October 24, 2014

RUSSIA, CHINA: No Passing Fad, Russia-China Friendship Puts West in a Bind

World Politics Review
written by Richard Gowan
Monday October 20, 2014

Russia and China are good friends these days. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Moscow last week and, by signing a bundle of economic agreements, demonstrated Beijing’s disregard for Western sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. Early in the Ukrainian conflict, American and European officials hoped that Beijing would take steps to penalize Russia over its annexation of Crimea. But it has confined itself to token complaints, while reinforcing its trade relations with its northern neighbor.

This is not the first time China has disappointed Western officials by sticking close to Moscow in recent years. Throughout the Syrian civil war, American and European diplomats at the United Nations have tried to prize their Chinese and Russian counterparts apart, arguing that Beijing has little real reason to support the regime in Damascus. On a few occasions, the Chinese have apparently used their influence to moderate Russian positions on second-order questions such as humanitarian aid.

Yet whenever the crisis has peaked, China has ultimately lined up with Russia to block Western proposals to put pressure on the Syrian government. The two powers have vetoed four Western-backed Security Council resolutions over the crisis since 2011. The Sino-Russian bond seems likely to be a persistent feature of U.N. negotiations and international diplomacy more generally for some time. On a visit to Beijing for two conferences on international affairs last week, I was unable to find any experts who believed that the Russian connection was merely a passing fad.

It is less clear whether this is a problem that will fundamentally undermine the current, Western-dominated international system or merely inconvenience it. China and Russia have used their influence to block Western crisis management efforts in cases beyond Syria and Ukraine, for example by setting limits on the U.N.’s activities in Darfur. But they have thrown their weight behind other initiatives, such as the current efforts to stabilize Mali, where China has peacekeepers, and battle Ebola.

To interpret the potential risks posed by deepening Sino-Russian collaboration, it is necessary to assess its origins. Many Chinese and Western scholars believe that the relationship is still primarily transactional. Beijing may not have a real stake in Syria’s future and probably does not like Russia’s dismemberment of Ukraine, which could create difficult precedents for China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. But it needs Moscow’s support over North Korea and Iran, with which it has close energy ties. It will not do anything to risk that.

China and Russia will thus band together over crises that concern one or the other, but remain more open to the West in other cases. Most consequentially, the mess in the Middle East and threat of violence in Afghanistan after NATO leaves may yet drive China, Russia and the U.S. together to find a strategy to contain Islamist extremism. They should also remain able to coordinate their positions on strategically marginal crises in Africa.

Yet there are more disturbing interpretations of Chinese and Russian motivations. One, now often heard in the West, is that the two powers are bent on undermining the present liberal international order as a matter of principle. The other, more frequently voiced in Beijing and Moscow, is that the duo are actually on the defensive against Western provocations and have to stick together to face down these threats.

Russian and Chinese observers see unnerving patterns in recent events such as last year’s popular uprising in Kiev and the current protests in Hong Kong. High-level figures in Moscow and Beijing frequently claim that Western powers have used both episodes as part of a deliberate strategy to hurt their interests. This weekend, Hong Kong’s chief executive claimed that “external forces” had stirred up the student protests in his city, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov grumbled that Washington’s use of sanctions over Ukraine reflected a “colonialist” mentality.

To most mainstream Western analysts, this sounds like a compound of piffle, paranoia and propaganda. Yet it may be dangerous to assume that senior Chinese and Russian leaders don’t believe at least some of this stuff. International officials who have dealt with Moscow over Syria note that Kremlin insiders, quite probably including President Vladimir Putin, felt that the uprising there was also a Western plot.

If China and Russia share a common desire to overturn the present global order or a common fear of Western efforts to undermine them, it will ultimately not be feasible to sustain international cooperation through case-by-case crisis management alone.

What is the alternative? There is a temptation to strike wide-ranging deals with Moscow and Beijing to put relations on a sounder footing. As I have recently noted, a number of European and American experts see the need for “new institutional arrangements” with Russia to avoid sequels to the Ukrainian debacle. Meanwhile Wang Jisi, a leading Chinese scholar of international relations, has argued that Beijing should commit itself not to challenge the U.S.-led multilateral system if Washington guarantees that it will not interfere in China’s domestic political order.

Ideas like these may be theoretically attractive, but would take long periods to articulate and implement, if they can be brought to fruition at all. In the meantime, it is crucial to ensure that China, Russia and the West communicate as fully as possible over their interests in current and emerging crises, in order to address suspicions about all sides’ intentions. After meeting in Moscow last week, Prime Minister Li and President Putin separately headed on to Europe for talks with Western counterparts.

Li was discussing trade in Germany and Italy, while Putin held “difficult” talks on Ukraine with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and a posse of European Union leaders in Milan. At least they were talking. Even if the Sino-Russian partnership is set to play a hefty and problematic role in global affairs in the future, neither power wants a monogamous strategic relationship with the other.

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