Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a conference last year. © */AP/Press Association Images

Putin is looking east

Russia and China are a challenge to western powers
June 17, 2015
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When the history of the early 21st century is written, the defining event of the period may not be recalled as the global financial crisis or the rise of militant Islam. It may be the convergence of interests between China and Russia, which led them to create a united front against the US and the European Union, and to challenge the global dominance of western economic and political values. A few years ago, nobody would have imagined a Eurasian partnership to be either possible or desirable. But the idea of creating structures that might balance the power of Nato, the EU and US-led alliances in Asia seems attractive, even indispensable, in both Moscow and Beijing.

The Sino-Russian rapprochement began a year ago, when Vladimir Putin travelled to Shanghai to seal the world’s biggest energy supply deal. At the time, western leaders ridiculed the agreement to export $400bn worth of gas from Russia to China through a jointly-constructed new pipeline. The low price conceded by Putin in this deal was seen as evidence of Russia’s financial desperation. But subsequent events—Russia’s resistance to sanctions over Ukraine, the Sino-Russian cooperation on Iran and Syria, China’s defiance of US pressure in Asian maritime disputes, the US failure to block huge new Eurasian investment institutions financed by China, the “New Silk Road” infrastructure plans that will link China to Europe via Russia and Kazakhstan, even China’s suppression of the Hong Kong democracy movement—all these suggest that Putin’s Shanghai trip may have marked a shift in superpower relations, possibly comparable to Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.

Western analysts almost unanimously dismiss this grandiose idea, but there are five reasons to expect Sino-Russian cooperation as a major feature of global economics and politics in the years ahead.

The first is that China and Russia are powers in transition. Although China is rising while Russia is in decline, both oppose the incumbent hegemon whose doctrine of “American exceptionalism” implies a permanent right to global dominance. With Russia in decline, the US and its EU and Nato allies feel entitled to help Russia’s neighbours break away from its economic sphere of influence and its ideological values. The fact that western prosperity and democracy are so attractive to Russia’s neighbours, only makes the eastward expansion of these values more threatening from Putin’s point of view.

China feels equally threatened by US dominance, but for different reasons. China is a rising, increasingly confident power; it feels entitled to expand its sphere of influence and promote its ideas. This newfound assertiveness pits China against the US and its Asian allies. In Asia, therefore, the US is what diplomatic theorists call a “status quo power,” while China is a “revisionist” power, trying to alter the existing geopolitical balance. In Europe, the dynamics are the other way round: Russia wants to maintain the status quo, while the US and EU are revisionist powers, expanding their spheres of influence. The upshot is that, on both continents, friction appears inevitable between the US and the Sino-Russian axis.

A second motivation for this axis is the natural complementarity between the Chinese and Russian economies, military capabilities and even demographics. Russia has excess resources but is under-populated; China has the opposite problems. Russia is strong in aeronautics, military technologies and software, but weak in mass production and electronic hardware. China’s has the converse weaknesses and strengths. Western conventional wisdom maintains that these complementarities are overwhelmed by the history of distrust and territorial competition between Russia and China. But this is really just wishful thinking masquerading as cultural insight. After all, the “instinctive” distrust between Russia and China can hardly compare with the historic animosity and territorial competition between Germany and France, which were overcome after 1945.

Far from being historically and culturally implausible, a Sino-Russian strategic partnership is such a natural fit that many other countries would be attracted to this axis—a third argument for taking such partnership seriously. Many governments in Asia, Africa and Latin America are unable or unwilling to follow western precepts of democracy, corporate governance, financial openness and free trade. A less democratic, more regulated approach to politics and economics would, rightly or wrongly, seem an attractive alternative to the “Washington Consensus” promoted by the US government, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. And after the 2008 financial crisis, China’s different politico-economic model will seem more credible to many other countries, especially if backed by China’s immense financial resources and Russia’s military might.

A fourth reason for expecting Sino-Russian convergence is that US military capability has been discredited even more than its economic leadership. The failure of Iraq, the continuing chaos on Afghanistan and the catastrophes created by half-hearted encouragement of “regime change” in Libya, Syria and elsewhere, have not only cast doubt on the effectiveness of US military technology and tactics, but have reinforced the traditional isolationism of American public opinion. US voters are so thoroughly disillusioned with foreign adventures that the US can no longer act as a global police force, even if it has the military capacity to do this. Thus the US can no longer realistically deter Russia and China, especially in complex and historically ambiguous territorial disputes such as those now disturbing the Asian seas and the borderlands of eastern Europe, regardless of the protection theoretically guaranteed to US allies by treaties on mutual defence.

Which brings us, finally to the most obvious development drawing China and Russia together: misguided US foreign policy. President Barack Obama’s administration could have responded to the public disillusionment with military adventures by acting with circumspection in foreign policy and relying on quiet diplomacy rather than swaggering threats. But instead the US has drawn non-negotiable “red lines,” first in Syria, then Ukraine, and now in territorial disputes involving China, and then proved unable to defend them. While the Sino-Russian relationship has often been characterised by mutual suspicion and contempt, both countries now distrust and despise America more than they do each other. A common adversary is often the strongest bond.