The Splintering West Can Forget About Driving a Wedge Between Russia and China

It will have to reap what it sowed

Last September, 3,200 Chinese troops joined Vostok-2018, Russia’s biggest military exercise in nearly 40 years. But far more alarming to the West should have been the first joint aerial patrol over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea on July 23, involving two Chinese H-6K bombers and two Russian Tu-95MS strategic bombers: this was a joint operation, not an exercise.

Yet, although strategic theorist Zbigniew Brzezinski once warned of the danger of the “grand coalition of China and Russia”, The Economist has counselled patience. The magazine reckons the West can afford to wait until a Russian president looks westwards again, and “the man or woman in the Oval Office should emulate Nixon – and go to Moscow”.

This sounds like Waiting for Godot. (He never arrives.) The rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow is at an all-time high. President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met nearly 30 times since 2013.

In 2016, Russia replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s largest supplier of crude oil. In 2018, bilateral trade hit a record high of over US$100 billion and it is expected to double by 2024. When Putin ends his fourth term in 2024, his successor shouldn’t want to change this.

It would take a lot of imagination to figure out what could erode the bedrock of Beijing-Moscow ties. This relationship is no longer based on ideology, but on growing mutual needs. The old fear some Russians had, that Russia’s Far East might be gradually occupied by Chinese immigrants, is gone. Instead, Russians cross the border for work and Russian tourists flock to beaches on Hainan Island.

True, Moscow views Central Asia as its backyard, but Moscow and Beijing have managed to adapt to and accommodate each other. Now the two countries are working together to advance the projects of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union.

China and Russia are not united by “complementary grievances” against the West, as Brzezinski wrongly asserted. Both want a multi-polar world, but for different reasons. China is a beneficiary of the existing international order and only wishes to improve it. Russia resents that order, especially after its annexation of Crimea in 2014 invited Western sanctions.

If China and the United States were to sleepwalk into a new cold war, would Russia take the US’ side? This cold war is still rhetoric, and Putin’s position on the US is harder than that of Xi, who still seeks a healthy China-US relationship.

But it is not impossible. In such a scenario, Russia would probably choose not to get involved in the first place. Russia hasn’t explicitly supported China on the South China Sea issue (nor did China explicitly support Russia’s annexation of Crimea). Its primary security concern is to prevent Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine from breaking out of its orbit and joining the European Union and Nato.

Between the US and China, Russia is more likely to stay closer to Beijing for two reasons. Politically, it is impossible for Moscow to wholeheartedly embrace the West so long as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation exists. The transatlantic security alliance still draws oxygen from the Russia threat, which is both its raison d’être and its reason for expansion whenever possible.

Every expansion of Nato is aimed at Russia and can only be taken by Russia as a threat. Economically, Moscow learned a bitter lesson in the 1990s, when Russia’s whole-of-government plan to become a Western market economy resulted in a national disaster.

Russia’s future lies in the east. Geographically speaking – unless it further develops the sparsely populated eastern portion that makes up more than 75 per cent of the territory – Russia looks more like the world’s largest developing country than China.

And who can best help develop Russia’s Far East? Only China. If China does become the world’s largest economy in the next 15 years or so, Russia ought to benefit from the prosperity of its neighbour. Russia has military, geopolitical and strategic conflicts with the US-led West that are hard to reconcile, but not with China.

As Harvard professor Graham Allison rightly observes about Beijing-Moscow ties: “At every point the United States and Western Europeans imposed pain, China has offered comfort.”

China needs to continue offering such comfort, even if the gap between China and Russia as measured in GDP, military budgets and hi-tech is widening. China is grateful.

The Soviet Union was the first country to recognise the People’s Republic of China, and, without the Soviet Union’s help in laying the foundations, it would not have been possible to develop the Chinese industry that is second to none today. Moscow’s decision to let Chinese tech company Huawei build Russia’s first 5G wireless network also provided badly needed support for Beijing in an escalating trade war with Washington.

How could the West ever break up the Sino-Russian relationship, which is at the strongest while transatlantic ties are at their weakest? The West as a whole is less stable. US President Donald Trump is shaking it from within, and whoever succeeds him in the White House will try to “Make America Great Again”, too, albeit using a different slogan.

Nationalism and populism of different hues are raging in Europe. Even Nato doesn’t look as strong, next to Sino-Russian non-alignment. Despite the US’ outcry, Nato member Turkey bought S-400 air defence missiles from Russia.

Furthermore, the US’ labelling of China and Russia as “strategic competitors” can only draw the two closer together. Alas, Washington simply cannot lump Beijing and Moscow together and hope to drive a wedge between them at the same time.

Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science in China

Source: The South China Morning Post

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