborative arrangement. The thorny border issue, a fulcrum of tension in the past, has been resolved. And the border itself has been largely demilitarised. China has become Russia's biggest foreign trade partner, ahead of Germany. Russian arms sales over the past 20 years have helped the PLA to narrow the gap with the world's top militaries. With a number of smaller Central Asian states, China and Russia have formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which helps mitigate their regional rivalry and functions as a platform for dialogue involving much of continental Asia. Finally, on the global arena, Moscow and Beijing speak the language of multilateralism and insist on the sanctity of national sovereignty - and the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs.
At first glance, the relationship looks good and mutually satisfying. Yet, it may soon reach an inflection point where some hard decisions will have to be made, primarily in Russia. China's dynamism is not only putting Russia to shame, it has implications for the Russian regions just across the border. These regions, the Far East and Eastern Siberia, are among Russia's least populated and least developed. Some 100 years ago - Harbin in North-East China, then known as Manchuria, was essentially known as little Moscow; with its 200,000 Russian inhabitants, a Russian administration and military force to protect the key railway. Looking not too far into the future, one can imagine the Russian city of Khabarovsk, which sits on the Chinese border, turning into a Harbin – in reverse, even without the formal trappings of Chinese authority there.
China's rise to pre-eminence in Asia and its growing global role have finally caught the attention of the United States, which is now "pivoting" toward the Pacific. Sino-American relations are much more complex and far less adversarial than the US-Soviet ones. But China's challenge to US supremacy in the Western Pacific, on the one hand, and the element of US hedging even softly containing China, on the other hand, are much more palpable today. The famous Cold War Washington-Moscow-Beijing triangle has long gone, although the Russians still need to decide how they want to relate to the US-Chinese competition. They may hope they can sit it out, like the wise monkey in a Chinese parable. But they might still be drawn in, even against their best interests.
This may happen if Russia's relations with America seriously deteriorate, be that as a result of a diplomatic crisis over missile defenses in Europe or as a product of Russian domestic developments, leading to Washington's demonstrative distancing from Vladimir Putin. Or it may well be both. The Chinese, who could feel they do need a foil to manage the US, might prevail on the Russians under these circumstances to tie themselves closer to Beijing. In an unbalanced relationship, the closer the tie, the bigger China's leverage. For the Russians, of course, having refused in a previous era a junior partnership arrangement with the US, to run now into China's embrace would be not only bitter irony - but supreme folly. Right now, Moscow is busy to craft an Asia policy that is more than a China one. They are already reaching out to Japan, are strengthening relations with South Korea, and are revamping their long-time strategic bonds with India - by now much frayed. They are also seeking economic and security integration with Central Asia, which the Chinese are increasingly viewing as their own backyard. Yet, in some scenarios their choice may become very limited.
During the recent election campaign Vladimir Putin was asked a question about his favorite figures from long Russian history. Prompts came in readily: Peter the Great, Peter Stolypin - Russia's conservative modernising prime minister of the early 20th century - and Catherine the Great. Putin gave a nod to the two Peters and praised Catherine for adding more territory to Russia with far less blood than Peter the Great. He, however, offered another name: Alexander Nevsky. The 13th century prince was famous for standing up to the westerners - the Swedes and the Germans, whose forays into Russia he defeated. Alexander's far less happier experience, though, was his subservience to the Mongol Golden Horde - who imposed their yoke on Russia's small principalities just as he was fighting off western crusaders. Alexander stood no chance of prevailing against the forces of the east, and so he made his humble peace with them. With a reputation of a staunch patriot, later canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, he died on the way back from one of his involuntary long stays in the Great Khan's residence; probably, poisoned by the Mongols.
This is neither a parable nor a prediction. Any comparison across 800 years is preposterous. There is one thing, however, that merits some thought. While Russia is very keen on preserving its strategic independence, it needs to see itself not as some kind of a Eurasian country, a balancer between the east and the west or a bridge between them. Rather, the Russians need to rediscover themselves as a Euro-Pacific nation and look not only across the river to China, but also across the sea to Japan and Korea as well as across the ocean to North America and Australia. If Peter the Great were alive today, he would probably quit stuffy Moscow again, but this time heading toward the Pacific. Vladivostok - the venue of the 2102 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit next September - needs to be built into Russia's gateway to the world's most dynamic region. The more flags come to that port; the more confidently will the Russian tricolor be waving in the wind.