The historically complex relationship between Russia and China will either strain or strengthen in coming years as the two contend for power in Eurasia, said Vitaly Kozyrev, a visiting scholar at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, at a lecture Wednesday afternoon.
“Both sides recognized [in the late 17th century], as they recognize now, that they have a lot in common,” said Mark C. Elliott, History professor and director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Study, who moderated the event. “There is a lot to gain by exploiting those areas of common interest, whether economic or political—but they both are rivals, and they’re always in danger of tensions escalating.”
Speaking to about 20 attendees in the CGIS Belfer Case Study Room, Kozyrev discussed the feasibility of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “Eurasian dream”—his vision of a strong sphere of influence in Central Asia and beyond—given China’s increasingly dominant presence in the region.
“[The ‘dream’] is related to the perception of Russia as a Euro-Pacific country, which is the unique role of Russia as a bridge…a civilization between Asia, with its unique set of values, and Europe,” he said.
Russia’s formation of the Eurasian Economic Union—a political and economic alliance that will include Belarus, Kazakhstan, and later Armenia—earlier this year should not be mistaken for an attempt to rebuild the old Soviet bloc, according to Kozyrev.
Instead, Russia’s present strategy sees “economic integration...as the foundation for development, peaceful competition, security, and stability,” he said.
Yet in light of the past summer’s conflict in Ukraine, Kozyrev continued, Western nations have punished Putin’s maneuvers with economic sanctions, leaving Russia politically isolated in the region. Rather than competition with China for influence, Kozyrez said he sees the potential for an alliance between the two countries.
“The Ukrainian crisis has pushed Russia into the embrace of China, so the question is to what extent Russia will try to find some kind of compromise with China,” he said.
Despite the nations’ potentially opposed visions, the two have outwardly cooperated to compete with the West, Kozyrev said. China and Russia already partnered through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and China notably declined to condemn Russia’s crackdown in Crimea earlier this year, suggesting possibilities for future partnership between the two powers.
“You wonder whether we’re seeing the outlines of a new world order slowly coming into focus, one that bears some similarities to a world order we thought had passed away,” Elliot said.
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