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How Are We to Understand China’s International Partnerships?

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu meet in Moscow on April 18, 2023. Handout / Russian Defence Ministry / AFP

By Lukas Fiala

The visit of China’s newly minted defense minister, Li Shangfu, to Russia over the past week resulted in the usual diplomatic overtures. As Li reportedly put it: ‘We have very strong ties. They surpass the military-political alliances of the Cold War era … They are very stable.’ Such rhetorical commitments shouldn’t catch us by surprise. As one of Beijing’s closest partners, Moscow is an obvious destination for Li’s first foreign visit as Defense Minister. Yet, in the context of the war in Ukraine, Li’s visit once more highlights the need to recognize how China understands diplomatic relationships and alliances.

China’s complex relationship with North Korea notwithstanding, it’s common knowledge that Beijing eschews formal alliances, especially those codified in a treaty featuring binding commitments. The critique of NATO expansion – not least because of Article 5 which enshrines collective defense – has become a cornerstone of China’s framing of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Instead, China’s diplomatic framework is built around the idea of partnerships (伙伴关系). The latter come in at least five different levels, ranging from cooperative partnerships that focus mainly on economic ties to strategic cooperative partnerships which included political, economic – and even military – cooperation with countries Beijing regards as strategically important. In terms of this framework, topping the list of strategic partners are Russia and Pakistan.

One might say therefore if Beijing were to look at replicating a diplomatic model somewhere, it would look to its relationship with Moscow and Islamabad for guidance. In a recent report, Sameer Lalwani characterizes the latter as a ‘threshold alliance’ which falls short of a formal mutual defense treaty but features a long-term and strategic diplomatic and security relationship spanning military exercises, potential basing and access options, and deepening defence-industrial and arms transfer ties going back to the 1970s.

However, in the absence of a formal treaty, some have argued it’s difficult to see how an ‘alliance’ captures the nature of China’s diplomatic commitments. For alternatives, we may look to Chinese scholarship on relationality. Championed by scholars such as Qin Yaqinq, relationality highlights the process of diplomacy over its concrete and codified outcomes. In this respect, it conforms to the logic of appropriateness over that of the logic of consequences as preferences are situational rather than fixed.

The concept of relations (关系) certainly corresponds more closely to the language China uses when referring to its diplomatic partnerships (伙伴关系). It stands in contrast with a ‘Western’ understanding of alliances as treaty-based frameworks that focus on defense capabilities. In practice, this would interpret the Sino-Russian rapprochement as a more or less temporary alignment against the U.S.-led global security architecture rather than a permanent alliance.

Avoiding clear security commitments has certainly enabled Beijing to retain a close partnership with Moscow, while (so far) avoiding overt military assistance that could expose China to Western sanctions. By keeping partners at arm’s length, the diplomatic flexibility of China’s partnership framework has thus preserved Beijing’s ability to maneuver.

Ultimately, however, the question of replicability remains. Both Russia and Pakistan have a very specific and complex historical relationship with China, especially in the military domain, the outcomes of which Beijing will find hard to replicate elsewhere.

Lukas Fiala is the project coordinator for the China Foresight initiative at LSE IDEAS.

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