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Russia-China Strategic Partnership: why US and European political analysts miss the point entirely and what does it tell us about the multipolar world

For all of the above positive and negative reasons listed below, the Russia-China relationship should be viewed with equanimity in Western capitals

 

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

In this essay we will examine two aspects of the same issue:  the strategic partnership between Russia and China which is fast becoming a foreign policy, commercial and military alliance. 

The first question centers on the relationship itself, how solid is it, and in particular can this potential game changer in international relations be unwound, can Russia be drawn back into the orbit of the Western world.  The second question is that given this partnership cum alliance, what kind of world order has taken shape in the past couple of decades?  We know for certain that it is no longer an American led unipolar world.  But is it de facto a multipolar world as so many of our commentators tell us, or are we witnessing a return to the bipolar world in the context of a New Cold War?  These issues are of critical importance if we are to understand the times we are living in and formulate an effective and durable system of world governance.

 

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Notwithstanding the hysteria in the United States over threats to its democracy coming from Russia, as demonstrated by alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign…  Notwithstanding the claims that Russia has designs on the Baltic States, that it is destabilizing Ukraine and has further territorial ambitions there, all of which reasoning is adduced to justify US movements of arms and personnel into Eastern Europa as part of a program giving new life to NATO...  Notwithstanding the United States naming Russia as the country’s greatest security threat…The consensus view of American and European political scientists is that Russia is a country in decline.  They make reference to its problematic demographic situation, to near stagnant GNP growth rates and to a highly centralized and authoritarian system of governance that seems incapable of implementing liberalizing reforms they insist are essential. In the near unanimous judgment of this fraternity of Western experts, the global power balance will be changed not by Russia but by China, the up-and-coming power that is already the world’s second largest economy and that has made its geopolitical ambitions clear by its militarization of the South China Sea, securing its perimeter in preparation for the launch of an ocean-going navy and global projection of power to match the global projection of its trade and investment ties.

These same experts tell us that the apparent Russian-Chinese partnership and their common action in the United  Nations and other forums is not what it seems to be considering the fundamental divergence of their security interests . We are reminded of the nearly empty expanses of Siberia and the Russian Far Eastern territories, just across the border from overcrowded, resource and land hungry China. We are reminded of the  disparity in economic strength of the two, which dictates that Russia will be the “junior partner” - a situation which the Kremlin will find untenable. At best this is a temporary alignment that will not last, they say.

I submit that all of the above is wrong and results not only from the limited knowledge of the real situation on the ground in these two countries but to a prejudicial mindset that does not want to get at the facts. Russia may not be experiencing dynamic growth, but over the past two years it has survived a crisis of circumstance (sharply depressed oil prices) and economic warfare against it by the West that would have felled less competently managed governments enjoying less robust popularity than is the case in Putin’s Russia. Moreover, current GNP performance is on a par with Western Europe’s. Russian agriculture is booming, with the 2017 grain harvest the best in 100 years despite very adverse climatic conditions from early spring. In parallel, domestically produced farm machinery has been going from strength to strength. Other major Industrial sectors like civil aircraft production have revived from zero with the launch of new and credible models for both domestic and export markets. Major infrastructure projects representing phenomenal engineering feats like the bridge across the Kerch straits to Crimea are proceeding on schedule to successful termination in the full glare of regular television broadcasts. So where is this decrepit Russia that our Western commentators repeat to us daily?

The reason for their wrongheaded observations are not so hard to discover. The ongoing rampant conformism in American and Western thinking about Russia has taken control not only of our journalist commentators but also of our academic specialists who serve up to their students and to the general public what is expected and demanded: proof of the viciousness of the “Putin regime” and celebration of the brave souls in Russia who go up against this regime, such as the blogger turned politician Alexander Navalny or Russia’s own Paris Hilton, the socialite turned political activist Ksenia Sochak.

Although vast amounts of information are available about Russia in open sources, meaning the Russian press and commercial as well as state television, these are largely ignored. The sour grapes Russian opposition personalities who have settled in the United States are instead given the microphone to sound off about their former homeland. Children of  these emigres now studying at American universities are characterized by one of America’s foremost scholars-administrators in the Russian studies field, Timothy Frye, at Columbia’s Harriman Institute, as giving soundness to the field by compensating for the stunning collapse of Russian language training in the country among non-Russian-descent undergraduates and graduate students. Meanwhile, anyone taking care to read, hear and analyze the words of Vladimir Putin becomes in these circles a “stooge.”  All of this limits greatly the effectiveness and usefulness of what passes for expertise about Russia.

Apart from the shortage of Americans or Western Europeans who are not émigrés from Russia or the other former republics of the Soviet Union and can read the language of their area of concentration, the field suffers, as it always has, even in its heyday during the Cold War, from a narrow concentration on Russia and from the impoverished general education of those entering the field. They do not study world history in a way that would put their Russian knowledge in some firmly anchored comparative international setting. 

Just what this means was brought into perspective earlier this week when professor emeritus of the London School of Economics Dominic Lieven delivered a lecture in Sochi at the latest Valdai Club annual meeting summarizing his take on the Russian Revolution of 1917 (http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/revolution-war-and-empire/ ). 

Dominic Lieven is arguably the greatest living historian of imperial Russia. He is one of the very rare birds who brought to his Russian studies a profound knowledge of the rest of the world and in particular of the other imperial powers of the 19th century with which Russia was competing. This knowledge takes in both hard and soft power, meaning on the one hand, military and diplomatic prowess and, on the other, the intellectual processes which are used to justify imperial domination and constitute a world view if not a full-fledged ideology.

Lieven’s remarks placed the Russian Revolution of 1917 in an international context in a way that gives a wholly new and invaluable understanding to that event on its centenary commemoration.   No such broadly based explanation of today’s Russia and how it fits into the world materially and intellectually exists. There is little interest to do this by our professional community, nor is there the training and broad reading to make it possible if one wished to do so.

Meanwhile, our International Relations experts, who are generalists by definition,  lack the in-depth knowledge of Russia to say something serious and valuable for policy formulation.  The whole field of area studies has atrophied in the United States over the past 20 years, with actual knowledge of history, languages, cultures being largely scuttled in favor of numerical skills that will provide sure employment in banks and NGOs upon graduation. The diplomas have been systematically depreciated.

The result of the foregoing is that there are very few academics who can put the Russian Chinese alliance into a comparative context. And those who do exist are systematically excluded from establishment publications and round table public discussions in the United States.

If one had the slightest interest, one would look at the Russia-Chinese partnership as it compares firstly with the American-Chinese partnership created by Nixon and Kissinger that it replaced. Henry Kissinger was fully capable of doing this when he wrote his book On China in 2011. Kissinger chose to ignore the Russian-Chinese partnership though its existence was perfectly clear when he was writing his text and reduced to zero what he had worked so hard to achieve in the 1970s.

What we find in Kissinger’s description of his task in the 1970s is that the American-Chinese partnership was all done at arm’s length. There was no alliance properly speaking, no treaty, in keeping with the PRC’s firm commitment not to accept entanglement in mutual obligations with other powers. The relationship was two sovereign states conferring regularly on international developments of mutual interest and pursuing policies that in practice proceeded in parallel to influence global affairs in a coherent manner.

This bare minimum was overtaken and surpassed in Russian-Chinese relations some time ago.  The relationship with Russia moved on to ever larger joint investments in major infrastructure projects having great importance to both parties, none more so than the gas pipelines that will bring very large volumes of Siberian gas to Chinese markets in a deal valued at $400 billion. Meanwhile, in parallel, Russia has displaced Saudi Arabia as China’s biggest supplier of crude oil, and in trading that is now being done in yuan rather than petrodollars. There is also a good deal of joint investment in high technology civilian and military projects.  And there are joint military exercises in areas ever farther from the home bases of both countries.

I think it is helpful to look at this partnership as resembling the French-German partnership that has steered the creation and development of what is now the European Union. From the very beginning, Germany was the stronger partner economically. The relative stagnation of the French economy under the effect of its noncompetitive labor legislation and the dynamism and bulking up of Germany following its reunification made the discrepancy ever greater.

 One might well have wondered why the countries remained in this partnership as nominal equals. The answer was never hard to find: with its historical burden from the Nazi epoch, Germany was, and to this day remains, incapable of taking responsibility in its own name for the European Union. The French served as the smoke-screen for German power. Since the 1990s, to a large degree that role has been assumed by the EU central bodies in Brussels, where key decision-making positions are in fact appointed by Berlin. And yet, when France shows some signs of life and determination, as is currently the case with Macron, both countries find benefit from working in tandem.

One may say exactly the same about the Russian-Chinese tandem.

Russia is essential to China, because of its long experience managing global relations going back to the period of the Cold War and because of its willingness and ability today to stand up directly to the American hegemon, whereas China, with its heavy dependence on its vast exports to the USA cannot do so unless vital interests are threatened. Moreover, since the Western establishment sees precisely China as the long term challenge to its supremacy, it is best  for the PRC if its influence is exercised with and through another power, which today is Russia.

Of course, in light of Brexit and of Trump’s abandonment of world leadership, it is undeniably possible that China will step out of the shadows and seek to assume direction of global governance, as an analysis article published today in The Financial Times suggests. But that remains to be seen.  The country has major domestic challenges including the transition of its economy from export led to domestic consumption led drivers that currently and in the foreseeable future will absorb the attention of its political leadership.

Separating Russia from China is an objective whispered in Trump’s ear by Henry Kissinger, who from the very start of Trump’s presidency has been one of his closest advisers. But Kissinger has not been honest about this alliance. And, given his own limited and outdated knowledge of Russia, by choice, Kissinger surely underestimates, as do our less gifted and informed pundits, the reasons why Russia and China are inseparable for the foreseeable future.  

For one thing, to imagine that Vladimir Putin will turn his back on Beijing because of some flirtatious “come hither” gestures from Washington is to misunderstand Russia’s supreme leader entirely. One of the outstanding features of the man is loyalty to his friends and to his principles.  A second feature, which he exposed at length during his address and Q&A in the Valdai Club gathering this past week is deep distrust of the West in light of its having taken crude advantage of Russia’s weakness in the 1990s by its expansion of NATO to Russian borders and other threatening actions.

Putting personalities aside, Russian foreign policy has a commonality that is rare to see on the world stage: actions first, diplomatic charters later.  Russia’s political relations with China come on top of massive mutual investments that have taken many years to agree and execute.  In the same way, Russia is proceeding with Japan to work towards a peace treaty by first putting in place massive trade and investment projects.  It is entirely foreseeable that the first step to the treaty will be the start of construction in 2018 of a railway bridge in the Far East linking the Russian island of Sakhalin with the mainland. The general contractor and engineering team is also in place: Arkady Rotenberg and his SGM Group. That bridge is the prerequisite for Japan and Russia signing a 50 billion dollar  deal to build a railway bridge linking Sakhalin and Hokkaido.  This bridge will draw the attention of the whole region to Russian-Japanese cooperation and change the mindset of a generation. It will be the foundation for a durable and not merely paper peace treaty resolving the territorial dispute over the Kurile Islands.

In light of these realities, it is puerile to speak of detaching Russia from China with the promise of normalized relations with the West.  The opportunity to do that existed in the 1990s, when President Boris Yeltsin and his “Mr. Yes” Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev did everything possible to win US agreement to Russian accession to NATO immediately following accession by Poland.  To no avail.   Then again early in the presidency of Vladimir Putin, the Russians made a determined effort to win admission to the Western alliance.  Again to no avail. Russia was excluded, and measures were taken to contain it, to place it in a small box as just another European regional power. Finally, following the confrontation with the United States and Europe over the annexation/or merger with Crimea, over Russian support for the insurgency in Donbass, Russia openly was cast as the enemy and was compelled to mobilize all of its friendships internationally to stay afloat. No state was more helpful in this regard than China.  Such moments are not forgotten or betrayed.

The Kremlin appreciates full well that the West has nothing substantial to offer it so long as the United States elites insist on maintaining global hegemony at all costs. The only thing that could get the Kremlin’s attention would be consultations to revise the security architecture of Europe with a view to bringing Russia in from the cold. This was the proposal tabled by then President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010. But his initiative was met by stony silence from the West. Bringing in Russia would mean according it voting rights proportionate to its military weight, and that is something NATO has opposed tooth and nail to this day.

It is for this reason, the failure to seek solutions to the big issue of Russia’s place in overall security, that the re-set initiative under Barack Obama failed.  It is for this reason that Henry Kissinger’s second tip to Donald Trump at the start of his presidency, to offer relief from sanctions in return for progress on disarmament rather than implementation of the Minsk accords also failed, with Vladimir Putin giving a firm “nyet.”

Finally, let us consider not what Russia is waiting for from the West, but what is being offered for its good behavior:  normalization.  The question then is normalization to what, to when and with whom.

Implicit in American “carrots” to the Russians these days is normalization to the state of relations before the imposition of sectoral as well as personal sanctions in 2014 in connection with the Crimean spring and outbreak of civil war in Donbass.  However, that time was already a trough in bilateral relations dating from the imposition of much milder but still nasty sanctions by the United States in 2012 by vote of Congress and presidential signature on the Magnitsky Act.  The sting of the Magnitsky Act was to discredit Russia and prepare the way for its being designated a pariah state.  It came amidst an already longstanding campaign of demonization of the Russian president in US media. In fact, to begin to find a halfway normal period of bilateral relations you have to go back to before Bush’s invasion of Iraq which Russia denounced, alongside Germany and France.  The latter two powers got a tap on the wrist from Washington. For Russia, it was the start of a period of reckoning for its uncooperativeness with American global domination.

As for Europe, the question is very similar.  To find mention of a strategic relationship, firstly from the German Foreign Ministry, you have to go back to before 2012. And what constituted normality then?  At the time, renewal of the EU-Russia cooperation agreement was already being held up for years, nominally over a difference of views on the provisions of EU law governing gas deliveries through Russian owned pipelines. Behind this difference was the total opposition of the Baltic States and Poland to anything resembling normal relations with Russia, for which they received full encouragement from the USA. The rallying cry was to put a stop to Russia’s status as “monopoly supplier” to Europe as regards gas, but also oil. Of course, no monopoly ever existed, nor does it exist today, but such details never stand in the way of policy formulation by determined actors.

 This hostility also played out in the contest of wills between the EU and Russia over introduction of a visa-free regime for travel by their respective citizens.  Here the opposition of Angela Merkel justified by her unfounded and vicious characterization of Russia as a mafia state doomed the visa-free regime and by the same token doomed normal relations. All of this unfinished business has to be addressed and put to right for there to be any carrots for the USA and the EU to offer to Russia, minor as that still is compared to the overriding security question that is top of mind in the Kremlin.

 

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I contend that the de facto Russian-Chinese alliance matches the de jure US-West European alliance. The net result of both is the partition of the world into two camps.  We have in effect a bipolar world that broadly resembles that of the Cold War, though still incompletely given that it is so new and many countries have not signed on definitively to one side or another.

Waverers were also a feature of the Cold War era bipolar world. They formed what was called the group of Nonaligned Nations, led back then by India and Yugoslavia.  Yugoslavia no longer exists. But India has continued its tradition of let both poles court it, trying to eke out greatest benefit to itself.

To be sure, a great many political scientists in the USA, in Europe and in Russia as well, insist that we have a multipolar world, saying that power is too diffuse in the world today, especially considering the rise of non-state actors after 1991.  However, the reality is that very few states or non-states can project power outside their own region.  That comes down to the two big blocs I named above.

The theoreticians defending multipolarity speak of a return to the 19th century balance of power. They invoke the Congress Vienna as a possible model for today’s world governance.  This is an approach that Henry Kissinger already laid out in 1994 in his book Diplomacy. Within Russia, this conceptualization has found support in some influential think tanks. The name most often associated with it is Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council of Foreign and Defense Policy. He appears both at home and abroad in a great many round table discussions of the future of global governance.

Nonetheless, I maintain that not the prestige of others with different concepts but the everyday realities of power decide this question.

And is there anything wrong with this de facto bipolar world?  Anything more likely to give us goose pimples than the thought of Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button?  I think not.

Two large blocs are more likely to keep global order because that is now the number of great powers who can supply the non-state actors or rogue states with arms and facilitate their destructive intentions. The scope of activity of proxies is reined in, because their potential for bringing down the house is all the more obvious. In short, the tails are less likely to wag the dog in this configuration.

Moreover, as regards the Russia-China strategic partnership or alliance, Western observers should take comfort and not take alarm.  The rise of China is a given whatever the constellation of great powers. The close embrace of Russia and China can serve as a moderating influence on China, given Russia’s greater experience in world leadership.

For all of the above positive and negative reasons, the Russia-China relationship should be viewed with equanimity in Western capitals

 

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

 

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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide.

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