11 June 2024

The Frail Foundations of the China-Russia Friendship

Vincent K. L. Chang

Even before Vladimir Putin arrived in Beijing last month to bolster Russia’s ‘no limits’ partnership with China, Western media had started to double down on the widely shared notion that the Ukraine war had only driven Beijing and Moscow closer together. Though not unfounded, such casual observations evince an incomplete understanding of geopolitical complexities and of Beijing’s strategic views and obscure subtle but important recent changes in the China–Russia partnership. For not only has the power of balance in this relationship shifted further in Beijing’s favor, but deep-seated defects in the relationship have also come to the fore. A look into the two countries’ evolving memory politics reveals how Beijing as the newly emerged senior partner pursues a notably different policy agenda than its now junior partner in Moscow.

May is a month replete with historical symbolism in Russia. On May 9, coinciding with his first day in office for a new six-year term as president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin oversaw a military parade in Moscow to mark the 79th anniversary of the victory of what is known in post-Soviet states as the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945. In his address to the nation, as in previous years, he honored those fallen heroes and veterans of the former Soviet Union who freed Europe from Nazism and condemned attempts in the West to distort this historical ‘truth.’ Putin also reserved praise for the contributions of the other Allies but, contrary to last year when he expressly acknowledged the contributions of the United States and Great Britain, this time he singled out China and the courage of the Chinese people in resisting militarist Japan.

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