The Sino-Russian Challenge to World Order: National Identities, Bilateral Relations and East versus West in the 2010s

Author:       Gilbert Rozmansino-russian-challenge

ISBN:            978-0-8047-9101-4

Publisher: Woodrow Wilson Center Press/Stanford University Press

Year:            2014

Price:          $50.00


Reviewed by Emilian Kavalski, Associate Professor of Global Studies, Institute for Social Justice, ACU (Australia)

While the end of the Cold War provided a major juncture in the study and practice of world affairs which seemed to affect all aspects and actors in international life, few have been as profoundly affected as Russia and China. As Gilbert Rozman indicates, both countries underwent “arguably, the most far reaching attempts ever made to alter national identity” (p. 2). On the one hand, for Moscow, the fall of the Berlin Wall ended its position as the hub of a global superpower reigning over the former Communist Bloc. 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 the capital of the mighty juggernaut that used to be the Soviet Empire, Moscow was forced to adjust to the new position of a much more territorially, economically, and militarily constrained Russian Federation. 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 the consistent levels of economic growth allowed Beijing to demonstrate an enhanced confidence and stature in world politics. At the same time, these developments backstopped a capacity to fashion the patterns of Asian and international affairs. The global outreach of Beijing’s external interactions seems to attest both to the transformations in and the transformative potential of Chinese foreign policy attitudes.

In this setting, the “new world order” of the post-Cold War period has (perhaps, surprisingly) provided opportunities for bridging the differences of the Sino-Soviet split and, seemingly, appears to have brought Russia and China closer together. Not surprisingly, many observers have interpreted this development as a harbinger of a new strategic alliance against “the West.” Rozman’s book contributes to this conversation by making clear that the assessment of the bilateral relationship between Moscow and Beijing (and, in fact, any bilateral relationship) requires a far more nuanced framework for analysis than is usually deployed in the explanation and understanding of world affairs. In particular, Rozman draws on his lifelong preoccupation with Asian strategic thought and, especially, his investigative commitment to that it is national identity (rather than national interest) that can give us a better account of the perspectives and perceptions of international actors. As he suggests, “national interests point to poles in search of a balance of power, while national identities prioritize civilizations, validating a country’s past and present distinctiveness” (p. 276). This proposition offers a stimulating framework for the discussion of Russia’s and China’s bilateral relations. At the same time, the attention to the impact of national identity constructs elicits a wealth of solid knowledge and perceptive insights on the evolution, patterns and practices of the interactions between Moscow and Beijing.

For Rozman, the concept of national identity is a composite of (i) ideology, (ii) history, (iii) political, cultural, and economic factors; (iii) state governance; (iv) foreign relations; and (v) the sense of patriotism. Taken together these factors “cover the gambit of what is claimed to be superior about one’s country” (p. 5). In this respect, the attention to national identity helps demystify some of the confusion characterizing so much of the conversation on the foreign policy attitudes of China and Russia. His analysis suggests that while “the national identity gap between China and Russia is not large… further narrowing is not likely” (p. 270). The reason for this is that much of China’s strategic thinking is informed by the perception that “the world is bifurcated between East and West,” while Russia’s outlook seems to be motivated by a “desire for Eurasianism as a third important civilization” (p. 270). Both these driving forces make it unlikely that Moscow and Beijing will form a sense of closeness, let alone a strategic alliance that many in the West fear. Rozman’s conclusions are based on a meticulous and thoughtful parallel assessment of Russian and Chinese national identity formations both during and after the Cold War. In this way, his book offers a much-needed and an extremely erudite contextualization of the international interactions between Moscow and Beijing. At the same time, it also provides a detailed and comprehensive coverage of the current and likely future trajectories of their relations. In this respect, Rozman’s book makes available a rarely erudite illumination of the patterns and practices of Russia’s and China’s foreign policies. In particular, his insistence on the centrality of national identity, radically alters the dominant frameworks within which the debate on their interactions tends to be positioned. Thus, it is to Rozman’s credit that the collection presents an extremely knowledgeable, cogent, and discerning rendition of its demanding topic.

In this respect, by drawing attention to the complex roles that national identity plays in the thinking and practices of foreign policy, Rozman has provided a framework for the judicious reconsideration of the Sino-Russian bilateral relationship. The Sino-Russian Challenge to World Order, therefore, makes an important and valuable intervention in both the explanation and understanding of the international relations characterizing the interactions between Moscow and Beijing. The national identity model developed in the book offers a stimulating framework for the discussion of Russia’s and China’s bilateral interactions that will be welcomed by both students and scholars. At the same time, the Rozman’s thoughtful process-tracing of this complex topic of current global politics provides a compelling perspective on the intricate pattern of relations between Moscow and Beijing that is bound to attract policy-makers and analysts interested in Russian and Chinese foreign policy. It has to be stressed that, as Rozman has demonstrated in his earlier work, the analytical model that he develops has the potential to offer refreshing perspectives on the content, scope, and implications of any bilateral relationship in global life. In this sense, the book can be read as a call for testing how far the explanatory framework of the national identities model travels.

Suggested Citation:

Emilian Kavalski (2016), Review of “The Sino-Russian Challenge to World Order: National Identities, Bilateral Relations and East versus West in the 2010s”, by Gilbert Rozman, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 9, no. 6.