After the furious Albazino conflict Russia and China have existed «back to back» for quite a time without almost any relations with each other. Nevertheless, since the 19th century there has been a certain coincidence of histories of two continental superpowers, which was tightly intertwined with the synchronous nature of the tides of alien aggression.
An attempt of European nations, unified by France, to shatter Russia in a continental campaign completely failed in 1812. Naval war of 1853–56 was much more successful for the Western coalition — it looked more like a typical contemporary move of a «global gendarme» rather than an expansive occupation. And although defeat in the Crimean War hasn’t restrained our sovereignty, it caused a substantial downfall of an international status. Russia started to degrade from an independent power center to a status of a junior partner of the Western states. Having failed to outdo Russian bear in a hand-to-hand battle, the West started to tame him, alternating painful border strikes with a decoy of investments.
Opportunities for the land occupation of China (analogous to the Napoleon’s campaigns in Russia, marquis Hastings in India or Bugeaud in Algeria) weren’t even considered due to the remoteness of the theater of war and unintelligible scales of the potential prey1. Opium Wars immediately became naval police wars, which were aimed to mortify, rather than to conquer the alien civilization.
For the first time in its history Chinese society faced such threat2 and happened to be totally not ready for the resistance. After the series of humiliating losses, China had not only to recognize the unequal conditions of partnership with the West, but also give up a part of its sovereignty.
By the beginning of the 20th century there were no hints of Russo-Chinese coalition. China rather looked like a continental mass, gradually gnawed from without. At that, Russian blood that was spilled during the oppression of — anti-Western, in fact — Yìhétuán rebellion benefitted Russia in no way. Advantages that were gained in 1900 from the division of spheres of influence were almost immediately renounced by the Russo-Japanese war, where Japan was supported by the thalassocratic superpower of the time — Great Britain.
The situation drastically changed with a beginning of a revolutionary boom, which covered Russia and China almost simultaneously. Historical science pays not enough attention to the fact that both Russian and Chinese revolutions were revanchist in the civilizations sense. Apart from the social and progressivist incentives, this was also an outbreak of discontent of Russian and Chinese nations with an increasing influence of the Western civilization and servile behavior of the state elites. In this case communism was not only a social utopia, but also an ideological alternative to the Western values and a practical way to defend oneself from the Western expansion.
Russians and Chinese nations suffered the most during the Second World War. It were their territories — «indigested» by the Western civilization — looked the most «ownerless» and attractive in the eyes of the young colonial predators: Germany and Japan. It were Russian and Chinese nations, which, having failed to adopt the Western values, were proclaimed «untermensch», subjected for extermination. Yet, the victims of the Greatest War were not in vain. Having sustained the greatest losses, Russians and Chinese (along with Jews) have achieved the greatest positive change of the global status. Soviet Union turned into a global superpower from the «poky hole» of a universe and China regained the former sovereignty (lost a century before) and entered the formal five of the global leaders.
Why a half of century of tight cooperation at the revolutionary basis hasn’t ended in a steady union of the Communist Russia and the Communist China then? That’s exactly because both revolutions were not purely social, but also civilization ones. Both civilizations used the new social technologies and strived to reaffirm their distinctive nature in front of the global Western expansion. National feelings, awakened by the revolutions, were given suffused with a strong thirst for the civilization sovereignty. This thirst didn’t allow China that got rid of the senior partners embodied by Great Britain, Japan and the USA to accept the USSR as the new senior partner. Besides, great cultural differences of two civilizations — Eastern-Christian and the Far-Eastern ones — which have almost never cooperated before affected it.
In the end of the 20th century balance of power between Moscow and Beijing drastically changed. Today it is China that has all the grounds to apply for hegemony in the possible coalition and it is our turn to be cautious.
However, despite an almost ten-fold difference of demographic potentials, we shouldn’t exaggerate the scale of a «Chinese threat». Just like in physics, where the force is defined by a formula F=m*a (where «m» is mass and «a» is an acceleration), in geopolitics the force of expansion also depends not only from the people’s mass but from the ideological ambitions as well. China has never been aggressive, avoiding the frontal conflicts with significant rivals. In the rating of peacefulness Chinese civilization holds the second place, perhaps — right after the Indian one. That’s why the hysterical fear of the Chinese expansion, so characteristic for the Russian mind of the 70s seems to be completely groundless3.
Deep cultural differences of two civilizations will hardly allow Russia and China reach a necessary level of unity and mutual understanding. Cooperation of the Asian giants is rather about «holding defense back-to-back» than «living a life hand-in-hand». That’s why the SCO is destined for a flabby character, unlike the well-coordinated NATO mechanism (where both civilization unity and an undisputed leadership is on hand).
Nevertheless, we can’t underestimate the importance of the SCO for the construction of a multi-polar world. This is a sort of club for the states that didn’t bend to the West. It’s quite significant that India, Iran and even Pakistan (which followed the American foreign policy until a certain moment) applied for the observers’ statuses in the organization. Pay attention: all the major non-Western civilizations of the planet are present here.
If we draw parallels with the Cold War age, then the SCO rather reminds a Non-Aligned Movement than a Communist bloc. The organization doesn’t set any global objectives but emphasizes its independence from the only remaining center of an expansive force. Such kind of unification fits the spirit of our time quite well, because, despite the remaining ambitions, the West has been weakening since the middle of the 20th century and losing the potential for the global dominion. It’s quite possible that soon enough no alternative military blocs like the Warsaw Treaty Organization would be necessary for its detention.
In case of the further expansion (answering to the bids of the nuclear Middle-Eastern powers, for one), the SCO may become an institution of the future multi-polar global cooperation. The need for the actually multi-polar global system is all the more higher, as more often the West tries to use the UN to satisfy its unilateral ambitions.
1 On the eve of the Opium War population of the Quing Empire was estimated to be about 400 million people, whilst the English population was merely 20 million, and the French one was just a bit over 30 million (for your comparison — Russian population made up 50 million people).
2 All the invasions of the period were still defined as the «Warsaw invasions», where the invaders have foisted off no alternative cultural values and recognized the priority of the Chinese culture.
3 European hysterical fears of the «Soviet threat» seemed to be similarly groundless. Genetic piety before the West as a sisterly civilization is implanted into the Russian mind. It taboos the awareness of a chance for yet another brutal conflict. West, at the same time, has no similar kindred feeling for Russia.