China and Russia: the perennial frenemies

Posted: May 6, 2018 in Prospect
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Slightly late posting a piece for Prospect a week or so ago about China-Russia relations. Covers ground that has been touched on before at greater length in Current History and China Economic Quarterly pieces. Undoubtedly more on this topic to come. Separately, spoke to The Times about the two captures ISIS ‘Beatles’, my recent China-South Asia piece was picked up by a Forbes columnist, and for those who can understand Italian, an event I spoke at in Rome (alongside the chair of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, the UK Ambassador, the head of Counter-Extremism in Italy, and we were joined at the end by Marco Minniti, the Interior Minister) has now been posted online.

China and Russia: the perennial frenemies

As Russia’s relations with the west go into deep freeze, watch as Putin warms to the east

Back in 2014, relations between Russia and the west took a nosedive as Moscow annexed Crimea, then invaded eastern Ukraine. The west’s opprobrium was largely shrugged off by Russian president Vladimir Putin who instead headed to Shanghai where he was feted by President Xi Jinping. A $400bn gas deal between their two countries was signed. As we watch western relations with Moscow slide even lower in the wake of the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury and the Syrian crisis, do not be surprised if we see President Putin turning, once more, towards the east.

The paving stones for a visit were laid a couple of weeks ago during the Moscow Conference on International Security. Bringing together allies from around the world, the aim of the conference is to showcase Russia’s international relationships. This year, Beijing was represented by its Defence and Foreign Ministers. Both used the event as an opportunity to highlight the importance of bilateral relations. Foreign Minister Wang Yi described relations as at the “best level in history” while Defence Minister Wei Fenghe went further stating “The Chinese side has come (to Moscow) to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia… we’ve come to support you.” Reinforcing this, at around the time of the conference the Russian news agency TASS announced the delivery of an S-400 Triumf missile defence system to China. They also discussed President Putin’s pending visit to China later this year, another opportunity to highlight the strength of their ties.

For those minded to see axes of evil around the world, this pro-Chinese orientation by Moscow seems to fit the bill. As essentially one-man and one-party states, they are natural allies. But this superficial understanding of a relationship misses the contradictions and disgareements at the heart of their relationship: China and Russia are bound together, but they do not necessarily like it.

Back in July 2000, soon after his first inauguration as president, Vladimir Putin gave a speech in Lake Baykal in southern Siberia near the border with Mongolia, in which he worried about Russia’s far east. “If we do not make real efforts to develop the far east in the very near future,” he said, “the Russian population will mainly be speaking Japanese, Chinese and Korean in a few decades.” Yet just 17 years later, Putin’s Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev was in Beijing praising the rise of the Renminbi and speaking of Russia’s interest in connecting with the currency, further opening Russia to Chinese investment. From fearful neighbour to pusillanimous supplicant, the shift in the Sino-Russian relationship is almost complete.

On the surface of course, relations are better than ever. Chinese officials will highlight how Moscow is a first port of call for new Chinese leaders. Xi Jinping went even further than his predecessors, not only going to Moscow but heading to Sochi a year later for the opening of the Winter Olympics—the first time a Chinese leader had attended such an event. Clearly eager to make sure his Russian hosts were happy, President Xi described the games as “splendid.” President Putin has made more visits to Beijing than any other foreign capital, and consistently turns to Beijing when he is looking for support on the international stage.

“From fearful neighbour to pusillanimous supplicant, the shift in the Sino-Russian relationship is almost complete”

Yet, there is a more complicated story. Last year in Moscow I sat in the audience at a conference panel discussing Eurasian visions. On the rostrum were two prominent Chinese experts who proceeded to give superb presentations on China’s view of the new Eurasian Silk Roads in fluent Russian. Cracking jokes, quoting Russian authors and explaining Beijing’s policies, these men had the mostly Russian audience enrapt. Over lunch later, a Muscovite friend joked how the Chinese experts’ Russian was better than theirs.

In contrast, a year or so earlier I had listened to one of those Chinese experts complain about how difficult a partner Russia was, and how their natural preference laid with relations with the west. Moscow was an unreliable and unpredictable partner whose strategic choices were ones disruptive to the placid world view that Beijing favours. Nor is this wariness one-sided. Talking to friends in Moscow during my last visit, people spoke of unrealised investment promises and a growing concern at the erosion of their nation’s strategic influence thanks to China’s actions in Russia’s backyard.

Such duplicity is in some ways not surprising. Anyone who has looked in detail at relations between any states will find a complicated mass of contradictions, where human dynamics, history and strategic imperatives will often wrestle with each other. But it is particularly striking in the Sino-Russian case. Both are powers driven by a fundamental world view of stable authoritarian state power as the ultimate answer to the difficult management of human societies. Both are fearful of the messianic and democratising west that brings instability, chaos and ultimately state collapse in their wake.

This fundamental imperative keeps the two together, while in secret they fret about each other’s activity. Russia’s behaviour in its perceived sphere of influence is the best example of this. Beijing was deeply unhappy about Russia’s actions in Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine more recently. When Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov reached out to his Chinese counterpart in 2014 to get support for Ukraine, the best he could muster was a statement that China and Russia held “broadly coinciding points of view… over the situation.” The idea that the westphalian order of state borders could be so wantonly disregarded and then breakaway provinces recognised strikes to the heart of China’s worries about its own state survival. Fearful that others might start doing the same to some of its own renegade provinces, Beijing was notably less than outspoken in support on Ukraine and actively blocked Moscow’s moves to get Central Asian powers to recognise what had happened in Georgia.

Yet at the same time, what statements did emerge about Ukraine in particular highlight how while Beijing might not like the end point that was reached, it did understand the imperative behind the initial Russian-led activity. For Beijing, the idea that popular revolutions can overthrow regimes—as appeared to be happening in Ukraine—is a worrying prospect. It points towards a confusing world order in which the primacy of state control comes into question. The Arab Spring, for example, was seen in both Moscow and Beijing as a catastrophic set of events which upended a relatively stable world order. The consequences of which they still see today.

And it is this ultimately which will keep the two powers bound together. Notwithstanding the growing Russian dependence on Chinese investment and the stealthy Chinese encroachment on Russia’s backyard—both in Central Asia where Beijing is increasingly the most consequential actor on the ground, or in Russia’s own empty and resource rich vast eastern regions—Moscow will continue to court Beijing as a close ally and friend. A friend Russia will need even more now that its relations with the west are on such a downward trajectory. And while Beijing may disapprove of Russia’s habit of stirring up the international order as a matter of principle, it will not stymie its behaviour or overtly condemn it. In fact, as we saw in Moscow recently in response to a more aggressive posture from Washington, China will overlook Russia’s disruptive activity to more pointedly confront the west.

These are two powers bound together in an embrace the west will struggle to ever pull apart.

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