In this admirably concise and comprehensive book about "Moscow, Beijing and the new geopolitics", Bobo Lo presents many small arguments and one big one. The central thesis is that the long-standing bogey of a Russia-China alliance that would threaten the West is simply not a realistic prospect any time soon. The character, culture, history and interests of these countries, he reasons, are just too different for them to make common cause.
What is more, both have bigger fish to fry, in their separate relationships with the US and Europe. Their relationship with each other, Lo argues, although complementary in several ways, is thus of secondary importance and likely to remain so. He warns against reading anything more than regional pragmatism into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, formed in 2005.
The presence of a mega-threat will always attract more attention than its absence. But Lo has done everyone a favour in explaining how he – a British-based expert and a former Australian diplomat in Moscow – sees this complex relationship. His exposition is measured, nuanced and reasonable. This is a convincing account of how things are – not how we fear them to be.
This is an academic book that presumes a familiarity with the professional shorthand. As a reader, it would not be essential to have terms such as "instrumentalism" and "multipolarity" in your vocabulary, but there are times when it would help. But as he tracks his way through the "Yellow Peril", the geopolitics of Central Asia, the energy trade, and the growing assertiveness of each country, he also offers insights and food for thought.
One relates to the rapid improvement in Sino-Soviet relations of the late 1980s, stalled by separate historic developments in both countries: the Tiananmen Square events in China, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Another, which Lo might perhaps have made more of, is the complexities of geography, domestic politics, ideological conflict and personal eccentricity that precipitated the Sino-Soviet split in 1969. Those considerations explain not only why China and Russia have formed what Lo defines as an "axis", rather than an alliance – but why an axis will probably be about as good as it is going to get.