Russia and China have been aligning ever more closely on a number of international issues, from Syria to Iran to North Korea. Some observers call this a "marriage of convenience". Others refer to it as "an awkward partnership", and some go as far as to suggest China's hegemony over Russia. What is true is that this is an intriguing relationship, which is evolving in a direction where the two countries have never been before. While any return to a Moscow-Beijing axis of the 1950s or the intense Sino-Soviet enmity of the 1960s may not be on the cards, the future of the relationship can definitely affect the geopolitical balance in Asia and beyond.

The chief new element in the relationship is easy to see. It is the historical role reversal. In 1979, China's gross domestic product was a mere 40 per cent of that of the Russian republic within the Soviet Union. Nowadays, China's GDP is between four and five times bigger than Russia's. At the heyday of the Sino-Soviet confrontation, the Soviet Union was a military superpower and the People's Liberation Army was essentially preparing for a "people's war". Today, China's defense budget is the world's second largest, way ahead of the 5th-placed Russia. Even more importantly, China's research and development budget dwarfs Russia's. Ultimately - Russians, who heretofore have never lived with a strong China, need to adjust to the new reality.

The remarkable thing is that, given the enormity of the change and its swiftness, Moscow and Beijing managed to end their 30-year-long Cold War in 1989 and moved toward a generally peaceful and collaborative arrangement. The thorny border issue, a fulcrum of tension in the past, has been resolved. And the border itself has been largely demilitarised. China has become Russia's biggest foreign trade partner, ahead of Germany. Russian arms sales over the past 20 years have helped the PLA to narrow the gap with the world's top militaries. With a number of smaller Central Asian states, China and Russia have formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which helps mitigate their regional rivalry and functions as a platform for dialogue involving much of continental Asia. Finally, on the global arena, Moscow and Beijing speak the language of multilateralism and insist on the sanctity of national sovereignty - and the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. ...
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