Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Trading places?

Throughout the 2000s an informal ‘division of labour’ emerged between Russia and China with regard to the global order. Russia has actively and loudly participated in the management of global affairs, becoming the member of all global forums – G-8, G-20 and BRICS – and making its voice heard. China, for its part, has been keeping a low profile, engaging in global issues only if vital Chinese interests were at stake. In the realm of high politics – international security, it has been Russia which has stood out as a non-Western voice, while China has relegated itself to the low politics – global economic governance (see the report by Charles Grant). This ‘division of labour’ has run contrary to the trends in the Russo-Chinese bilateral relationship, allowing the gradually weakening partner – Russia – to enjoy prestige and visibility. The arrangements resemble the pattern of the Cold War relationship between France and West Germany, with the former being compensated for economic weakness with political prestige.

The division of roles between Russia and China has been particularly striking with regard to international crises. For Moscow, the participation in every collective effort to solve an international crisis has been of crucial importance. As the only actor beyond the U.S., Russia has been a member of the Kosovo troika (in 2006-2008), the Six-Party-Talks in the North Korean crisis, the P-5+1 talks with Iran on nuclear issues, and the Middle Eastern Quartet. Russia’s tangible contribution to the solution or easing of the crisis has tended to be limited, but being at the table has seemed sufficient for the Kremlin. China has remained disengaged, with the exception of the North Korean nuclear crisis. Due to the latter’s proximity to the Chinese border, and security interests being at stake, Beijing has remained the most important power-broker in this case. From Moscow’s point of view none of the crises has touched upon vital interests; all have merely been a way to increase its great power prestige. The rule for China has been either to follow Russia’s stance or to remain disengaged - at least till May 2013.

The last take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undertaken by China has challenged the well-established pattern of crisis behaviour. Beijing proposed a four-point peace plan and played host to the Israeli Prime Minister, followed by the President of the Palestinian Authority. China’s initiative has little chance of achieving a breakthrough in the peace process, given that it repeats widely-acknowledged principles of the peace (of the peace what?) between Israel and Palestine. It nonetheless signals its willingness to gain a higher profile and a seat at the table. This move corresponds with China’s declaration to send about 500 troops as part of the Mali peace-keeping mission to which Russia has not contributed.

What are the consequences for the Russo-Chinese relationship of ‘trading places’? The recognition of Russia’s special role, demonstrated by Beijing – though in a symbolic rather than a substantial way – has facilitated Russia’s accommodation of China’s rise. In relations with Beijing, the Kremlin has enjoyed a certain comfort which has always been lacking with the U.S. Although both Russia and China have come to realize the bilateral power transition, they have still pretended that nothing has happened. With China’s more frequent participation in crisis-management, Russia’s global role is going to gradually lose its importance (see the commentary in the National Interest pointing to the need to replace the useless Middle Eastern Quartet with Russia onboard, with the Chinese-European mediation).

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