Sunday, November 1, 2015

A ‘responsible’ or ‘indispensable’ power? Two approaches to global governance

The end of September saw two major non-Western powers, Russia and China, provide interesting answers to questions on how they perceive their contribution to global governance. Beijing promised to establish a 10-year, US$1 billion China-UN peace and development fund, offered US$ 100 million to the African Union for the purpose of establishing a rapid reaction force, and committed itself to the creation of a special police unit of up to 8,000 troops for UN peacekeeping operations. Moscow, in turn, vowed to forge an anti-Islamic State coalition and, without waiting long for others to reply, embarked upon its first military intervention outside the post-Soviet area. Targeting anti-Assad forces in Syria, Russia directed its activity towards upholding the Assad regime rather than suppressing Islamic State. This evident contrast between Moscow and Beijing's actions calls for broader reflection as these two states have been increasingly regarded as posing the same kind of revisionist challenge to what has been termed the Western-led order. 
The moves by Russia and China outlined above could be dismissed as purely tactical. Xi Jinping, visiting the UN General Assembly, aspired to present China as a ‘benign’ or ‘responsible’ rising power and aimed at diluting the negative fallout of its assertive moves in the South China Sea. Vladimir Putin aimed to demonstrate to the West that Russia will not be isolated from key international security affairs and remains an indispensable player to be reckoned with. Yet, the difference in Russian and Chinese responses suggests that more than mere tactics is at stake. These recent moves reveal fundamental differences in how the two states see their contribution to solving global problems and what kind of global order they are looking for.
The drive to gain recognition and respect - in other words, to elevate their status in international politics - is common to Russia and China. The elites of both states feel underestimated by the West, which, they believe, ignores their fundamental interests. However, the paths they have taken to boost their international status differ substantially. 
Russia has now overtly demonstrated to the West that it cannot be squeezed out of the game and retains significant potential to spoil Western endeavours. If it does not become part of the solution, it will be part of the problem. The Russian elite is afraid of external disorder but for the last two decades it has turned out to be more than able to thrive on instability. For this reason Moscow could afford to play a double game with regard to international crises, without fully committing to finding a solution. The Iranian case provides insight into the thinking of Russian elites - as much as Russia does not want Iran to get the bomb, it is nevertheless prepared to live with it.
China’s perspective on world affairs and its own role within the global order differs strongly from that of Moscow and prompts Beijing to employ different means. China has become entangled in the web of economic ties throughout the world. As a result it requires certain international rules to work to its advantage. Contrary to Russia, China has a lot to lose from instability and change. The Libyan or Yemeni crises forced Beijing to evacuate its citizens from war-torn places and exposed China’s vulnerability that comes with growing interdependence with the outside world. Although Chinese elites may dislike the US-constructed global order, they have no other alternative in sight, at least in the short- to medium-term perspective.
Russia and China tend to stress that they share an approach to the international order and global governance, using their annual summits for regular Western-bashing. But when it comes to details, Moscow and Beijing part ways. China reaches for the cheque book, propping up global multilateralism. Russia resorts to arms, reinforcing its own beliefs in self-reliance on the one hand and multipolarity on the other.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

China, Russia and BRICS: a leader and an outlier

BRICS is a perfect illustration of the asymmetry that characterises the Sino-Russian relationship. China – number two in international affairs – is the natural leader of the non-Western world. Russia – a power whose economic decline became conspicuous in the aftermath of the falling oil prices and Western sanctions – does not fit into the Global South. Paradoxically, however, China still needs Russia and no other ‘brick’ can replace it.

From the very beginning of BRICS, scholars and commentators, especially in the West, pointed to a large number of differences between participants, first and foremost between Russia and the remaining states. Russia does not regard itself as a developing state and part of the global South – nor is it perceived as such externally. Despite all its shortcomings, the Russian economy is much closer to those of developed Western countries. In political terms, Russia tends to identify with Europe and the Global North. The living memory of the Soviet Union’s superpower status does not allow the Russian elites to consider themselves part of what used to be depicted as the ‘Third World’. Even Russian commentators tend to stress that Russia is an ‘outlier’ in the BRICS group.

China, in turn, looks like the natural leader of BRICS. It remains part of the Global South and faces similar political and socio-economical challenges. While it is plausible for BRICS to function as a forum for non-Western emerging powers without Russia – which was the case during negotiations on climate change, it seems impossible for BRICS to exist without China.

BRICS took shape in the midst of the global economic crisis. Consequently, the bulk of its member states’ attention was focused on issues related to the global economic and financial system, global trade, sustainable development and climate change. BRICS summits served to press for the reform of international financial institutions, the IMF in particular, and focused on the Millennium Development Goals. BRICS’ members consistently upheld the G20 as the most suitable forum for global economic governance. All these issues are close to the hearts of Chinese elites, who are centred on economic development, but they remain alien to the geopolitical mind-set prevailing in the Kremlin. The regional focus of BRICS – on Africa in 2013 and Latin America in 2014 – is in line with China’s goals, especially given its large economic presence in both continents.

The institutional development of BRICS has followed China’s rather than Russia’s interests in the international order. Regular meetings take place at the level of finance ministers and central bank governors, trade ministers, ministers of science, technology and innovation, trade councils, business and financial forums. Foreign ministers tend to meet at the fringes of other global events, such as the G20. The most recent decision to establish the first two fully-fledged institutions – a reserve fund and a development bank – has only confirmed China’s potential for creating a parallel global governance structure. This impression was only reinforced by Beijing’s successful establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), readily joined by China’s partners from BRICS.

But there is a paradox. Despite having the potential to take on the role of BRICS leader, China continues to need Russia. As an economic and developmental outlier, Russia remains the only state in the grouping with which China shares not only a non-democratic political system, but – more importantly – a great-power identity. Neither India, Brazil nor South Africa are able to offer substantial political support to China on the international stage. These states fall behind Russia in terms of material capabilities (military potential) and institutional arrangements (a permanent seat on the UN Security Council). Moreover, they lack the determination to challenge or resist the US primacy.

BRICS illustrates the extent of shifts that have been taking place in the Russo-Chinese relationship since the global economic crisis. Both states play different roles in this forum. China shapes the overall agenda of BRICS, and co-operation with other developing states fits Beijing’s foreign policy interests. Russia, for its part, influences the political agenda and attempts to present BRICS as an alternative to the Western institutional order. Beijing invests in tangible economic arrangements, such as the new development bank. Moscow cares much more about appearances by making sure that BRICS summit communiqu├ęs fit the vision of the international order preferred by Russia and China. Notwithstanding the power asymmetry between the two, Russia and China still need each other.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Two approaches to building influence

For The Diplomat, I explored differences between Russia and China’s respective approaches to building influence abroad:

There is a fundamental difference in the goals that push Russia and China to pursue grandiose projects. Moscow frames its project in terms of an exclusionary sphere of influence, which would confirm Russia’s status as a global great power. It is less interested in genuine economic integration than in the acknowledgement of its privileged status in the post-Soviet space by what it perceives as its peers – the West and China. As long as Moscow can gain prestige and keep up the appearance of great-power posturing, the nuances of the implementation process do not matter much. China’s aims related to the New Silk Road are at the opposite end of the logical spectrum. Beijing is first and foremost interested in continuing its economic expansion abroad. The ideas of renewing the Silk Road were framed in a non-exclusionary way. The concept remains open for all possible participants, from Asia through Africa to Europe. China makes no pretenses towards having a sphere of influence – Chinese scholars have even been reminded by officials not to compare the New Silk Road to the Marshall Plan, as the latter allegedly demonstrates “hegemonic features.”
Russia focuses on the form of its influence – Moscow insisted on the establishment of a legal foundation for the integration process and its institutionalization. China cares much more about the substance. The New Silk Road is therefore better understood as an umbrella for what remains bilateral economic engagement. These differences help explain why Russia and China can be expected to reconcile their respective interests in Central Asia.
Read the whole article at The Diplomat