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

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Russian-Chinese energy co-operation

For the Centre for Eastern Studies, together with Szymon Kardaƛ, we discuss the current state of and prospects for Russian-Chinese energy co-operation: 
The oil sector has been the major element of Russian-Chinese energy cooperation. The years 2013–2015 saw a significant increase in the volume of crude oil exported by Russia. In 2015, China became the main importer of Russian oil; Russia became the second largest supplier of oil to the Chinese market, after Saudi Arabia. From Beijing’s perspective, supplies of Russian oil are of strategic importance because the main supply routes are overland routes. Russia, for its part, is interested in boosting its export because of its deteriorating position on the European market, which hitherto has been considered a strategic market. 
Cooperation in the field of natural gas has been less advanced; so far Russia has exported only insignificant amounts of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to China. China is less dependent on the import of gas (its own production covers around 70% of the demand). Beijing has been dynamically developing its LNG infrastructure, and has at its disposal gas pipelines which connect China with producer countries in Central Asia. Additionally, all the projects carried out within the framework of Russian-Chinese gas cooperation are being hampered by the financial problems Moscow is experiencing.  
Energy cooperation is and will remain the most important component of Russian-Chinese economic relations. In the present form of this cooperation, Russia has mainly played the role of China’s oil base. The process of Chinese companies investing in oil production in Russia is progressing more slowly than before; most of the agreements made regarding this matter are still framework agreements. In the mid-term perspective, however, a qualitative change to the present model should be expected. It is very likely that Chinese companies will enter the Russian upstream sector, especially taking into account the financial standing of the Russian energy sector and China’s interest in gaining direct access to oil fields.
Read the whole analysis here: 'The oil friendship'

Thursday, January 28, 2016

China on Russia's intervention in Syria

For the Centre for Eastern Studies, I analysed how Chinese officials, experts and journalists commented on Russia's intervention in Syria:
China has reacted positively to Russia’s military intervention in Syria. The Chinese government perceives it as an element of the global fight against terrorism, and has emphasised the fact that Russia was acting in response to a request by the Syrian government. At the same time, Beijing has argued that the Syrian conflict cannot be resolved by military means and that a political compromise is necessary. 
Reports and comments in the Chinese media have been dominated by several major issues. The Russian operation was presented as a strategic failure of the West, and a fiasco of the unilateral policy pursued by the US. Numerous Chinese observers have considered Russia’s intervention an adequate response to what they saw as a policy of ‘double standards’ pursued by the West. In their view, under this policy the Western states themselves contributed to the emergence of so-called Islamic State. Chinese media have emphasised the fact that Russia has benefited from the operation in Syria in many ways: it has defended its interests in the Middle East, boosted its prestige in the international arena and overcome its partial isolation in relations with the West, which has been ongoing since the war with Ukraine began. At the same time, Chinese commentators disagree as to their assessment of the impact of the Russian intervention on relations between Russia and the West. Some of them view the prospect of Russia’s rapprochement with the West as likely, whereas others point to the risk that the tensions could be aggravated. 
Beijing’s position on Russia’s intervention is motivated by China’s global and regional interests. In a situation of increased tension in Chinese-American relations, Russia has shouldered the burden of open rivalry with the United States. In the context of China’s interests in the Middle East, Russia’s intervention makes it possible for Beijing to place itself in the position of the only neutral actor in the Syrian conflict, as well as being a possible intermediary. For Beijing, another motive to assess the Russian intervention positively has been the Chinese vision of the global fight against terrorism. China has promoted the need for unity over this issue, by which it intends to legitimise the policy it has pursued in Xinjiang.
Read the whole article here: China on Russia's intervention in Syria