The recent Sino-Russian military swaggering in Russia’s Far East may signal a new lasting alliance between the two Eurasian powers. This reactionary partnership is primarily due to the simultaneous American pressure against Moscow and Beijing and is coupled with their desire to challenge the U.S.-dominated global order. However, it may not be as permanent as it seems. Such tactical cooperation is not underpinned by common ideals, but rather by a shared desire to emasculate the Western liberal order.
Russo-Chinese official relations date back to the mid-seventeenth century when the two countries’ borders intersected following the conquests in the Siberian hinterland. Since then the relationship has been tempestuous, marked by years of both trade and cooperation as well as military standoffs and land-grabs.
Perhaps the most striking episode in modern Chinese history that informs its conduct of foreign policy today is China’s “century of humiliation.” This era—described in the Chinese narrative as a series of unequal and demeaning treaties with Western powers—has left a lasting mark on the political psyche of the country and its perception of global affairs.
For instance, Russia—among other European empires—also seized the opportunity created by the Second Anglo-Chinese War and the Taiping Rebellion to expand its frontiers at China’s expense. Russia expanded past the Amur River all the way to modern-day Vladivostok, thereby realizing its long-held maritime aspirations of gaining access to the Pacific.
This unsteady relationship manifested itself also during the Cold War as evidenced by the Sino-Soviet split over the conflicting doctrinal as well as geopolitical visions. This vacuum effectively charted the way for the eventual Sino-American rapprochement, as yet another example of tactical and circumstantial partnership.
With the end of the Cold War and the following brief chapter of an unchallenged U.S-led order, the global system is now in a stage of active transformation. The symptoms of a geopolitical recession are coming to light in the face of America’s decline in relative power and the ascent of Washington’s global challengers whose rise has ironically been enabled by the U.S.-backed international trade and economic system.