For Russia, China is neither a 'big bad wolf' nor a 'fairy godmother' but perhaps 'Rumpelstiltskin'

By Lee Jong-eun

This month, while the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit was being held, the Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper, published an op-ed describing Russia-China relations. The op-ed dismissed predictions of Russia being devoured by the "big bad wolf" and hopes of the country being rescued by the "fairy godmother" as both fairy tale fantasies.

Instead, the op-ed argued that China's foreign policy orientation is neither pro-Moscow nor anti-Moscow, but rather evaluates all states by their value as China's partners. If Russia proves its value to China on international security and development issues, the bilateral relationship will grow more vibrant.

The Global Times' op-ed fits with China's self-perception of its foreign policy. Critical of the West's "bloc politics" derived from the Cold War mentality, China has sought to portray its international agenda as pragmatic and impartial, advancing Beijing's interests based on "win-win" cooperation with partner states.

Subsequently, despite the proclamation of "friendship without limits" during the Beijing Winter Olympics, China has avoided the appearance of providing a "blank check" to Russia, particularly toward the latter's war with Ukraine. At the SCO Summit, Putin was obliged to compliment China's "balanced stand" toward the crisis in Ukraine.

For Russia, however, China's self-perception of pragmatic impartiality creates a challenge in bilateral relations. The current Russia-China strategic partnership is, at its core, transactional. Each country expects reciprocity in exchange for providing support. Each country is also wary of the costs of unequal exchanges of transactions. For Russia, which is currently in greater need of China's help than vice versa, the strategic concern is that China will play a hard bargain for each level of reciprocity. The fairy tale character who perhaps more accurately fits Russia-China relations then might be Rumpelstiltskin.

In this fairy tale, a girl enters a contract with Rumpelstiltskin to acquire the creature's magical service to spin straw into gold. First, the price was the girl's necklace, then the ring. Finally faced with the king's order to spin an even greater quantity of straw into gold, the girl agrees to give her future firstborn child to Rumpelstiltskin.

During the Russia-Ukraine War, China's support for Russia has remained steady at the level of diplomatic neutrality toward Russia's "special military operations," maintenance of economic relations without outright violation of Western sanctions, and continuation of bilateral military exercises without substantive arms exports to Russia. In a reciprocal exchange, Russia has discounted the price of its energy exports and has supported China in condemning U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent visit to Taiwan as "provocative."

As the war drags on, however, Russia's strategic bargain to maintain China's qualified support is becoming more costly. More than economic deals or diplomatic endorsements, Russia is compelled to share its traditional geostrategic spheres of influence with China.

In the past, Russia has attempted to limit China's activities in the Artic and has used its regional institutions, Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), to check China's regional influence in Central Asia. As recently as January of 2022, the Russia-led CSTO deployed forces to suppress a domestic uprising within its member state Kazakhstan.

Russia's war, however, has given China greater bargaining leverage in advancing further into these regions. In the Arctic, under the framework of "mutual partnership," Russia has become more accommodating of China's "Polar Silk Road" project that links China to Europe through the Arctic. In Central Asia, Russia has tolerated China's expanding security ties with Central Asian states and has accommodated China's regional projects, such as Trans-Caspian International Transport Corridor.

If the war with Ukraine continues into attrition, or worse, it turns badly for Russia, what additional costs will Russia be obliged to pay to maintain a strategic partnership with China? For Russia, the risk is that China could play the role of Rumpelstiltskin, who demands costly geostrategic concessions in return for providing lifeline to Russia.

In the China-India border dispute, Russia might face China's request to side with the latter, risking Russia's partnership with India. Russia's EEU and CSTO could be supplanted of their economic and security role by the China-led SCO's expansion and follow the path of decline as their direct predecessor, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Finally, Russia's domestic political discourse continues to circulate anxieties that despite the resolution of the Russia-China border by the 2008 bilateral agreement, China could revisit the territorial dispute over the Russian Far East, which had been the source of Sino-Soviet border skirmishes in the past.

The twist in the fairy tale is that the girl did not fulfill her last bargain with Rumpelstiltskin. Refusing to give up her firstborn child as promised, the girl convinced the creature to play a game in which she would correctly guess his name. The girl won, and Rumpelstiltskin vanished without taking her child.

Putin's Russia is neither "a gullible Little Red Riding Hood" nor a "meek Cinderella." In affirming "mutual cooperation," Russia is likely to recognize China as a partner capable of supporting and taking advantage of the former. Similarly, Russia will try to take advantage of its partnership with China while plotting to avoid or reverse the unfavorable bargains it might have been forced to make with the latter.

As Putin displayed deferential behavior toward Xi Jin Ping and endured the diminishing of Russia's diplomatic stature at the SCO Summit, Putin might have been internally seething and plotting to readjust bilateral balance after the resolution of his war in Ukraine.

A Chinese expression, "tong chuang yi meng," describes a relationship between partners with conflicting calculations. As their strategic cooperation increases, the distrust and dissatisfaction over the exchanges of costs and support could also rise and challenge the Russia-China relationship. For the contemporary liberal democracies experiencing challenges over collective burden sharing, perhaps there is a relief in recognizing that non-liberal regimes also face similar challenges.


Lee Jong-eun (jl4375a@student.american.edu), a Ph.D. candidate, is an adjunct faculty member at the American University School of International Service. Prior to this, he has served as a South Korean Air Force intelligence officer. His research specialty includes U.S. foreign policy, South Korean politics and foreign policy, alliance management and East Asian regional security.


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For Russia, China is neither a 'big bad wolf' nor a 'fairy godmother' but perhaps 'Rumpelstiltskin'

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28.09.2022

For Russia, China is neither a 'big bad wolf' nor a 'fairy godmother' but perhaps 'Rumpelstiltskin'

By Lee Jong-eun

This month, while the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit was being held, the Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper, published an op-ed describing Russia-China relations. The op-ed dismissed predictions of Russia being devoured by the "big bad wolf" and hopes of the country being rescued by the "fairy godmother" as both fairy tale fantasies.

Instead, the op-ed argued that China's foreign policy orientation is neither pro-Moscow nor anti-Moscow, but rather evaluates all states by their value as China's partners. If Russia proves its value to China on international security and development issues, the bilateral relationship will grow more vibrant.

The Global Times' op-ed fits with China's self-perception of its foreign policy. Critical of the West's "bloc politics" derived from the Cold War mentality, China has sought to portray its international agenda as pragmatic and impartial, advancing Beijing's interests based on "win-win" cooperation with partner states.

Subsequently, despite the proclamation of "friendship without limits" during the Beijing Winter Olympics, China has avoided the appearance of providing a "blank check" to Russia, particularly toward the latter's war with Ukraine. At the SCO Summit, Putin was obliged to compliment China's "balanced stand" toward the crisis in Ukraine.

For Russia, however, China's self-perception of pragmatic impartiality creates a challenge in bilateral relations. The current Russia-China strategic partnership is, at its core, transactional. Each country expects reciprocity in exchange for providing support. Each country is also........

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