You should be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it, so the old cliché goes. In diplomacy at the moment, it seems you should be careful of the threats you prepare for, because you may end up producing them.
There is a growing trend in the West towards treating Russia and China as some single, threatening ‘Dragonbear’ (a reference to the two countries’ national animals). This underrates the very real tensions between Moscow and Beijing, but risks pushing them even closer together.
The most recent case in point was Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg’s interview in the Financial Times, in which he criticised ‘this whole idea that we either look Russia, or to China… because it goes together.’ The implication is that there is a Sino-Russian axis representing a single, coherent challenge to the West.
This is a perhaps understandable position — but also a distinctly problematic one.
There clearly is a growing rapprochement, but much of it is symbolic or transactional. China and Russia are both suspicious of the Western-led global order. They see national sovereignty as more important than international norms, and Western attempts to change them through sanctions and sanctimony have given them common grievances.
They have practical reasons to cooperate, not least because a voracious Chinese economy wants Russian energy and raw materials, as well as advanced weapons such as S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. Their economic missions are hand in hand: they are both keen to reduce the dollar’s dominance in global finance.
But the truth is that China matters to Russia much more than vice versa. What China wants from Russia it can largely buy — and the Russians need to sell. China’s share of Russia’s trade has nearly doubled since 2013.