Written by Alex Calvo.

The last days of the year have been intense in the geopolitical arena, with the release of Moscow’s new military doctrine among several developments meriting close attention. Yet, while some other events and documents explicitly refer to China, in this case it is Beijing’s seeming absence that catches the eye. As noted by observers, Russia’s 2014 military doctrine does not differ in its essentials from its 2010 predecessor, “Its core remains unchanged from the previous version” although it addresses more explicitly NATO and refers to recent developments such as  “global strategic antiballistic missile systems” and “the ‘prompt strike’ concept”, while explicitly incorporating Russian interest in the Arctic for the first time. Indirect, positive, references to China can be found in mentions to the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and the BRICS (Brazil – Russia – India – China – South Africa). Coming on the heels of two significant natural gas agreements which China this year (concerning pipelines and LNG, Liquefied Natural Gas), the doctrine prompts the question whether Beijing remains an objective threat for Russia, or whether this is no longer the case. Despite growing tensions with the West and attempts to forge a wide partnership with Beijing, there are powerful reasons to believe that the fundamental nature of the Sino-Russian relationship remains the same, and that Moscow’s 2014 military doctrine is as important for what it says as for what it leaves unsaid.

Military doctrines have a number of purposes. First of all, they are designed to inform the military themselves about their tasks and ultimate goals. Second, they are part of a country’s public diplomacy, contributing to its image abroad and ideally fitting with other narratives. Third, by explaining to foreign policy makers the circumstances in which force may be used, they are designed to diminish the scope for miscalculation. The latter is one of their more important functions, although two caveats must be borne in mind. Countries will often seek a measure of ambiguity, even if this clashes with the third purpose, among other reasons to make enemy calculations more difficult and to retain a greater measure of flexibility when dealing with foreign threats. The second is that in order to forecast a country’s reaction to a given scenario, and in particular whether she will choose to resort to force, it is necessary to take into account not only any published military doctrine but a much wider range of factors, including national character and history.

Although often presented as cold-minded, objective, statements of national policy, military doctrines are part of a wider public diplomatic activity tightly enmeshed with a country’s foreign policies. Furthermore, doctrines are prisoners to a great extent of those same policies. Thus, it comes as no surprise to find no recognition of any potential military threat from China in Russia’s 2014 military doctrine, just as none was to be found in its 2010 predecessor. Bent on recovering economically, militarily, and in terms of self-image and worldwide prestige, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia seems on the surface to have found in China the ideal partner to escape from Western Sanctions and any real or perceived encirclement. However, leaving aside (more on them further down) for a minute potential areas of competition or conflict such as the Arctic and Central Asia, we should perhaps remember Russians’ traditional insistence that it is “capabilities, not intentions” which count, a mantra religiously chanted every year at RUSI’s conference on missile defence. It is thus clear that the 2014 military doctrine’s silence on China cannot be taken at face value.

This is even more clearly the case when one bears in mind two potential areas of competition and discord, even conflict, between Russia and China: Central Asia and the Arctic. Concerning the former, the military doctrine’s bland references to the SCO cannot disguise the fact that despite Beijing’s prudent approach to the region (in stark contrast with China’s aggressive maritime posture), Chinese strides and growing footprint have not been particularly welcome in Moscow. As the US and NATO gradually withdraw from Afghanistan, competition may become more intense. It is no coincidence to see Russia place greater stress on relations with Pakistan, while reinforcing already intense connections with India and becoming one of the pillars of Vietnam’s rearmament drive to counter Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea. The 2014 military doctrine’s silence on such issues (although we should note the reference to “use of military force in … the territories of its allies, in violation of the UN Charter and other rules of international law”) should not make us underestimate them, an easy trap given the euro-centric dominance evident in much security and defence scholarship on Russia. There is no reason to believe that Moscow is not aware of the danger of relying too much on China, nor to expect her military not to prepare for a potential conflict with the Asian giant. Let us not forget, given the 2014 military doctrine emphasis on territorial claims, that this is not a closed chapter between Moscow and Beijing, the former being one of the powers that took advantage of Qing weakness in the 19th Century, even if realpolitik currently dictates Chinese public silence on the issue.

Concerning relations with China, another important aspect of Russia’s 2014 military doctrine is the attention it devotes to the Arctic, explicitly mentioned for the first time. This degree of attention is made the more remarkable by the fact that it is not just words that we are hearing from Moscow, since the country is engaged in a sustained effort to secure the region by means of an expanded military presence. Among others, this involves setting up an Arctic Command, larger marine forces, and deployment of new surface ships and submarines. The opening up to navigation of the Arctic means that this is another area of engagement between Russia and East Asia, and Moscow has already made it clear that she has no desire to entertain any ambiguity on the legal status of those waters. It is no coincidence that Chinese forays in the Arctic, in the form of voyages by polar exploration ship Snow Dragon (雪龙), have often been discreetly accompanied by Russian military drills. In addition, we should note Moscow’s efforts to retain a pragmatic relationship with Tokyo (although its ultimate extent is likely to be one of the most difficult dossiers on Japanese PM Abe’s desk during his third mandate), and her choice of Vietnam as a partner for some oil projects in the region.

Finally, Russian nuclear doctrine merits a mention. While the 2014 text, as experts like Vice President of the Russian Academy of Geopolitical Problems Vladimir Anokhin had predicted, emphasizes a wide spectrum of non-nuclear responses to aggression, it also reaffirms Moscow’s reserved option to deliver a nuclear response to a conventional attack. Given China’s more advanced military reforms and conventional superiority in the areas bordering the Russian Far East, this is surely an aspect that will not go unnoticed in Chinese military and political circles.

To conclude, we can say that although Russia’s 2014 military doctrine does not include China among the country’s potential foes, and even contains favourable references to groups like the SCO and the BRICS which count Beijing among their members, we cannot take this at face value. Bearing in mind Russia’s stress on “capabilities, not intentions”, even accounting for the current warmth in bilateral relations, China retains superior conventional military power in some sensitive areas, to which we must add unresolved historical issues and divergent interests in key regions such as Central Asia and the Arctic. Moscow is likely to continue her policy of engagement with many of China’s adversaries in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region, while seeking to avoid excessive reliance on Beijing in areas like energy and continuing her military modernization drive, compatible with retaining the option of employing tactical nuclear weapons against a conventional attack. Overall, a reminder is due that in approaching Russia we have to avoid the trap of looking at the country exclusively from European or Western Eyes. What we need is to integrate other perspectives, listening very carefully to what, for example, Indian and Japanese experts may say. In Winston Churchill’s immortal words, Russia may be “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, but in the less often quoted sentence that followed he stressed that the “key is Russian national interest”, and to understand those national interests, in addition to learning as much as we can about the country’s history and culture, we need to approach her not only from the West, but also from the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. Even if public documents like the 2014 military doctrine seem to neglect those angles.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) and CPI Blog Regular Contributor. He focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. He is also a member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). Dr Calvo is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here. Image Credit: CC by Mark Turner/Flickr.