Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Chinese views on Russia: a voice against the alliance

Feng Yujun (Fudan University) and Shang Yue (CICIR) take a closer look into developments between Russia, China and the US in the most recent issue of China International Studies (September/October 2018). The Chinese-language version of the article was published in late July.

The worsening of Russia-US relations provides the backdrop for deliberations on China’s policy. The authors argue that the conflict between Moscow and Washington is no longer only about geopolitics and strategic balance but has shifted to domestic politics and the normative sphere. While in their view being ‘anti-Russian’ in the US has turned into an element of ‘political correctness’, in Russia ‘anti-Americanism’ is employed by the authorities to build domestic consensus by creating the impression of external hostility. They disagree with the notion of a ‘new Cold War’ between Russia and the US, seeing the two states as ‘limited opponents’. This has become the ‘new normal’ that can be expected to stay for a long time.

Against this backdrop, the authors make a compelling argument against the formation of a Sino-Russian alliance. Such an alliance, they claim, would not help either side to resolve their tensions with the US. Closer economic cooperation between China and Russia would not alleviate the negative impact of the US sanctions on Russia. Closer political-security cooperation would not diminish Beijing’s security concerns related to US policy. The Sino-Russian strategic partnership has not altered Washington’s foreign policy – either in terms of the military presence in Eastern Europe, or with regard to naval operations in the South China Sea and the deployment of a missile defence system in the Korean Peninsula. The hegemony of the US dollar remains unchallenged, despite increasing use of the yuan and rouble. While Moscow and Beijing working jointly are able to increase pressure on the US, the benefits of an alliance are difficult to predict and its negative spill-over may be problematic to control.

The authors recognize that there are three pairs of relations (China-US, China-Russia, Russia-US) rather than the triangular relationship familiar from the Cold War period. Nonetheless, they identify four areas of potential cooperation between the three powers: (1) the maintenance of security in North-East Asia; (2) counter-terrorism cooperation; (3) the maintenance of the strategic arms balance; (4) Track II and think-tank dialogue.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Will Russia benefit from the shift in the Western policy towards China?

The change in the Western policy towards China has been in the making for some time now. The EU refused to grant market economy status to China in 2016 while American experts discussed the need for a new approach to Beijing during the presidential campaign. The Western disenchantment with China observed today is beginning to resemble the post-Cold War disappointment with post-Soviet Russia. Not a single week goes by without a piece on ‘how the West got China wrong’ to quote The Economist's recent cover page. Two European think-tanks, the ECFR and MERICS, published highly critical reports about the Chinese policy towards Europe, accusing Beijing of creating intra-European division and portraying the challenge stemming from China as equally serious to Russia’s foreign policy. The 2018 Munich Security Conference report emphasised that China and Russia do not want to be ‘co-opted’ into the Western order, having developed ideas of their own on re-arranging international politics. Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, former US officials, writing for Foreign Affairs provided a catalogue of expectations which China failed to meet. On top of this, the 2017 US National Security Strategy depicted China as a ‘strategic competitor’, placing it on a par with Russia.
What does this shift mean for Russia and Russian-Chinese relations? For the last decade, the gap in material power between the two states has skyrocketed. Russia has needed China’s support more than the other way round. Moreover, in the wake of Russia’s post-2014 conflict with the West, the majority of experts agreed that Moscow’s dependence on Beijing has only increased. At the same time, there was a consensus that China would not side with Russia in the latter’s conflict with the US and would not support Russia’s pressure on America. The recent change of Western attitudes and policies towards China does, however, alter the equation. In a recent FIIA commentary, I discuss how Moscow could use this opportunity to strengthen its position in dealings with China.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Russia, China and the West

Russia-China relations have been attracting growing attention among scholars and analysts for the last two years. A central question is whether an alliance between the two is possible. In a report for the Center for Transatlantic Relations of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I discuss prospects for a closer Sino-Russian relationship.

Two long-term factors are particularly drawing Moscow and Beijing  together:
  • shared opposition to political values and norms promoted by the West. Both states reject the U.S. claim to primacy and Western domination in the world. They jealously guard their sovereignty understood as noninterference in their domestic affairs. Both also suspect the West of plotting regime change under the banner of spreading democracy and/or human rights; 
  • strong confidence that the other side would neither subvert the ruling regime nor criticize the other’s domestic political system.
At the same time, there are three major obstacles to a fully-fledged alliance:
  • the absence of mutual support in pursuing territorial claims. This is specifically visible with respect to: Crimea, South China Sea and East China Sea and contrasts strongly with the 1990s and 2000s when both states did lend support to one another with respect to territorial integrity;
  • differing approaches towards economic globalization (China is a strong supporter while Russia is a contestant) and diverging assessments of anti-globalization trends;
  • different perceptions concerning their contribution to global security and economic governance. China appears to be genuinely interested in contributing to political and economic stability. Russia aims first and foremost at a symbolic confirmation of its great-power status and does not mind the role of an occasional spoiler.
My paper that elaborates these arguments can be found here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Predictability versus chaos

China and Russia have often been bundled together as representing the single most serious challenge to the West. Without doubt these two states share a number of views on world politics and also have a host of similar interests. But it is where they differ that is more telling about their relationship with the West and the international order in general.

An interesting pattern has been unfolding for the past couple of months. Russia has been betting on growing chaos in the West. It cheered both Brexit and Donald Trump’s US election victory. Russian support for populist forces in Europe can be traced back to the establishment of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in Paris in 2008. China, in turn, has been much more cautious. It chose predictability, favouring the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union and tilting towards Hillary Clinton as a slightly better option, even though there were voices in the Chinese debate favouring Trump. If both China and Russia are dissatisfied with the West, why these stark differences?

The short answer is that China has much more to lose from the West’s decline than Russia. The case of the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant is a case in point. Brexit and the resulting change of the British government almost deprived China of its first nuclear power investment in the developed world. Theresa May put her predecessor’s decision on hold, demonstrating reservations towards foreign investment in strategic sectors. We will doubtless have a long wait before we learn whether it was pressure exerted by China that made Ms May reconsider her decision, but the Chinese ambassador’s open letter left little doubt that Beijing would retaliate should London block the investment. Nonetheless, it was highly plausible that China could have suffered losses here. For Russia, Brexit was a clear gain, not least because the EU’s attention was drawn away from the Ukrainian conflict.

The same logic applies to China’s relative preference for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Trump’s anti-free trade rhetoric is aimed directly at China. A trade war could undermine Chinese exports, especially given that the US is the largest external market for China and the biggest source of its trade surplus. Even a possible breakdown of the American system of alliances in East Asia, which would strengthen Beijing’s hand in regional geopolitics, may be expected to bring as many challenges as benefits to Beijing. South Korean elites are already pondering the acquisition of nuclear weapons in the face of a growing North Korean threat. If Trump were to follow through with his threat to dump America’s Asian allies (and it is at least a possibility), other states, such as Japan, could embark on re-militarisation. In the case of Russia, the risks related to the election of Donald Trump are much vaguer and the possible gains are rather far-reaching. The volume of Russian-American trade is negligible, while the chaos which Trump’s election may unleash in the West could help Russia achieve its long-term goal of dividing the trans-Atlantic community.

The Kremlin’s support for European populist, anti-establishment and far-right parties also carries little risk for Russia and offers a number of benefits. Representatives of these movements openly declare support for Putin’s ‘strong leadership’, see Russia as the last barrier against the ‘debasement’ of Europe, and support Russia’s anti-American foreign policy. China, in turn, expressed anxiety about the rise of populist forces as early as the 2014 elections to the European Parliament. Anti-establishment European parties see China’s economic expansion as one of the major culprits for Europe’s economic stagnation and the loss of jobs. The European Commission’s anti-dumping tariffs targeting Chinese steel production are only the first sign of protectionism, which China expects will dominate Europe’s economic policy if far-right and far-left parties seize power.

Putin’s recent speech at the Valdai Club meeting offers some clues with regard to Russia’s policy. It is ready to embrace the anti-globalist movement, stir up discontent and fear against the supranational bureaucrats, global oligarchs, and trans-national companies. The invocation of terms such as ‘a simple man’ and the ‘silent majority’, allegedly disenfranchised by their own elites, portrays Russia as markedly different from the allegedly corrupt Western elites, detached from their own societies. Russia expects to thrive on the potential chaos beyond its borders. Such chaos makes it far easier to blame the outside world for Russia’s own failures and enables the mobilisation of popular support for the Kremlin against the new ‘world disorder’. It also makes it easier for Putin to divide the Western community by cherry-picking potential partners. The Chinese Communist Party, as much as it is able to despise Western democracy, needs the capitalist system to remain in power. China relies on open trade and stable markets, as well as on the growing, or at least not decreasing, wealth of Western consumers. It needs constant Western demand for its goods and capital.

The challenge to the West and its liberal values is real and comes from both Russia and China. It would be a mistake, though, to disregard the differences between the autocrats in Moscow and those in Beijing and to assume that their interests are the same.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The New Silk Road and Eurasian Economic Union - cooperation or competition?

Stephen Blank, a seasoned observer of Russian-Chinese relations, argued recently that Moscow and Beijing are building an alliance, only without naming it as such. Blank focuses his attention on recent developments in East Asia, citing Russia's gradual adoption of Chinese positions with regard to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, North Korean nuclear programme, and the development of the American missile defence system in South Korea.

Given China's upper hand in the region, such adaptation on the part of Russia is understandable. This is why we have to look to other places to understand the developments in the two states’ relationship. Central Asia, where the two powers enjoy comparable positions, offers a good insight into the future of Sino-Russian relations. In an analysis prepared for the Centre for Eastern Studies, together with Witold Rodkiewicz, we explore how Moscow and Beijing attempt to reconcile their two regional-order concepts, the Greater Eurasia and the New Silk Road:

The Russian vision of Greater Eurasia is not an attempt to block the Chinese New Silk Road project. On the contrary, the Russian project represents indirect consent to the Chinese vision of economic cooperation in Eurasia, one in which specific economic blocs do not pursue a protectionist and limited policy. At the same time, this vision enables the Kremlin to maintain an appearance that it retains the political initiative in its neighbourhood and is shaping the policy together with Beijing.

The whole piece can be found here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The asymmetric partnership?

In an article published in the latest issue of International Politics (Issue 53 Vol. 3), I look at self-restraint and adaptation as strategies deployed by China and Russia in their mutual dealings. I ask how these strategies worked against the background of Russia’s engagement in the Ukrainian crisis:
Despite growing asymmetry in material capabilities, Russia has not decided to hedge against China. On the contrary, as has been particularly visible in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian crisis, Russia turned to China not only for political but also economic support. This article argues that Moscow’s adaptation to China’s pre-eminence has its roots in the 2008–2009 global economic crisis and has been accompanied by Beijing’s self-restraint in its dealings with Russia. The ever-growing power imbalance did not prevent Moscow from closer co-operation with Beijing. Both states forged an energy partnership and deepened their security collaboration encompassing a revival of Russian arms export to China. Self-restraint, on the one side, and adaptation, on the other, made it possible to avoid conflict in Central Asia, where both actors have potentially incompatible interests and pursue competing projects. In the global realm, the strategies of both states towards the US converged.
Please e-mail me at if you would like to read the full text of the article.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The West's dual challenge

Does increasing co-operation between Russia and China constitute a challenge to the West? In the recent piece for The Diplomat, I argue that
closer ties between Russia and China do not mean that the two constitute a common challenge to the West. Russia and China have different takes on international politics. The Chinese Communist Party needs a conducive external environment in order to continue selling its whole range of goods (from low- to high-end, such as high-speed trains), exporting the overcapacity of its industry, and offering loans from its overflowing coffers of U.S. dollars. Moscow has shown itself able to thrive on insecurity and instability – although it ultimately threatens Russia itself, the current “new world disorder” is regarded by the masters of the Kremlin as the West’s problem rather than its own. Consequently, Moscow and Beijing aspire to change the existing international order in different directions. China needs another wave of globalization; the New Silk Road concept’s ultimate goal is to secure this. The One Belt, One Road is a Chinese version of the late-19th century American open door policy, one that aims to prevent other states from locking themselves up in forms of regional economic integration. Russia acts to the contrary, striving to build a fence around its post-Soviet peripheries and isolating it from the outside world. The U.S. and Europe face two challenges of different natures that need to be tackled simultaneously.
You can read the whole piece here: Russia-China: The West’s Dual Challenge