Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing, and the New Geopolitics

Axis of Convenience

Author:      Bobo Lo

ISBN:          978-0-8157-5340-7

Publisher: Chatham House, London/Brookings Institution Press, Washington D.C.

Year:           2008

Price:         $32,95


Reviewed by Emilian Kavalski, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, University of Western Sydney (Australia)

Perhaps few other actors in international life have been so profoundly affected by the end of the Cold War as Russia and China. On the one hand, for Moscow, the fall of the Berlin Wall spelled the end of its leadership over the former Communist Bloc in its bipolar confrontation with the USA and its “capitalist” allies. Moreover, the “winds of change” that swept through Eastern Europe blew over the ideological bulwarks of the Soviet Union and crippled the ties that bound its constituent republics together. Thus, within a few years, from a capital of the mighty juggernaut of the Soviet Empire, Moscow had to quickly adjust to the new reality of a much more territorially, economically, and militarily constrained Russian Federation, which was no longer considered a global superpower. On the other hand, the very same turbulence of the post-1989 period was propelling China to adopt new roles and attitudes in international life. The breakup of the Cold War order and consistently high levels of economic growth allowed Beijing to demonstrate an enhanced confidence and ability to fashion international relations. The global outreach of its external interactions seems to attest both to the transformations in and the transformative potential of Chinese foreign policy attitudes. Equally importantly, however, the “new world order” of the post-Cold War period has surprising managed to bridge the differences between Russia and China and the two actors increasingly find themselves formulating joint or mutually-supportive positions. Many observers have interpreted this development as a harbinger of a new strategic alliance against “the West.”
In this respect, thinking about the complexity of these trends and the shifting contexts of global politics often gravitates towards the realms of fiction and fantasy. Thus, an ungainly but important task is to distinguish between phantoms and substance in the engagement with the foreign policy attitudes China and Russia. Bobo Lo’s volume, thereby, fills this lacuna by offering a much-needed and an extremely erudite reconsideration of the international interactions between Moscow and Beijing. It must be acknowledged from the outset that Lo has produced a rare gem of a book. His efforts not only illuminate the patterns and practices of Russia’s and China’s foreign policies, but they also radically alter the dominant frameworks within which the debate on their interactions tends to be positioned. Thus, it is to Lo’s credit that his book presents an extremely knowledgeable, cogent, and discerning rendition of its controversial topic. As a result of Lo’s well-researched and dedicated inquiry, his perceptive investigation of the Russia-China relationship throws light on the complexities and uncertainties of their interactions that have evaded other commentators. In this respect, Lo’s highly readable and captivating account does not recoil from the ambiguities, controversies, and unintended consequences attending the post-Cold War relationship between Russia and China. The insightfulness and erudition that characterize Lo’s engagement reinforce his position as one of the foremost scholars of the foreign policy trajectories of Russia and China.
As Lo’s analysis points out a substantial part of the Russia-China relationship is being thrashed out in Central Asia. Forming a buffer zone between the two states and rich in energy resources the region provides the testing ground for the evolving relationship between Moscow and Beijing. China’s involvement in Central Asia came in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While formally motivated by the twin security interests of demarcating the shared border with the newly independent regional states and thwarting potential support for the Uyghurs of Xinjiang from their Central Asian kin, it soon became apparent that China was filling in the “power vacuum” in the region. Moscow appeared to have withdrawn from the region preoccupied with the consolidation of the new Russian statehood and war-fighting in Chechnya. The West in the meantime seemed focused in post-communist transformations in Central and Eastern Europe. In this context, Beijing had managed by the end of the 1990s to reach border-agreements with all the Central Asian republics and to establish a rudimentary regional framework for consultation—the Shanghai Five. Thus, by the time of Putin’s ascendance to the presidency China’s initial security concerns had managed to transform into significant economic and political presence in the region. Such tendency was confirmed by the transformation of the Shanghai Five into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Lo argues that in this setting, Putin’s agenda for a resurgent Russia articulated a flexible, yet assertive policy for tackling what it perceived as an environment of “strategic anarchy” (p. 169) in the region. Namely, Moscow put forth the notion of “Russia as bridge—not only between East and West, but also between the developed North and the developing South” (p. 163). As Lo deftly indicates, this strategy is underlined by the assumption that if Russia is to regain its position as global power, it can achieve this only through the help of other international actors, and China is pivotal to the success of this approach. In this context, Lo reveals that what is oftentimes perceived as a “strategic partnership” between Moscow and Beijing is nothing more, nor nothing less than an “axis of convenience.” In this respect, the contention is that
It suits Moscow and Beijing to talk up the quality of ties, both for intrinsic reasons and as a significant factor in regional and global politics. But such an interaction falls well short of strategic cooperation, which implies not only a common sense of purpose across the board, but also the political will and coordination to translate broad intent into meaningful action. The rationale… is often tactical and instrumental, and expediency and opportunism are more relevant considerations than an often illusory likemindedness. (p. 3)

This proposition offers a stimulating framework for the discussion of Russia’s and China’s bilateral interactions. It is difficult in a review of this length to give justice to the full scope and depth of Lo’s extremely erudite and meticulously researched study. Suffice it to say that apart from the detailed process-tracing of the Sino-Russian relationship, Lo offers five possible scenarios for the future trajectories of the interactions between Moscow and Beijing that are likely to attract the attention of policy-makers and scholars alike. These scenarios are: (i) strategic convergence; (ii) political-military alliance; (iii) “the end of history”; (iv) confrontation; and (v) strategic tension (p. 184). While Lo acknowledges that some of the scenarios are more likely than other, this does not mean that they are all necessarily implausible. He engages therefore in a detailed and circumspect assessment of the variables and conditions that might lead to the emergence of each of the five outcomes.
Thus, it is through such a thorough analytical and policy engagement with the subject of his observation that assists Lo’s volume in offering a compelling perspective on the intricate pattern of relations between Russia and China. The book provides a thoughtful reconsideration of the dominant frameworks for the explanation and understanding of these exchanges. At the same time, Lo offers prescient reflection on the dynamics, logics, and policies underpinning the trajectories of the Sino-Russian relationship. Accordingly, the volume would benefit immensely those interested in the broader patterns of international relations in Asia. Furthermore, Lo’s exploration lends itself as a supplementary reading for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on contemporary global politics as well as Russian and Chinese foreign policy.