Posts Tagged ‘Russia-China’

And second up, a piece in the Sunday Times just as the year closed which looks at the growing divisions in the world. Draws on a lot of the travel and workshops I have been fortunate enough to attend over the past year, and themes touched on elsewhere in my writing. Given my current workload at the office, suspect there might be some more in this broader vein. Separately, spoke to France 24 in the wake of the Egypt attack late last year, and this piece was picked up by the Daily Express.

Don’t fear Putin’s hypersonic nuke. Fear the gulf in East-West understanding

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The rhetoric and imagery of the Cold War is back. The year has drawn to a close with President Vladimir Putin flexing Russia’s military might. The test of a new hypersonic missile, which Putin boasts is “invulnerable” to western defences, heralds a world that we had thought was consigned to history. Yet while our threat perception in the past year has shifted from a fear of non-state groups to great-power confrontation, we are still nowhere near the fearsome heights of the Cold War.

The key difference is not the size of our weaponry, but rather the lack of a clear ideological confrontation and greater economic interdependence. Traditional thinking about deterrence no longer provides a frame with which to understand our enemies, leaving us open to the risk of dangerous miscalculation.

The clearest indication of the different level of global confrontation is military spending. Notwithstanding Russia’s new weapons and a blockbuster Pentagon budget this year, both sides remain far from the lavish spending of the Cold War. The US is nowhere near the roughly 10% of GDP it was devoting to defence at the height of that confrontation, and Moscow is far from the expenditure that brought the Soviet Union crashing down. It is also a long way from catching up with American defence spending.

While these new Russian weapons appear a terrifying development in the global arsenal, there is little clear evidence that they materially change the balance of power. Putin has over the past year announced a number of hypersonic and other menacing-sounding weapons, but these announcements are intended more for domestic consumption and for weapons sales abroad than for making Russia seem an invincible military power.

Moscow feels compelled to demonstrate a sense of global confrontation to enhance national power and to explain at home the imposition of economic sanctions and the vilification of Russia in the international media.

This need is vastly different from the ideological boundaries that used to divide the world during the Cold War. In contrast to that earlier world, we now inhabit countries that are deeply economically interdependent.

Moscow’s rich — despite sanctions — own property in London, while China’s national wealth is tied up in American Treasury bonds. This transforms national perceptions of enemies and means that even when countries such as Russia and China try to change the international order, they are hesitant to sever the links. This may change in time, but it has not yet. We live in a world that can at best be described as divided by forms of governance, rather than by ideology.

Ideologies do continue to dominate, however, at the non-state level, where constellations of individuals come together around a utopian vision to threaten the old order. Countries and governments, on the other hand, still inhabit traditional structures. Moscow still thinks in these terms and therefore has to create a sense of narrative with traditional tools.

None of this should leave us complacent. There is a growing sense of confrontation in the world. Non-state groups such as al-Qaeda and Isis have not gone away. China is confused about the limits of the pushback it is facing. Its new national economic champions, such as the telecoms and electronics company Huawei, are targets of international ire. Beijing is struggling to interpret a world that wants its economic investment but at the same time fears its growing weight.

Moscow sees the current confused order as a prime environment in which to assert its meddlesome influence abroad and build a narrative at home of international power and importance. And Iran’s mullahs fail to understand why they are cast as an enemy or what the parameters of the current confrontation are.

There is a distinct, if fractured, axis coming together between Beijing, Moscow and Tehran. And while it takes little to find fissures between them — Beijing dislikes Moscow’s tendency to disrupt defined national borders and recognise stateless peoples; Moscow is no fan of Tehran’s use of proxy groups or Beijing’s encroachment into its back yard in central Asia — they all regard a democracy-promoting West as an adversary they need to worry about.

The threat they see is to their leadership structures rather than national ideologies. But this is not a popular narrative to sell at home: hence the need for confrontation abroad.

But these fissures also undermine the West’s ability to respond to them in a coherent way. With no unifying ideology and coherent enemy, it is hard to rally western capitals together in a clear and consistent fashion.

We are able to respond in only a piecemeal fashion and struggle to maintain a unified line for long. Previously, the clarity of a structured order between the Soviet and western blocs defined who the enemy was and what we would need to do in response to the weapons they were developing. Today we have a messy order, where we are as economically tied to our adversaries as we are locked into preparing ourselves for the possibility of confronting them.

Even worse, while our world is ever more interconnected, the gulf in understanding between our governments has deepened. On both sides there is a surprising lack of insight into what the other is thinking. Narrow lenses suited to domestic concerns and power plays are ill suited to understanding how people in faraway capitals think.

Travel to Beijing, Moscow or Tehran and you hear views we would dismiss as conspiracy theories being shared among some of the most sophisticated thinkers as mainstream perspectives. Doubtless they observe the same phenomenon when they visit us.

Notwithstanding the current rhetoric and bombast, we are far from a new Cold War. The past year may feel as though we are returning to the 1970s, but the biggest danger we face is not large-scale military conflict fuelled by hypersonic weapons. It is a miscalculation of one another’s aims and intentions that precipitates confrontation and spirals out of control into conflict.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute

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A slightly odd post in that it is not an article, but rather an interview I did with the author of the Bug Pit blog on Eurasianet that focuses on all things ‘military and security in Eurasia’. In any case, it was inspired as a result of the piece I recently did with Lifan for Open Democracy Russia, a piece that has been translated in Russian already and is apparently going to go up in Chinese as well. As ever, more on this topic more broadly to come.

Russia and China May Compete Economically in Central Asia, But Not Militarily

February 1, 2013 – 1:32pm, by Joshua Kucera 

Last week, Open Democracy Russia ran a very good series of articles on relations between Russia and China. One was especially interesting for EurasiaNet readers, about choices that the Central Asian states are having to make between integration with Russia or China. The piece concentrates on the economic sphere, in which, as the authors convincingly argue, integration with the two big superpowers is becoming mutually exclusive.

Of course, Russia and China also have their respective Central Asia integration schemes in the security sphere: China has the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and Russia the Collective Security Treaty Organization. So I asked one of the piece’s authors, Raffaello Pantucci, an expert on Chinese-Central Asian relations, about whether there was going to be a similar reckoning in that sphere. Short answer: no. His more detailed thoughts:

The Bug Pit: Is there a similar looming choice to make for the Central Asian states, whether they prioritize ties with the SCO (dominated by China) or CSTO (dominated by Russia)?

Raffaello Pantucci: There is little similar looming choice with regards the SCO and the CSTO. In part this is since the SCO remains a relatively infant security entity, while the CSTO has the advantage of having lots of interoperable forces and equipment. Also, China has no interest in stirring up a security competition having a foreign and security policy that does its utmost to not seem threatening. Having said all of this, it is interesting to see how the SCO has developed as a security actor – it is maybe not as active as some initially thought it would be, but the Chinese are certainly taking advantage of the opportunities it offers to test out equipment and strategy. The ‘Peace Mission’ exercises they regularly undertake are ones that the Chinese are increasingly playing an active role in directing.

TBP: Why has the SCO not turned out to be as active a military organization as China seems to have originally expected?

RP: I’m not entirely sure that was always the focus from a Chinese perspective. The SCO was born out of the ‘Shanghai Five’ – a grouping that was established in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union to help delineate and demilitarize China’s borders with the newly former Soviet states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia. This grouping proved successful and it evolved into the SCO in 2001 with Uzbekistan’s accession. In its founding declaration, the members emphasize their ‘non-alignment, not targeting to the third country or region, and opening to the outside world.’ Instead, they focus on countering the domestic threat of three evils ‘terrorism, separatism and religious extremism’ – a very Chinese phrasing. Terrorism is quite a useful unifying rallying subject that all of these nations agree on, all of whom had (and for the most part have) active networks of some sort operating in their territory.

In fact, the Chinese have always seemed more interested in the economic aspects of the SCO, and analysts will say as much in conversation. Their emphasis has repeatedly been on developing the SCO as an economic actor, something they hope will help them strengthen their economic hand and links in the region. Looking at many of the recent economic moves and discussions within the organization – talk of an SCO FTA, an SCO Development Bank, the large loan vehicles through the organization – the impetus is all coming from Beijing.

TBP: Do you think that Central Asian governments would like the SCO to be more active? Is there any desire for China to balance Russia in the security sphere?

RP: When Alex and me were travelling in Kyrgyzstan, one of the more amusing stories we heard was that the roads the Chinese were building were being designed to carry the weight of a Chinese tank. This apocryphal story may be founded on little more than speculation, but it captures quite effectively a concern that bubbles barely beneath the surface in Central Asia. People in the small and under-populated Central Asian states are worried about being neighbours to the Chinese behemoth. Tracked out, it translates into little desire for China to step in as the main security guarantor. And in practice, the Chinese have not done much in direct security terms. Look back to the troubles in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and there was no evidence of China stepping in – it was rather Russia that ended up standing up as the regional supporter.

A final point to make is that China has little desire to become the main security guarantor in the region. It cuts right against the national ethos of non-interference. Elsewhere around the world it has slowly found itself being dragged into such nettlesome security problems and it is still working out how to address them. Where possible, they would like to avoid this in Central Asia too.

TBP: What do Central Asian leaders expect from China and the SCO long-term? Will they eventually take a larger role in security?

RP: I don’t think the Central Asian leaders see the SCO as being on a trajectory towards a greater security role. The impression is that they see it as a useful way to engage more generally with China and manage Chinese regional goals. The fact that the other main regional security player Uzbekistan has been so hesitant to engage with the SCO as a security actor highlights the distance the Chinese still have to go to turn it into a regional security player that everyone will buy into.

The interesting long-term question is what exactly will the Chinese do if their economic interests are directly threatened by security problems. Will they simply write them off? Or rely on local actors to protect them? Or send their own forces in, either under a Chinese flag or the SCO? The answer at this point is unclear, and this is a question that Chinese policymakers are still struggling with.

A longer article in the latest The National Interest journal, this one alongside Alex as part of our ongoing China in Central Asia project. Whilst the whole article is available on their site, they have asked that I only post the first few paragraphs here for the time being with the rest up later here. The article is the first that captures comprehensively the ‘inadvertent empire’ thesis that is going to be a big focus of this project.

China’s Inadvertent Empire

From the 

A Chinese road crew works in Tajikistan.

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S late 2011 announcement of his administration’s pivot to Asia marked a sea change in America’s geopolitical posture away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and the Pacific Rim. Reflecting the growing strategic repercussions of China’s rise, the move presages a new era of great-power politics as the United States and China compete in Pacific waters. But is the United States looking in the right place?

A number of American strategists, Robert D. Kaplan among them, have written that a potential U.S.-Chinese cold war will be less onerous than the struggle with the Soviet Union because it will require only a naval element instead of permanent land forces stationed in allied countries to rein in a continental menace. This may be true with regard to the South China Sea, for example, or the Malacca Strait. But it misses the significance of the vast landmass of Central Asia, where China is consolidating its position into what appears to be an inadvertent empire. As General Liu Yazhou of China’s People’s Liberation Army once put it, Central Asia is “the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens.”

For most of its unified history, China has been an economically focused land power. In geopolitical terms today, China’s rise is manifest particularly on land in Eurasia, far from the might of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Washington’s rimland allies—and far also from the influence of other Asian powers such as India. Thus, Western policy makers should be dusting off the old works of Sir Halford Mackinder, who argued that Central Asia is the most pivotal geographic zone on the planet, rather than those of Alfred Thayer Mahan, the great U.S. strategist of sea power. Greater attention needs to be paid to China’s growing presence in Central Asia if the United States is to understand properly China’s geopolitical and strategic rise.

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