Towards a Greater Asia?

The prospects of a Sino-Russian entente

22 June 2015
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Would it be pure fantasy to suppose that the forging of closer ties between Moscow and Beijing really offers Russia an alternative to growing international isolation? No, says Andreas Umland. There is however plenty of ground for scepticism about the venture's viability.

On 30 March 2015, the chairman of Russia’s Council for Foreign and Defence Policy (an equivalent of the US Council on Foreign Relations) Fyodor Lukyanov took the unusual step of publishing a political “fantasy”, as he himself called it, about the year 2025. In his article “If the Russians and Chinese march together” for the German daily Die Welt,1 Lukyanov paints the picture of a close economic, political and military alliance between Moscow and Beijing that could emerge over the next ten years. Lukyanov portrays this Sino-Russian alliance as a choice forced upon Russia by the West’s disrespect for Russia, and especially the West’s unwillingness to honour the Russians’ crucial contribution to victory over Hitler in World War II. Without going into these and other debatable axioms of Lukyanov’s “fantasy”, one can empathize with his motives for this uncommon foray into the German media landscape. Russia is indeed today in a situation where an alliance with China, from the Kremlin’s perspective, might be Moscow’s only opportunity to prevent geopolitical isolation, and offer it a way out of various strategic deadlocks resulting from confrontation with the West.

Photo: Ronnie Chua. Source:Shutterstock

Possible foundations for an alliance between Russia and China

Superficially, it looks as if Lukyanov and other authors with similar thoughts, like Carnegie Moscow’s Dmitry Trenin,2 are suggesting realistic alternative future scenarios for the reorientation of Russia in world politics. These would seem to build upon the rapprochement between China and Russia in recent years, and on recent Chinese foreign policy decisions. More specifically, China has yet to follow up on commitments it made towards Ukraine in a statement that the Chinese Government submitted to the United Nations General Assembly in December 1994.3 Here, China explained that it “fully understands the desire of Ukraine for security assurance. […] The Chinese Government has constantly opposed the practice of exerting political, economic or other pressure in international relations. It maintains that disputes and differences should be settled peacefully through consultations on an equal footing. […] China recognizes and respects the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”.

China issued this statement in response to Ukraine agreeing to dismantle its nuclear arsenal. But the statement proved to be even weaker than the Budapest Memorandum adopted the same month, though it tackled the same issues: Ukraine’s sovereignty, integrity, security and support in the face of pressure exerted by other powers. There again, the statement merely constituted a unilateral Chinese declaration, whereas the Budapest Memorandum was signed by Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. To be sure, the statement does not imply any obligation of China to actively assist Ukraine. Yet it can be read as suggesting that the Chinese Government might well think of ways to support Kyiv, in one way or another, should Ukraine be subject to a violation of the principles listed in the statement.

However, this did not come to pass when, in 2013, Russia exerted political and economic pressure on Ukraine. Neither did Beijing react when, in 2014, Moscow chose not to settle disputes and differences peacefully with Kyiv “through consultations on an equal footing”, but instead violated with the use of force “the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”. Indeed, the Chinese government remained silent. It leant Ukraine neither rhetorical and symbolic, nor diplomatic and political – not to mention economic or military – support.

Furthermore, China did not join the group of nations (which included Japan) that, since March 2014, introduced various sanctions against Russia. China was the only permanent UN Security Council member to abstain from the UN General Assembly’s condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, supported by 100 countries on March 2014. Instead, China signed a large gas contract with Gazprom the same month, which Kremlin propaganda has made extensive use of in countering domestic critics who complain that Putin is isolating Russia.

China and Russia have also continued to work together in the context of a number of important intergovernmental frameworks. This concerns, above all, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Russia-India-China consultations, and the BRICS group – three of the world’s largest international associations – and their various off-shots. Moreover, Lukyanov mentions in his “fantasy” China’s much-discussed Silk Road project. Certain underlying features of both countries, such as Russia’s energy resources and China’s energy needs, point to further scope for cooperation.
Is a close alliance between China and Russia an option, or even already in the making? With relations between Russia and the West likely compromised for many years to come, one may well wish Russia luck in establishing a new sustainable partnership with an economically powerful ally equivalent to the European Union. And if China has not already done so, it may soon develop into a true superpower with the economic clout that will allow it to substitute the West as a strategic, trade, investment and modernization partner for Russia.

Yet, how feasible and sustainable is the Sino-Russian alliance about which Lukyanov fantasizes? For there are at least three “problems” likely to compromise Moscow’s future relations with non-western countries, and especially with China. First, Russia’s reorientation in world politics will be hampered by its weakening economy and growing international isolation. Secondly, the cultural ties and ideational foundations to cement a Sino-Russian alliance are likely to be found to be lacking. Third, China’s growing engagement with and in Russia will encounter a number of specific challenges such as growing Russian xenophobia and the two countries’ increasing rivalry in Central Asia.

Problem 1: Russia’s declining political and economic weight

Russia’s current difficulties concerning its economy, foreign affairs and international image will not only impact relations with the West, but also the country’s position vis-à-vis China and other important players around the globe. The effects of both the ongoing economic recession and increasing lack of trust in the Russian leadership’s oral and written assurances are bound to extend beyond cooperation between Russia and the EU. Russia’s erratic political behaviour, manifest breaches of international law and poor economic performance (including but not only in the wake of continuing western sanctions) make the country a more risky and less solvent partner not only for western partners, but for everybody. This trend could continue, if not intensify in the coming years, thus limiting the prospects for Russian growth and further reducing Russia’s status on the world stage.
Of course, in comparison to China, Russia was already an underperforming market, even before the “Ukraine Crisis”.

When Russia, China and the Central Asian republics formed the “Shanghai Five” in the second half of the 1990s, the Chinese economy had already surpassed Russia’s a few years previously. But, during the 1990s at least, Russia’s superior military potential could still be seen as fully compensating for this. It is also true that the Russian economy has grown during much of the ensuing period, up until the present. This even led many observers around the globe to misperceive Russia as a dynamic “emerging market” or “emerging power”.

However, during the same period, the Chinese economy has grown more consistently, in more diverse ways, and much faster. As a result, the discrepancy between the respective socio-economic weights and future prospects of the two dominant powers of the original Shanghai Five has widened further. Furthermore, following the honeymoon in relations between Russia and the West during the early 1990s, a certain level of estrangement had already set in, even before the showdown of 2014. Now this estrangement between Russia and the West is transmuting into the far-reaching international isolation of Russia, which affects the country’s relations with, among others, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel.

While there is in principle nothing new about current trends, the comparative strengths and weaknesses of China and Russia in 2015 are different from those in 2013. Russia is now entering a protracted recession, while China continues to grow (even if at a lower rate than previously). Every month, Russia grows increasingly alienated from its formerly crucial western economic and political partners. China, in contrast, is forging new international relations with a multitude of actors across the globe. These diverging trends are reflected in the way Eurasia’s two (supposedly) Great Powers are perceived internationally.

As Russia’s economic problems and international political isolation grow concurrently, the country’s relative decline is felt more and more acutely. Thus, it will become increasingly obvious that Russia is China’s junior partner and a secondary player in the SCO (even more so, if India joins). These trends will also lead to a decline of Russia’s influence in the BRICS group, where its presence has always been an oddity. Ever since the creation of BRICS, Russia stood out in the group as a petro-state benefitting from rising energy prices. It never was a successfully developing economy with a dynamic industrial and/or progressive service sector as, to one degree or another, the other BRICS members are.

Now Russia’s always quirky position vis-à-vis both modern western and non-western modernizing powers will become more pronounced still. The Kremlin will be relegated to a second-rate player not only in Europe, but also in the SCO and BRICS – the kind of role to which it is not accustomed. Lukyanov’s “fantasy” about a Sino-Russian alliance of two equals is more fantastic than the author may have meant to imply. China will surely use Russia’s estrangement from the West to its advantage, and may look to fill certain associated trade and investment gaps itself. Yet Beijing will have fewer grounds to treat Russia as a geopolitical equal and strategic ally.

Problem 2: Asiatic ad hoc alliances ≠ the European project

The West as a whole, including the EU, is a political composite of socio-economically different, but culturally and historically related, states. From as early as 1975 up until the very end of 2013, the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation had been slowly and unsteadily, yet still more or less progressively, integrating into the West. This process began, already under Leonid Brezhnev, with the creation of the CSCE/OSCE in the mid-1970s. Under Yeltsin’s presidency, Russia entered the Council of Europe and G8. The CSCE became the OSCE. Russia signed a Foundation Act with NATO, and concluded a co-operation agreement with the EU. Under Putin’s first two presidencies and Medvedev’s pseudo-presidency, the Kremlin’s course changed, to be sure, in substance. Yet the Kremlin’s official pro-European line formally continued and briefly became president Medvedev’s official doctrine. Under Putin, Russia entered a joint Council with NATO. Moscow identified four Common Spaces of cooperation with the European Union. It announced Strategic and Modernization Partnerships with the EU and its member states, and started negotiations for a so-called New Agreement. The Russian Federation recently became a member of the WTO. Russian universities participate in the Bologna process. There is other Russian involvement in European structures or projects. The next steps could have been Russia’s entry into the OECD and, later on, the signing of an enhanced Russia-EU co-operation or even association treaty.

Had this prolonged and contradictory, but still substantive development continued, an EU- and NATO-associated Russia would have, sooner or later, become part and parcel of the western club. This would have accorded with the location of Russian culture within a pan-European culture. Russia’s gradual westernization would, in some ways, have been an East European replay of Germany’s earlier protracted integration into the western world.

In contrast to western institutions like the EU or NATO, the BRICS group and the SCO are distinctly pragmatic non- or anti-western alliances. They carry considerable geopolitical weight, yet lack distinct ideational foundations, long-term plans or larger visions of their own. China & Co. will react with interest to the new frostiness in relations between Russia and the West following the falling out over Ukraine. Beijing and other non-western countries may be glad to see Russia becoming more engaged in the SCO, BRICS, RIC, Silk Road project, Beijing-dominated development banks, etc.4 Yet, the Chinese and others will have fewer and fewer reasons to treat an economically weak and politically isolated Russia with the kind of respect and concern that Moscow will continue to expect. Instead, they may, as in the case of China’s gas deal with Russia spring 2014, take advantage of Russia’s diminishing alternative options and ties.

Given the lack of a common identity and coherent ideology among the SCO and BRICS group, these ad hoc alliances will not provide Russia with a long-term geopolitical home, or a sustainable alternative path of development. They cannot offer Moscow an equivalent to the previous course toward westernization. In view of the Russian economy’s current acute and general structural issues, an even less likely scenario is Russia becoming a geopolitical “Eurasian” centre of its own, as illustrated by the many problems of the Eurasian Economic Union that came into being in 2015. Therefore, the belief in the latter scenario is, even in Russia, limited to marginal and pseudo-experts such as the notorious Aleksandr Dugin, as well as similarly unserious Russian imperial nationalists.5

Unlike the latter, Lukyanov and others like him are aware of Russia’s structural weakness and lack of geopolitical clout – which is why they are pushing the idea of Moscow allying with Beijing. Yet, Germany-expert Lukyanov too is unrealistic when speculating about a multidimensional Sino-Russian partnership that could resemble and replace the one that a Germany-dominated EU has been trying to forge with Russia over the last twenty years. The idea that China would be interested in forming such a close, deep and sustainable alliance with Russia is indeed, as Lukyanov writes, a mere “fantasy”. The cultural-ideological drive behind European integration would, apart from economic and security interests, have secured a constant western concern for Russia – regardless of Russia’s strengths and weaknesses. Whereas many European intellectuals, politicians and even ordinary citizens have an emotionally driven interest or even sympathy for Russian culture and traditions, such sentimentality towards the eastern Slavic world is less widespread in Asia. In more general terms, Dmitry Trenin’s idea of a “Greater Asia” that could, for Russia, substitute “Greater Europe” lacks equivalence and is thus a distraction. While there is intense economic and political cooperation between various Asian states, there is no larger trans-Asian project for a “Greater Asia” and especially none that Russia would be able to join with a view to no longer being part of a “Greater Europe.”

Problem 3: Cultural distance and geopolitical conflicts of interest

Chinese economic engagement in Russia is growing. But would it ever be large enough to satisfy Russia’s elite and ordinary people, particularly in the face of increasing losses in investment from, and trade with, the West? Before the “Ukraine Crisis”, Russia was reliant on EU member states for about 75 per cent of foreign direct investment in the country and almost 50 per cent of its foreign trade. Thus, the West contributed significantly to Russia’s earlier economic successes – an input that, especially in Germany, was seen as furthering Russia’s modernization. Europe’s economic engagement with Russia will certainly continue. But the volume of western FDI, trade and other interaction has significantly shrunk in recent months, and will also continue to do so. Lukyanov and others hope that more intense economic relations with Asia will make up for related losses – whether this hope is ever realized remains an open question.

So unless there are tangibly positive effects on Russia’s economy, Russian public opinion may turn against Moscow strengthening its ties to Beijing. Should public scepticism or even resentment of Sino-Russian cooperation take root as a result, this could undermine the entire rationale behind Moscow’s turn to the East. An increasing Chinese presence in Russia may be welcomed by many, if the Russian economy starts to grow again. In which case, Chinese investments, Asian partnerships and Russia’s integration into the eastern world could be perceived as part of a successful anti-western redefinition of Russia. But what happens, if the Russian economy continues to decline while Asian conglomerates are taking over Russian assets, enterprises and markets, and growing Chinese immigrant communities establish themselves in Russia’s urban and regional life?

If these changes are not accompanied by a Russian socio-economic rebirth, the Kremlin’s turn to the East may become a flop. That would especially be the case if Sino-Russian economic relations develop in a “semi-colonial” manner, that is, if Chinese investment in Siberia and the Far East largely served to secure the extraction of raw materials and their delivery to China. In the worst case, Beijing’s engagement in Russia could merely mean exploiting Russia’s natural resources to further accelerate Chinese growth, without noticeable gains for Russia. If such a Sino-Russian alliance weakened Russia still further in relation to China, many Russians would question its usefulness.
In which case, even the vicious disinformation campaign that the Kremlin is now waging against Ukraine and the West may not be able to change the perception that Russia was, after all, better off during its earlier partnership with the EU. An ever closer Sino-Russian alliance and growing Chinese presence in Russia would be a hard sell while China’s might grows and Russia stagnates or even continues to decline. Increasing ties between Moscow and Beijing may, under such conditions, create anxiety rather than sympathy among many Russians. As long ago as 2001, the then deputy prime minister Aleksei Kudrin was already expressing his unease, warning that if Russia failed to become “a worthy economic partner” for Asia, then “China and the southeast Asian countries will steamroll Siberia and the Far East”.6

In more general terms, the cultural distance between Chinese and Russians could become an issue in the future, not least in view of wider trends in Russian society. Kremlin-guided mass media and spokespersons have, especially during recent years, actively fostered nationalistic, ethnocentric, chauvinistic, imperial and similar views among the Russian population. For instance, the Russian book market is full of pamphlets that explain world history in terms of the rise and fall of antagonistic civilizations, cultures and nations, whose stereotypical traits are presented as having almost biological qualities. Jingoist Kremlin propagandists posing as “journalists”, “professors” and “experts” frequently present international relations in dualistic, if not conspirational and Manichean terms. In Russian media, interactions between states and alliances are largely portrayed as more or less unfriendly zero-sum games in which one actor only wins insofar as another loses.7

Meanwhile, Kremlin-controlled mass media has simultaneously managed to improve China’s image among Russians, as reflected in growing sympathy towards Beijing in opinion polls.8 Yet, this positive popular trend emerged in a period of relative economic success and a low Chinese presence in Russia’s daily life. If both of these conditions concurrently change, the general rise in Russian racism may also turn against Chinese businesspeople, tourists, students, guest workers, immigrants, etc. in Russia – particularly if their numbers begin to grow. Though it infers no compliment whatsoever to the Russian nation, this is not far-fetched speculation. The aversion of many ordinary (and not only ordinary) Russians to Chechens, Tadzhiks, Azeris and other minorities in Russia’s cities is no secret. The already problematic relationship of many Russians to non-Slavic and especially Asian migrants does not bode well for people-to-people relations in times of deepening socio-economic crises.

Finally, as frequently mentioned in expert analyses, Russia and China are geopolitical competitors in Central Asia for obvious geographic reasons. In terms of economic engagement, a somewhat similar argument can be made for Siberia and Russia’s Far East. So far, the warnings about the risks of this rivalry have turned out to be self-defeating prophecies. All three sides – Russia, China and the Central Asian countries – have been at pains to avoid geopolitical conflict, and successfully diffused political and economic tensions. Yet it is noteworthy that China has, for instance, in its relations with Turkmenistan, already repeatedly countered Moscow’s interests and policies in the region as regards the energy sector. Until now, the Kremlin has shown remarkable restraint in its response to Beijing’s growing involvement in Central Asia, and to Chinese immigration in Siberia as well as the Far East. Thus, a form of condominium has developed that has so far secured a mutually acceptable modus vivendi.

While that is an encouraging trend, its political costs for the Kremlin could assume a dimension that is more difficult to handle. As a result of growing economic disparity, China’s pull in Central Asia will rapidly increase, even without any further developments in Beijing’s ambitions for the region. As Moscow will have fewer resources and arguments for making its influence felt in Central Asia, the post-Soviet republics’ turn away from Russia may become a strange corollary of the Kremlin’s turn to the East. Should China use its growing relative might in Central Asia more aggressively than the Kremlin can swallow, Moscow and Beijing may end up at loggerheads in their common neighbourhood, with dire consequences for Russia’s general foreign affairs.9 Moreover, there are further possible sticking points concerning Russian and Chinese interests in such countries as India, Vietnam and North Korea. In a worst-case scenario, disagreements over intense Chinese engagement in Siberia and the Far East could turn the world’s largest land-border into a line of conflict, rather than an economic zone of opportunity.10

In view of its economic calamities and growing unpopularity in the West, one may well wish Russia success in developing alternative foreign partnerships. Russia needs to find a way to prevent further political isolation and secure substantive direct investment. However, a close and sustainable association between Moscow and Beijing is problematic. For reasons outlined above, China may be too challenging an ally, especially for Russia. Neither in cultural, nor in economic, terms can China constitute an adequate substitute for the West as Russia’s prime partner. Instead, the risks stemming from conflicting interests and the geographical proximity of the two large countries outweigh the opportunities that such an alliance present.

  1. Fyodor Lukyanov, "Wenn Russen und Chinesen gemeinsam marschieren", Die Welt, 30 March 2015, www.welt.de/debatte/kommentare/article138880727/Wenn-Russen-und-Chinesen-gemeinsam-marschieren.html
  2. Dmitri Trenin, "From Greater Europe to Greater Asia? The Sino-Russian entente", Carnegie Moscow Center, 9 April 2015, carnegie.ru/publications/?fa=59728
  3. Statement of the Chinese Government on the security assurance to Ukraine issued on 4 December 1994, disarmament-library.un.org/UNODA/Library.nsf/939721e5b418c27085257631004e4fbf/4bd51a4bdd15e65285257687005bbc1f/$FILE/A-49-783_China-effectve%20intl%20arrangements.pdf
  4. Felix Hett and Moshe Wien (eds.), Between Principles and Pragmatism: Perspectives on the Ukraine Crisis from Brazil, India, China and South Africa, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung: Perspective, 2015
  5. Andreas Umland, "Das eurasische Reich Dugins und Putins: Ähnlichkeiten und Unterschiede", Kritiknetz: Zeitschrift für kritische Theorie der Gesellschaft, 26 June 2014, www.kritiknetz.de/images/stories/texte/Umland_Dugin_Putin.pdf
  6. As quoted in Stephen Blank, Russia's Failure in Asia, UNISCI Discussion Paper 24, 2010
  7. Andreas Umland, "Russia's spreading nationalist infection", German Marshall Fund Policy Brief, 2012, www.gmfus.org/publications/russia%E2%80%99s-spreading-nationalist-infection
  8. Lev Gudkov, "Rückfall in den Totalitarismus: Das System Putin instrumentalisiert Außenpolitik zum eigenen Erhalt", Internationale Politik 70, no. 1 (2015): 22-9
  9. Christian Wipperfürth, "Russland zwischen dem Westen und China", in: Michael Staack (ed.), Asiens Aufstieg in die Weltpolitik, Budrich, 2013, 139-60
  10. Marcin Kaczmarski, "The bear watches the dragon: The Russian debate on China", OSW Point of View 31, 2013

Published 22 June 2015

Original in English
First published in Eurozine

Contributed by Transit
© Andreas Umland / Eurozine

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