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A Sino-Russian Alliance? Rationales and Realities

Written by Jingdong Yuan.

Since the early 1990s when Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his Chinese counterpart Jiang Zemin first laid the foundation of a partnership between the former allies (1950s) and foes (1960s-1970s), Beijing and Moscow have gradually elevated the bilateral relationship to its current comprehensive strategic partnership. In 2001, the two countries also signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation.

China and Russia have significantly expanded their bilateral ties in many areas over the past twenty years, from Russian sales of advanced weapons systems and military technology transfers to major energy cooperation projects. In 2001, together with four other Central Asian states, Beijing and Moscow established the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional arrangement whose initial priorities were to combat terrorism, ethnic separatism, and religious extremism, but have subsequently evolved and expanded to include energy development, economic cooperation, and regional stability. Over the past decade, the Eurasian grouping has staged the bi-annual Peace Mission joint military exercises. Many Western analysts have suggested that SCO may have become a military alignment, if not an alliance.

The past few years have also witnessed further strengthening of bilateral ties. President Xi Jinping chose Russia as his first foreign country to visit after becoming the head of state. Presidents Putin and Xi have met no less than ten times already and the comprehensive strategic partnership has entered a new phase, with deepening political trust, mutual diplomatic support of each other’s core interests, and broader strategic consultation on major international and regional issues. Some have suggested that given the security threats that they both face, especially the growing rivalry and, in Russia’s case, open confrontation, with the United States, there are good rationales for Beijing and Moscow to seriously consider forming an alliance.

Indeed, Russia’s deteriorating relationship with the United States over a number of contentious issues ranging from NATO expansion, U.S. deployment of missile defence systems in Europe, to Russian actions against Georgia and Ukraine has resulted in America-led sanctions, causing significant economic difficulties for he former superpower, especially at a time of oil price dipping to its lowest level in years. Moscow now has its own strategic pivot to Asia, and relations with China become ever more critical.

China likewise is also facing major security challenges in East Asia. It is embroiled in territorial disputes with a number of Southeast Asian states and with Japan. China’s growing economic power and military might have instilled anxieties and concerns among its neighbours. The U.S. pivot to Asia, spearheaded by strengthened American military presence and basing access in the region, revitalised alliances and security partnerships, and Washington’s more active diplomacy, is viewed by Beijing as concerted efforts to contain China.

A Sino-Russian alliance could join forces of two pivotal Eurasian powers to counter the American offensive and undermine the U.S.-led order. In geopolitical terms, Eurasia strides across the vast landmass and provides strategic depth against maritime powers such as the United States. Russia has ample resources, advance military technologies, and the market potential that could be met by China’s financial and economic might, huge appetite for energy, and a military still in need of massive upgrading. In short, an elevation of the current comprehensive strategic partnership to an alliance is not completely out of the question.

Attractive as the idea may seem, there are many reasons against China and Russia forming an alliance anytime soon. Rivalry and confrontation with the United States is a necessary but not sufficient condition for Beijing and Moscow to take that step. To begin with, although both Russian and Chinese security interests to some significant extent face U.S. threats, the latter have not become so serious as to threaten both countries’ core interests and each, on its own, still possesses sufficient will and capability to counter such threats. In Russia’s case, while its overall power has declined since the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, its military power, in particular the nuclear arsenal, will remain the guarantor to secure and protect its core interests.

China, on the other hand, does face greater challenges in East Asia as the U.S. strengthens alliances, builds up security partnerships and reinforces its military presence. However, the U.S. pivot has as much to do with reassuring allies and friends as it is to retain its primacy; it is less about directly challenging China’s core interests, Beijing’s protestation notwithstanding. The current frictions between the two countries, from what China perceives as U.S. biased in the maritime territorial disputes, to U.S. charged Chinese obstruction to freedom of navigation, are either third-party related or manageable as both sides are anxious that disputes not escalate to military confrontation and war.

At the same time, both China and Russia continue to cooperate with the United States in areas where they share common interests with the latter. Russia and the U.S. share common interests in anti-terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, a solution to the civil war in Syria, and implementation of their nuclear disarmament agreement. Beijing and Washington, meanwhile, cooperate on a range of issues from climate change and North Korea, and share common interests in restoring global economic and financial stability.

Under such circumstances, alliance formation appears unnecessary as it is counterproductive, for both China and Russia. While sharing and promoting common objectives such as a new multipolar international order, non-interference in domestic affairs, and the important role of the United Nations Security Council, their priorities are different, as are the challenges they face. Alliance would require both to commit to, and therefore entrap in, the other’s security agendas, running the risks of getting dragged into major military conflicts with a third party not of its own choice. While the two countries have expanded and deepened their strategic partnership in recent years, the scope and foundation of that partnership remain limited and the core pillars of true partnership, not to mention an alliance, are lacking. Apart from energy and defence industry transactions, bilateral trade remains minuscule at around $90 billion annually, as is investment level. And some of the Russian elites still harbour suspicions over China’s long-term intensions and worry about China’s continuing economic and military rise.

Professor Jingdong Yuan is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney Centre for International Security Studies. He specialises in Asia-Pacific security, Chinese defence and foreign policy, and global and regional arms control and non-proliferation issues. Image credit: CC by Dmitry Terekhov/Flickr.

Russia and China: Competing or complementary priorities?

Written by Natasha Kuhrt.

In Russia’s overall policy in the Asia-Pacific the tendency has been for an intensification of Sino-centrism in Russia’s Asia policy. However, in the latest iteration of the “Concept of the Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation”, approved by President Putin in 12 February 2013, the order of regional priority of the Asia-Pacific region was fifth place after CIS, the Euro-Atlantic region, the US and the Arctic. This might seem surprising given the amount of space devoted to the so-called Russian pivot to the Asia-Pacific. Yet we find that the Asia-Pacific region had actually been downgraded in Russian foreign policy from fourth place in contrast to the earlier version of the “Concept” published in 2008. Asia-Pacific policy in the third Putin’s administration was formulated reflecting the changes in the security environment both in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. Russia’s interest has been in deepening an equal, trust-based partnership and strategic cooperation with China, but also in strategic partnerships with India and Vietnam, and developing mutual beneficial relations with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. This orientation has widely been viewed as a reaction to US president Barack Obama’s “rebalance to Asia” policy and potential conflicts between China and its neighbours, first and foremost, in the South China Sea.

Yet many see the Russian approach to China as a new, more accommodating one and in particular since the Ukraine crisis, there is a sense that the economic impact of sanctions and a falling oil price has forced Russia to yield economic positions to China. However, the general trend has been for trade between the two countries to be on the decline. Chinese exports to Russia fell by 36% in the first half of 2015 and trade has stalled at $90 billion, while the target agreed some time ago was $100 billion by 2015. Further, the economic slowdown means less demand for key Russian goods such as metal, chemicals, while the share of oil and hydrocarbons is nearly 70%.

As Vitaly Kozyrev notes, the US and the West perhaps ‘underestimate rapprochement between China and Russia…’ On the other hand there is also a tendency in Russia to overestimate the potential of this relationship to transform bilateral and regional ties.

The May 2015 agreement on cooperation between the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the One Road, One Belt project (OBOR), looked as if Russia was again making concessions to China. The OBOR is still a rather undefined project but it also tends to highlight China and Russia’s different approaches to regionalism, where China has seemed critical of the EEU for its exclusive approach and as cutting off China from Central Asia. The process whereby a Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union together with the Chinese ‘one road, one belt’ in Central Eurasia, fuse together to form a ‘Greater Eurasia’ has been hailed by Aleksandr Lukin as a paradigm change in geopolitical terms although he acknowledges the difficulties in coordinating within the SCO. This highlights Russia’s approach to regionalism, whereby Russia increasingly proposes alternative ideas of global order, focused not so much on ideas of multipolarity, and more on new forms of regionalism, in which hegemonic control by Great Powers in their own spheres of influence is viewed as both legitimate and as an essential element in the construction of a new, post-Western world order. This is quite different to Chinese approaches to regionalism, which tends to be more functionalist.

At APEC 2014, Putin said he supports OBOR, but that it should link up with the Trans-Siberian railway, because of concern that OBOR might divert transport away from Russian railways (a major source of rents). The lack of clarity on the content of this project is unsettling for Russia. At times Russian officials have appeared sanguine, but at others, have expressed concern that while Beijing does not present OBOR as an integration project, the reality will be rather different.

Although the subject of the ‘China threat’ has been virtually taboo since the mid-2000s, economic and trade relations have become a ‘safe area’ from which to criticize relations, given the sensitivity around direct references to any hypothetical military threat. This might be seen in the broader context of the securitisation’ of economics taking place in Russia today.

Overall, Russia’s position vis-à-vis China is to continue the economic relationship, which brings economic rents for Russian elites, but to maintain a policy of equidistance in the Asia-Pacific region and not to clash with China directly, whether along the Sino-Russian border, in Central Asia. One Central Asia expert notes that whereas previously Central Asia seemed as if it would become a bone of contention between the two countries…the priority in Moscow and Beijing remains the broader strategic relationship’.

This may have more to do with Russian priorities, than an acceptance of Chinese pre-eminence however. On the EEU and OBOR cooperation agreement, Trenin suggests that while at the rhetorical level Eurasian economic integration is still a priority, the economic crisis and the rift with the West, means that the EEU will now be ‘on the back burner of Moscow’s foreign policy’ for some time to come. This raises the question as to how Russia will manage to fulfil all its priorities vis-à-vis the West and other aims in Syria, whilst also dealing with Chinese putative plans in Central Asia.

Ultimately, although China remains an important part of Russian foreign policy, as the Russian think-tanker Dmitrii Trenin reminds us, ‘Russia’s principal foreign policy priorities, as evidenced by its actions in Ukraine and Syria, are checking any further advance of NATO in Eastern Europe and confirming Russia’s status as a great power outside the post-Soviet space’ –i.e. global power projection.  This is quite different to Trenin’s assessment the previous year, when he suggested that ‘… China is seeking to restore its “natural” historical position of pre-eminence in Asia and eventually globally. Meanwhile, Russia is no longer in the running for world primacy. It is merely seeking to establish itself as a centre of power in Eurasia and a member of a global concert of powers.’ Given Russia’s actions in Syria however, it appears that Russia’s objectives are more ambitious.

In the Asia-Pacific region it’s still ‘all about Beijing’, given Russia’s economic limitations. However, at the broader global level relations with the West, principally, economic relations with the EU and recognition from the US remain top priorities. Nevertheless, in many ways it is true to say that good relations with China allow Russia to approach the West with greater confidence.

Dr Natasha Kurt is a Lecturer at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. Her areas of research interest include Russian and Post-Soviet foreign and security policies, post-Soviet debates on international relations, regional security complexes, especially in Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific, nationalism, and sovereignty and debates on intervention/human rights. @NKuhrt. Image credit: CC by Clay Gilliland/Flickr.

Cultural Statecraft in the Russian and Chinese Contexts

Written by Jeanne L. Wilson.

In the last decade, the Russian and the Chinese leaderships have come to focus on cultural and civilizational factors as a component of both their domestic and foreign policy. Neither Russia nor China has a coherent sense of national identity; this is a work in progress. The abandonment of Marxism-Leninism in Russia and its increasing irrelevance in China has left both regimes largely bereft of an ideological mooring, seeking recourse and redefinition in cultural themes. National identity construction has increasingly evolved as an act of cultural statecraft; as political elites seek a selective construction of cultural themes that bolster their legitimacy. This quest, moreover, can further be interpreted as a matter of cultural security, a search for an inoculating defence against the penetration of Western values that are seen to pose nothing less than an existential threat to both regimes.

While cultural statecraft is employed as both a domestic and foreign policy strategy, Russian and Chinese political elites consider it, in my opinion, first and foremost as a domestic endeavour that is directed toward the elaboration of a legitimating narrative for the regime. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin came into office as an enthusiastic (and uncritical) Westerniser. The failure of this approach discredited the Western values, but neither the Yeltsin regime, nor Vladimir Putin in his first years in office, placed any particular emphasis on elaborating a national idea to replace Marxism-Leninism. During the 2000s, however, the Kremlin devoted increasing attention to the cultivation of civilisational themes, as seen, for example, in the elaboration of the of the Russian World (Russkii Mir) as an ideational construct as well as an emphasis on traditional aspects of Russian high culture—literature, music, art, and language—as a pillar of national identity. The Kremlin’s preoccupation with cultural values intensified in the wake of the 2011-2012 political protests in Russia as well as the 2013 events in Ukraine, which indicated the appeal of Western liberal values to notable elements of the Russian citizenry. The emergent rhetoric has been oriented toward distinguishing Russian culture from that of the West, and indeed positing it as a superior alternative. This has taken the form of the celebration of Russian traditional conservative values, which are deliberately placed in opposition to those of a morally decadent and hedonistic West. Although Putin’s approval ratings remain in the stratosphere by Western standards—well above 80 per cent in recent months—and have no doubt been bolstered by Russia’s perceived successes in its Syrian expedition, the emphasis on the supremacy of Russian cultural values also serves an instrumental function in deflecting attention from Russia’s current economic troubles.

The Chinese leadership’s relationship to civilisational themes and traditional values is more politically fraught than its Russian counterpart’s, a situation that indicates the immense magnitude of the twenty-five hundred year old Confucian legacy, that, if not properly handled, threatens to overwhelm the Chinese Communist Party. In contrast to the Maoist era, in which traditional Chinese culture—and Confucian philosophy in particular—was treated with an unbridled hostility, the contemporary political elite has engaged in a cautious reassessment emphasising the positive elements of traditional national culture. The challenge for Chinese political elites is to forge some synthesis with traditional Chinese cultural values that bolsters, rather than undermines, CCP rule. In this capacity, the leadership has increasingly drawn upon vague Confucian derived themes, seen in former Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s concept of the ‘harmonious society,’ as well as current leader Xi Jinping’s elaboration of the ‘China Dream’ with its appeals to China as a unique (dute) civilisation rooted in a distinct (and implicitly superior) historical tradition.

Cultural statecraft also forms a constituent element of Russian and Chinese foreign policy. As with other states, both China and Russia have constructed a number of programs and practices that fall within the framework of cultural diplomacy, seen, for example, in the well known Confucius Institutes and the less publicized Russkii Mir centres, which stress culture, literature, and language. Both states, although China in particular, have also sought to develop (or in the Russian case, re-establish) a global media presence. The Chinese news agency, Xinhua, for examples currently operates more foreign bureaus than either the BBC or CNN. Although the Kremlin founded Russia Today (now RT) in 2005 as a means of providing information about Russia to an external audience, it changed its orientation over time to highlighting the negative features of the West. This process was further intensified with the Kremlin’s 2013 reorganization of the media, and the appointment of Dmitry Kiselev, a controversial figure known for his anti-Western views, as the organization’s head.

Moscow and Beijing’s positions as outliers in the international system has contributed to the efforts of their leaderships to utilize culture as an means of constructing an identity that is framed in opposition to the dominant liberal norms and values of the international system. Nationalism is a necessary but not sufficient component of this process of identity formation, which is strengthened and further legitimated with reference to civilizational components. Both states possess tendencies toward a cultural exceptionalism, but Sinocentrism is more dominant than Russocentrism. The Kremlin’s Russocentric tendencies have not precluded Russia’s recent efforts to cast itself as an icon of traditional conservative values and a civilizational model of global appeal, an endeavour that has won some support among European right-wing groups. In contrast, the Chinese leadership, despite its constantly expressed fears of ‘peaceful evolution’ for domestic consumption, has not been willing to challenge the West on the ideological level, which has led to a less than compelling portrayal of Chinese culture for external audiences, that relies on rather generic topes promoting China as a ‘harmonious society’ that will pursues ‘win-win’ solutions in its rejection of any aspirations for global hegemony. The Kremlin’s identification of the West as a hostile ‘other’ may serve as a means to increase regime cohesion, similarly to Beijing’s constant evocation of ‘peaceful evolution’ (heping yanbian) as a threat posed by Western actors, who seek nothing less than regime change in China. For both states, however, the foreign policy aims of cultural statecraft are secondary to its domestic use as a means of bolstering regime stability and legitimizing the right of the regime to govern.

Jeanne L. Wilson is Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Russian Studies and Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College Norton, MA, USA.  She is also a Research Associate at the Davis Center of Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University, Cambridge MA, USA.  Image credit: CC by Ingmar Zahorsky/Flickr.

Chinese Perspectives on Events in Ukraine: Implications for Sino-Russian Relations

Written by Christopher Marsh.

Much of the focus on Sino-Russian relations relates to the two nations’ economic, political, military, and social interactions. But there is more to the relationship than simple bi-lateral ties. There is a rather solid body of literature on the mutual perception of these two societies, dating back to the Soviet era. This body of literature illuminates the many underlying tensions that have often existed in relations between Moscow and Beijing. Today is no different, as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and meddling in eastern Ukraine problematize China’s relations with Russia and Ukraine, and perhaps threaten Beijing’s vision of a multipolar world and its peaceful rise in it.

Very early on in the Ukraine crisis China tried to navigate an independent, non-confrontational approach, one that even bordered on the apologetic. As the Chinese press stated at the time, “The strategic position of Ukraine is very important. The US and the EU want to continue to compress Russia’s strategic space by pulling Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence, while Russia is determined to continue the strategic front of its rejuvenation by maintaining its influence over Ukraine.
If Ukraine wants to depend on foreign forces to solve its domestic problems it may find that things do not turn out as planned.” As the piece concluded, it is “not wise for its domestic political factions to invest all their faith in either the West or Russia,” a statement very much in line with Beijing’s desire to see the emergence of a multipolar world, one in which no state dominates international relations.

“No Exclusive Interests Involved”

Such a position was also clearly in line with China’s recent trend of increasingly warm relations with Russia. China stated at the time that it had “no exclusive interests involved,” hoping it could stand by the side-lines and not have to take a stand on the crisis. China also offered that the starting point for resolving the Ukraine crisis was “to protect the fundamental interests of the Ukrainian people and maintain a peaceful and stable regional environment.” In terms of responsibility, “both domestic and foreign forces” were deemed responsible for the crisis. “It is imperative for all parties to avoid doing anything to increase regional tension. The crisis must be resolved through calm political and diplomatic measures,” Beijing argued.

As the crisis evolved, however, and as it became clear that Russia was not going to halt its operations, China was forced to alter its stance. Soon, the annexation of Crimea would be something that was nearly inevitable, not a clear act of aggression, and Kiev would be as much at fault for the crisis as was Moscow.

In an article in China’s leading Russian studies journal Eluosi yanjiu (俄罗斯研究, Russian Studies), Feng Shuai (封帅) argued in the summer of 2014 that throughout the post-Soviet period Crimea failed to develop its own distinct identity and this ultimately led to Crimeans embracing reunification with Russia. Feng is one of China’s leading scholars of Russia and the former Soviet Union and is at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. He is very familiar with the current Russian and Western literature on the subject of nation-building and identity construction, and deeply knowledgeable of Russian history. Thus, his analysis carries significant weight in China.

In this article, Feng traces Crimea’s existence throughout history, focusing primarily on the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. The essence of his argument is that Kiev was unable to develop a viable Ukrainian national identity that included Crimea, and Crimean Tatars were not able to develop a distinct Crimean identity, not least because they are not the majority of the population on the peninsula. So the strengthening of a Russian national identity among residents of Crimea was almost inevitable, and with Moscow’s “support” it became “unstoppable.” The acts of aggression and the violation of territorial sovereignty are of course lacking from such an account of the Ukraine crisis.

The “Reunification” of Crimea

Where Feng’s interpretation of events differs from the dominant narrative in the West is that he sees Crimea as genuinely embracing Russian identity and reunification (rather than annexation) with Russia. As Feng put it, Crimea’s joining with Russia was “ultimately inseparable from the interference of external forces, but [it was done with] the overwhelming vote of Crimean residents… the majority of Crimean residents support this change…[and] one can even say that they have been looking forward to” it. In this way, the ends justify Russia’s means.

This interpretation is becoming the dominant one in China today, partly due to Beijing’s strategic relationship with Moscow. But the PRC also has strong economic and diplomatic ties with Kiev, and this is at least partly responsible for the more moderate approach to its interpretation and lack of outright condemnation of Russian actions in Ukraine.

Another factor that is certainly involved is the analogous situation that exists with Taiwan, a territory Beijing argues it has rights in and which it may someday seek to exert, either in a similar or dissimilar fashion to Russia’s military operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Thus the Chinese coverage of the Ukraine crisis has a conspicuous absence of any blame on Putin himself and certainly no talk of Russian aggression. As for Crimea itself, since China still hopes for the reintegration of Taiwan, it cannot help but be sympathetic – if not even perhaps jealous – of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

In addition to the annexation of Crimea, there is Russia’s continuing operations – both overt and covert – in eastern Ukraine. China continues to refer to this involvement beyond Crimea as “alleged.” As recently stated in an article in Xinhua, relations between Russia and the West “have deteriorated over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and alleged involvement in the Ukraine crisis” (emphasis added). Moreover, Russia is “burdened by” the “confrontation” with Ukraine. In short, the Ukraine crisis “plagues” Moscow’s relations with the West.

A Threat to the Silk Road Spirit?

Although China is not blaming Russia outright for the events in Ukraine, neither are they condoning the violence, which they seem as quite regrettable. But again, Ukraine is not seen as innocent; its cooperation with the West and flirtation with NATO forced Russia’s hand. But China has economic and even security interests in the region, as it seeks to promote the “Silk Road Spirit” – its vision of “peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit.” As it seeks the deeper integration of markets among the countries along the Belt and Road, thereby jointly creating an open, inclusive and balanced regional economic cooperation architecture that benefits all, violence anywhere along the New Silk Road poses a threat to Beijing’s vision. The question is, can it continue to turn a blind eye to Russian action in its near abroad, particularly if Moscow becomes increasingly belligerent in the years to come.

Christopher Marsh is Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Image credit: CC by Sasha Maksymenko/Flickr.

The Deepening Chinese-Russia Partnership: An American Security Dilemma.

Written by James C. Hsiung.

Contrary to general impressions, China and Russia did not enter into an alliance right after the end of the Cold War. In fact, the two nations barely ended a 28-year split since the Maoist era and mended their relations in 1989.The relations would have remained placid, albeit normal, if not for the witting, or unwitting, U.S. role in prodding the two nations ever closer to each other’s arms, beginning from 1994. And, what turned into a deepening Chinese-Russian partnership came only after 2001.

The latter development resulted from a number of initiatives by Washington calculated to enhance its own security interests, including (a) the expansion of NATO to Russia’s door steps; (b) tightening of America’s security arrangements in Pacific Asia; and (c) plans to install theatre missile defence (TMD) systems in both Europe (Poland and the Czech Republic) and East Asia (Japan).

The 1993-1994 Turning Point.

Because of alleged U.S. opposition, China lost its bid in September 1993, before the International Olympic Committee, to host the 2000 Olympic Games. The defeat, by a mere two votes, was devastating to Beijing, which had staked a national pride on winning it. Two months later, the Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, visited China and, while there, signed an agreement with his Chinese hosts to spur ministry-to ministry defence cooperation.

In the post-Cold War world, Washington’s initial approach to China was more conciliatory then it was to Russia. Even at the time of the above-mentioned Grachev visit in Beijing, President Clinton was weighing a decision whether or not to renew the “most-favoured-nation” (MFN) treatment for China in bilateral trade. On May 25, 1994, ahead of the usual June deadline, Clinton informed Congress that he would renew China’s MFN status for the next year.  Moreover, he announced that, in a break with the past, the MFN issue with China would henceforth be decoupled from the human rights issue as a pre-condition.

On the other hand, the post-1994 U.S. push for the expansion of NATO changed Russia’s initial Atlanticist outlook; and in two years’ time, Moscow turned inward and eastward. The pattern was thus set that the main initiative for the Russo-Chinese partnership would come more from the Russian side.

The Hastening Pace of the Russo-China Partnership.

A convergence of events after the turn of the 21st century provided the impetus for the hastening pace in the newly sealed Russo-Chinese partnership. For Russia, more especially, the massive accession to NATO membership, in 1999, of former Soviet bloc members, like Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, and the three Baltic states, was bad enough news. But, that was followed by the more insidious U.S. plans to negotiate for the establishment of a TMD system in Poland and Czechoslovakia, although fictitiously directed against Iran.

China, by this time, was not faring much better vis-à-vis the United States. During the 2000 U.S. Presidential campaign, George W. Bush named China a “strategic competitor.” After taking office, he pledged that the United States would do everything within its power for the protection of Taiwan’s security. His “routine” approval of arms sales to the island, although withholding the Aegis system sought by Taiwan on the ground that it could be used offensively, provoked Beijing’s strong protests.  Japan, under an agreement with Washington in 1999, embarked upon a joint research on setting up a TMD system in East Asia, which was strongly opposed by both Russia and China.

Things turned slightly better after the April 1, 2001 U.S. spy plane mishap off the China coast and especially after 9/11, when Bush stopped the “strategic competitor” characterisation and China offered positive support for America’s anti-terrorist fight. But the die was cast for a closer than ever partnership between China and Russia. This deepening relationship can be summed up as anchoring on four pillars: (i) a bilateral Inter-State Treaty on Good Neighbourliness and Cooperation (GNC for short, 2001); (ii) the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO, 2001); (iii) a Multipolarity consensus, and (d) integration within a new grouping known as BRICS, which was hatched in the next decade (2010); A few words are in order for this quadruple foundation.

The Quadruple Foundation of the Russo-China Partnership in Brief.

*The GNC treaty, signed in Moscow between the visiting Chinese President, JIANG Zemin, and President Putin in July 2001, provided an umbrella legal framework for broad cooperation in many spheres, stretching from trade and economics, science and technology, energy (incl. oil/gas and nuclear energy), transportation, finance, space and aviation, to IT as well as in the development of trans-border and inter-regional ties.

*The SCO, which began as the Shanghai Forum in 1996, flowered into the six-state Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2001, dedicated to the members’ common security, cultural, and economic goals. In addition to China and Russia, it embraced four former Soviet republics in Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. After 9/11, when the United States established an air force base in Tajikistan in its fight on terrorism, the SCO became a vehicle for Russia and China to keep a watch over the new U.S. presence in Central Asia. At its 2002 meeting in Shanghai, the six SCO member states agreed to create an anti-terrorist centre of their own, to be seated in Uzbekistan. They also approved a plan to create a free trade association (FTA) out of the existing organisation.

*The multipolarity consensus was expressed in a communiqué issued at the end of a meeting with Putin in Moscow by the newly inaugurated Chinese President HU Jintao in May 2003. The communiqué, the sixth issued by the two nations’ heads of state, reflected a commonly felt need for a coordinated approach to U.S. influence seeping into what they considered to be their “strategic rear” (referring to Central Asia). In the communiqué, Hu and Putin stressed the multipolarity of world politics, in an apparent snub to claims of U.S. monopolar power. (This, despite Russia’s earlier acquiescence in U.S. request to drop the use of multipolarity in any official documents following the 9/11 attacks.

*The BRICS. China and Russia remain the backbone of the conglomeration of the five newly emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, which came into formal existence after the first summit of the five nations in 2009. Although what specific effect the BRICS grouping may have on the Chinese-Russian bilateral partnership is unclear, it certainly would provide an additional bridge for deepening the partnership.

In International Relations (IR) theory, when a state’s singular move to tighten its own security, at time-1, results in a situation where it finds itself less secure at time-n, when confronted by other states counteracting in response to beef up their defence in alliance, it is an anomaly known as a security dilemma. As we have seen, the Russo-Chinese partnership was, increasingly, prodded by idiosyncratic U.S. moves to insure its own security in both Europe and East Asia.  To the extent that these U.S. moves resulted in Russian and Chinese responses that brought them together in an ever-deepening partnership, the result is truly a giant security dilemma for Washington.

Dr. James C. Hsiung (Ph.D., Columbia Univ.) is Professor of Politics & International Law at New York University. He is author and editor of 24 books, including his last two: An Anatomy of Sino-Japanese disputes & U.S. Involvement: History and International Law (May 2015), and The Xi Jinping Era: His Comprehensive Strategy Toward the China Dream, (August 2015). He can be reached by E-mail at <jch2@nyu.edu>. Image credit: CC by Eurasian Women’s Forum/Flickr.

Russian Dissatisfaction with China and Its Limits

Written by Gilbert Rozman.

After a period of euphoria about Sino-Russian relations in 2014 and the first half of 2015, Russians have begun to express rather more sober judgments, if not direct criticism of China over the past 6 months. The massive investments once anticipated from China have failed to reach Russian companies. The link-up of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt has bypassed the vital Russian Far East and left in doubt cooperation in Central Asia. Putin and Xi may keep following parallel tracks, but they are refraining from endorsing each other’s assertive moves in the South China Sea and East Europe respectively. Some observers see an opening for splitting China and Russia, arguing that the national interests of the two are really very much in conflict and that Russia’s civilizational claims and insistence on an autonomous role in a multipolar world will lead it to seek a balance of power, above all in Northeast Asia. There and in Central Asia, Russia’s interests could eventually be imperiled due to overdependence on China, some argue. Recent signs of Russian dissatisfaction with unrealized aspirations reinforce such wishful thinking abroad.

The problem with such reasoning is that it does not lead to an alternative scenario for Vladimir Putin’s quest for international power (in a strategic triangle or some similar configuration) and national identity (restoring the essence of Soviet glory). Given U.S. hostility to Putin’s ambitions to use force or a threat of force to establish a sphere of influence and China’s unwillingness to credit Russia as one of three poles in the international order, Putin has no realistic path to geopolitical leadership. In the absence of a path to triangularity, his strong antipathy to the United States and repeated view that China and Russia have no serious conflicting interests can only lead to doubling down on ties to China. The significance of China for Putin’s popular construction of Russian national identity is indisputable too. Putin is obsessed with the national identity gap with the West and the United States, refusing to allow any repeat of the identity chasm with China that opened as a result of the Sino-Soviet dispute. Overlapping narratives about the history of past communist movements and communism in the Cold War, about the danger of “universal values” and “colour revolutions,” and about the urgency of rallying the world against the alliances and security framework led by the United States, all affirm Putin’s alignment with Xi Jinping. There is no sign that Putin will reconsider his choice of China, and if he did, where he might turn to realize the objectives that he has pursued in ties to China.

Options for Balancing China?

The line of argument that Russia is seriously considering turning to other countries to balance its relations with China lacks hard evidence and is premised on vague and unexamined assumptions. The list of possible balancers in Asia includes India, Vietnam, Japan, and North Korea; however, it is hard to understand what balance—geopolitically or geo-economically, and even more geo-culturally—Russia could achieve with any one of these states. India has stopped looking to Russia as more than a secondary force in balancing China. Recently, Russians have strained to find optimism in India working with China as well as Russia in an expanded Shanghai Cooperation Organization, while saying very little about using India as a balance against China. Vietnam buys Russian weapons, but it counts on Russia for little else. As in the case of India, Russia finds nothing to praise in US ties to one of Russia’s partners or to some wider regional support for its strategic interests. The options of Japan and North Korea, which Russia has been pursuing actively, have opposite implications. A breakthrough with Japan would hint at multipolarity at China’s expense, but it likely would not be transformative. A special relationship with North Korea would, in contrast, showcase Russian autonomy, but it too would not be likely to challenge China seriously, as I explain below. With Northeast Asia in the forefront since that is where Russia is actually present and the interests of four great powers intersect, Russia’s interest in Tokyo and Pyongyang warrant the closest scrutiny.

As Putin prepares to host Abe at Sochi in about one month, some Japanese speculate that this could be a game changer for Sino-Russian relations. Yet, they offer no detail on what Japan would offer Russia or how it may compare with what China has been offering. Given Japan’s tightening alliance with the United States and eagerness to build a strong missile defense system, which Russia keeps warning is against it, the geopolitical payoff from a peace treaty and territorial settlement with Japan is not likely to be great. As over the past quarter century, Russia’s economy is too troubled to expect substantial Japanese investment, even if an LNG deal should be reached. In comparison to Chinese infrastructure and investment ties, Japan offers rather little. The argument that some sort of civilizational affinity would be realized between the two is even more far-fetched after a century of mutual distrust. If Putin and Abe were able to reach a breakthrough agreement, it would be very unlikely to alter the direction of Russian foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific and its strong ties to China.

North Korea has loomed in Russian narratives as a piece in a triangle with South Korea, leading to a transportation and energy corridor as well as regional partners of exceptional importance. At the same time, it serves as a lever to intimidate South Korea, given the implied threat of closer ties to the North to the extent that ties to the South do not serve Russia’s purposes. Yet, South Korea’s decision in early 2016 to sever economic ties to the North and Russia’s reluctant agreement to join in the Security Council sanctions against it leave this strategy in shambles. To draw close to North Korea now would isolate Russia rather than balancing against China or any other country. Without promise of this triangle, Moscow’s relations with Seoul have been exposed as having very limited prospects. Talk of Seoul’s Eurasian Economic Initiative has disappeared. Sticking close to China in North Korean policy seems to be the only serious alternative for Russia left.

Conclusion

Putin’s “Turn to the East” is overwhelmingly a turn to China. Despite disappointing economic results in Sino-Russian relations during 2015 (partly due to the sharp fall in commodity prices and to the slowdown in China’s economy), Russia has failed to present a geopolitical logic, an economic blueprint, or a national identity rationale for balancing China. The Asian countries mentioned as possible alternatives if such a balancing approach were attempted all have little to offer Russia. Doubling down in cultivating closer ties with China is a more likely response to disappointment than deciding that national interests diverge enough to seek to balance China’s power.

Gilbert Rozman is the editor of The Asan Forum and the Emeritus Musgrave Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, specializing in Northeast Asian societies: China, Japan, Korea, and Russia. He has compared them, most recently concentrating on national identities. In addition, Rozman works on sociological factors in international relations, emphasizing mutual perceptions and barriers to regionalism. Image credit: CC by Martin Svalin/Flickr.

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