Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in Beijing in October to help through a series of deals between China and Russia. But it was the political, not the trade side to Putin’s visit that was the more important.
The reason is Russia’s renewed interest in things Chinese. It’s not simply a trade issue. Russia – or, more correctly, Putin’s United Russia party – is interested in China’s model of development.
Beijing’s ability to maintain strong economic growth, relative social cohesion, and a strong one-party government while attracting foreign investment at a time of global economic disarray is a neat trick, and one the Kremlin seems to want to emulate. However, Moscow may be looking in the wrong place. Rather than learning how to strengthen control internally, a more useful lesson from China may be in how to engage the world.
Before Putin’s visit, United Russia leaders met with their Chinese Communist Party counterparts to discuss Beijing’s approach. Vladimir Matkhanov, a Russian parliamentary deputy, said that United Russia was "interested in the experience of the party and government structures in China, where cooperation exists between the ruling party and the judicial, legislative and executive authorities."
This engagement comes as Russia expands its cooperation with China in other ways. The members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a group including China, Russia and the former Soviet "near-abroad" nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, recently agreed to work on a joint response to the global financial crisis.
And yet Moscow and Beijing are approaching the SCO very differently. China’s engagement is part of a wider multilateral strategy, whereas Russia’s interest seems part of a small-minded plan to reassert influence over its former satellites, to minimal economic benefit and maximum diplomatic cost.
While Russia continues to display a curious belligerence in its foreign and business policy, China has worked to make itself heard by integrating politically and economically into the global community. US support for boosting China’s voting power at the World Bank is just one recent sign that this strategy is working.
That may not be a lesson United Russia wishes to learn, but it goes a long way toward explaining China’s success.