As Russia and China continue to lurch towards an expanded partnership, the real question is whether they will ever unite behind two issues with tremendous significance for the future world order: Crimea and Taiwan

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, escorted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, reviews an honor guard during his visit to Beijing, June 25, 2016. Photo: AP

Despite the latest meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinense counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing on June 25, which resulted in a series of declarations and statements, the real geopolitical issues that matter for both countries remain in the shadows.

For Russia, the major issue is surviving through the damage control of the Ukrainian crisis, which ultimately means finding a compromise with the international community on the status of Crimea. For China, the main issue is finding a solution for the status of Taiwan. To a lesser extent, Sino-Russian relations are also affected by the situation on the Korean Peninsula and in the South China Sea.

If the post-Cold War equilibrium in international relations no longer provides a way to resolve these lingering territorial issues, what happens next? One answer could be that Russia and China will continue to make attempts to reshape the world order, both subtle and not so subtle.

Crimea and Taiwan, through the lens of domestic politics

For Russia, domestic policy issues are first and foremost. It is the re-election, or not, of Putin as president and the associated rotation in the political elite that matters most of all. The decision is to be sketched out during the September 2016 Duma election and will be ultimately decided in the presidential election of 2018.

Despite his certain popularity among Russians, Putin will likely be better off staying away from active politics after 2018 rather than getting re-elected for yet another term. Similar to his predecessor Boris Yeltsin who, in order to step down, needed to craft a credible solution for Chechnya, Putin needs to provide a solution for the Ukrainian crisis. Specifically, he needs to address two issues: the status of Crimea, ideally as an internationally recognized part of Russia, and the Western sanctions against the Russian economy, ideally their total lifting.

Also read the interview with Sergey Lousianin: "What are the results of the Kremlin's turn to the East?"

For China, the redefinition of the status of Taiwan also involves both internal and external stakes. Unlike Russia’s less nuanced style, the Chinese game is comparatively subtle. Currently, it is limited to the linguistic nuances over the recognition, non-recognition, or partial recognition of the so-called 1992 consensus on both the Chinese mainland and Taiwan being parts of an indivisible Chinese nation.

In this way, China ideally strives to achieve the acceptance by Taiwan of a special status within its territory, similar to the status granted to Hong Kong and Macau. In view of most experts, China would be ready to fight a war, as it has promised, in case Taiwan chooses to openly declare its independence.

The reason for such decisiveness is that Taiwan’s independence would represent a threat to the territorial integrity of the Chinese mainland. Moreover, it might ultimately impact the mainland’s “sacred of the sacred” internal politics dilemma, specifically, whether the Communist Party of China will be able to preserve its control over power.

Do Russia and China actually support each other? 

The current problem is that Russia and China are only ready to support each other on the basis of principles, such as territorial integrity, but are not willing to get involved in each other’s specific territorial concerns. In the absence of unequivocal support through an open alliance, Russia and China are trying to encourage a broader redefinition of the world order.

In other words, they present themselves as messengers for those countries and peoples who might have grounds to feel that the existing international order does not fairly credit their contribution to world civilization.

In its efforts, China considers itself a civilizational cradle of a common language of words, symbols and values intelligible throughout larger parts of North East and South East Asia that include Korea, Japan, and many South East Asian nations.

Russia also views itself as a civilizational crossroads that, besides creating some of its own unique values, has integrated the symbols of many others, from the ancient Greeks to the Christians, Muslims and the modern Chinese. Whether these ideas are entirely, partially or not at all legitimate, they do have a growing appeal, both among their target audiences and among the increasingly self-questioning Western intellectual circles.

The need for a new approach to geopolitical crises

It does not take much expertise to calculate that there is no imminent solution for the above-mentioned geopolitical stalemates. Taking any irrevocable decision on the status of Crimea, to the benefit of either party, would mean a final blow to the Russo-Ukrainian common identity, already severely wounded by the Ukrainian crisis, and only radicalize the nationalistic feelings in both countries.

Going into a war with mainland would mean suicide for Taiwan, unless the United States intervened, in which case it might mean suicide for all of humankind. Neither is the international community ready to assume the huge human and economic casualties that a policy aimed at regime change in North Korea would result in. As to the South China Sea situation, where China’s main concern is American pressure and where Russia reiterates its neutrality, the actual priority might be to limit the scale of environmental damage.

Also read: "Is there a role for Russia to play in the South China Sea?"

In a situation where conventional approaches are unlikely to bring a resolution, some out-of-the box methodology is necessary to alleviate the crisis. After its triumph in the Cold War, the Western world, confronted with the absence of fundamentally challenging ideas, might have been sliding towards a kind of philosophical dogmatism.

Yet, it is common sense that more than one perspective is necessary to stimulate innovative intellectual process on any given issue. Conflicting opinions are one way to reconcile the paradoxes of any situation. That, perhaps, is the greatest value of any expanded partnership between Russia and China – it will lead to new approaches and new thinking for addressing crises in the world order.

For now, however, there are only declarations and statements hinting at greater Russian-Chinese coordination on a host of science, technological, and economic issues. For example, Putin and Xi signed a Declaration on Cooperation in the Development of the Information Space. Along the same lines, Russian think tanks have published policy briefs on potential Russian and Chinese coordination on educational and scientific issues.

What’s really needed, however, is an expanded dialogue about a refreshed world order based on diverse yet universally intelligible concepts, values, and perspectives, to which various civilizations could contribute in a fairer and more proactive way. Perhaps, after many centuries of Western dominance, this dialogue will include a more active role for Russia and China.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.