[SCMP] Wang Yiwei: 10 reasons China and Russia differ in their approach to international rules


Your Present Location: LATEST INSIGHTS

[SCMP] Wang Yiwei: 10 reasons China and Russia differ in their approach to international rules


Source: SCMP Published: 2024-03-13

The second Multipolarity Forum was held in Moscow last month, attended by representatives from 130 countries. During a dinner at the forum, a top Russian official asked the Chinese representative why it was that China was able to rise within the Western rules, but Russia could only achieve its goals by overturning those rules. This question highlights Russia’s grievances about why it cannot integrate into Europe even though its leaders see themselves as part of Europe.

How did China do it? By manipulating the rules? Of course not. Beijing has been playing by the rules. Since joining the World Trade Organization, China has developed quickly.

However, it has advanced not just because it has benefited from the rules of globalisation and other international norms. The Chinese people’s diligence and wisdom, the nation’s vast size, and the advantages of its system of socialism with Chinese characteristics have all played a role.

It is necessary to compare the Western concept of a “rules-based international order” with the outlook of emerging nations. During a panel discussion at the 60th Munich Security Conference in February, for example, Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was asked about his country buying oil from Russia and then exporting it to Europe in spite of Western sanctions on Moscow.
“Is that a problem?” he replied. “Why should that be a problem? If I am smart enough to have multiple options, you should be admiring me.” Jaishankar’s retort elicited a smile from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken who was also part of the panel.

This provides some insight into how differently Brics countries and the West view the rules. However, there are also differences among the Brics nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Exploring those differences is important to understand the rules-based international order, the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination, and how cooperation happens within multilateral groups like Brics and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Specifically, there are major differences between China and Russia with regard to their views of international rules.

First, China seeks harmony and common good, while Russia pursues differences, a view rooted in Eurasianism. Russia has tried to integrate into Europe but has failed to be accepted. As a representative of Eastern civilisation, China is obviously different from Europe. China’s history is replete with exchanges of knowledge between civilisations, which point to how it has focused on pursuing harmony.

Second, China is a “tai chi” culture, where the emphasis is on pushing an opponent without using force. Russia, however, is a “bear” culture. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2024 re-election campaign adverts, for example, feature footage of bears overlaid with Putin’s speeches about “not giving up the taiga”, an indication that Russia will safeguard its home and not back down when fighting enemies.

Third, China leverages the rules of the world order and strives to internalise them through its actions and ideas. Russia, by contrast, is a product of externalisation, having expanded to what it is today with significant influence from the Mongol Empire.
Fourth, China and Russia differ not only on international law and norms but also behave differently on the world stage and therefore get different results. China stresses inclusiveness whereas Russia’s relationship with the West has always been more confrontational.
Fifth, since ancient times, China has emphasised the importance of mutual relationships and the whole world. Russia, on the other hand, is more focused inwards.
Sixth, China has a comparatively restrained national character passed on from its early days as an agricultural civilisation with a sedentary lifestyle. Russians have inherited the tendency to move to seek expansion from their nomadic ancestors.
Seventh, the two countries diverge on their attitudes. When it comes to engaging with other countries, Chinese culture stresses the importance of upholding justice in the face of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Russia’s approach is often about beating others at their own game.
Eighth, China observes the international rules itself rather than just asking others to follow them. In China, there is a common saying that nothing can be accomplished without norms or standards. Russia asks others to follow the international rules and considers itself exempt from such rules.
Ninth, China takes a forward-looking view and detests imperialist thinking. Russia tends to look backwards, focusing on reclaiming its lost territory and retaining its imperialist mindset. For example, Russia feels guilty about the fall of the Berlin Wall.
When Germany was reunited, the West did everything it could to give Moscow the impression that Nato would not expand to include countries east of Germany. Yet, Russians believe the West tricked the Soviet Union and broke its promises by adding more members.
Finally, China seeks to improve the international order while Russia wishes to challenge the West and the unipolar world. One religious leader who attended the Multipolarity Forum told me that Russia’s top bishop, the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, has had a huge influence on Putin’s plans to reshape the world order. Under these plans, Russia would first join hands with China to destroy Nato. Then, Russia would revive the Eastern Orthodox Church and, together with the Islamic world, become the great liberator.
Highlighting these differences is not intended to portray China-Russia relations in a negative light. Rather, they should be borne in mind when examining the bilateral relationship and the two countries’ positions within the global system.