“Hasn’t US belligerence toward Russia – particularly on the Ukrainian situation – given rise to closer Sino-Russian cooperation to counter the US?,” Harry Colin asked in response to my latest article. My answer is a heavily qualified “yes.” Russia and China have upgraded their strategic partnership over the past year and a half, but they are very far from forging a strategic alliance deliberately aimed at countering Washington’s global-hegemonistic designs.
On the basis of my six visits to Moscow in 2014-15, I can aver that some influential Russians’ expectations of their recent pivot to Asia far exceed China’s readiness – at this stage, anyway – to confront the hegemonistic power in a coordinated, grand-strategic manner. To put it simply, Moscow’s prevailing image of China as a natural ally – on the account of Russia’s willingness and ability to confront what it perceives as a drastic geopolitical encroachment on its vulnerable southeastern flank – does not necessarily fit in with China’s own calculus and long-term strategy. There is a deep imbalance in the two countries’ perceptions of each others’ commitment to a joint geopolitical project, and there is an even greater discrepancy in their economic and hence political interests.
At under $100bn two-way total last year, Russia was China’s tenth trade partner (well below the United States, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, even Malaysia), accounting for a mere two percent of China’s foreign trade turnover. By contrast, China is Russia’s top trading partner – and Russia exports almost nothing other than oil, gas and timber to the People’s Republic. Their long-term energy partnership, embodied in the 30-year gas agreement signed during Vladimir Putin’s visit to Beijing in May 2014, will represent only a fraction of China’s foreign trade on annual basis. Even if the bilateral total is increased to $200bn by 2020, as envisaged in the trade agreement signed in Moscow last October, that will still be barely equal to the value of the value of China’s trade with its estranged province of Taiwan (population 23 million) in 2014. Currently China exports to Russia 66 times more machinery, equipment and processed goods than she imports from Russia. The list goes on… The relative power of Russia and China have been spectacularly reversed over the past quarter-century.
Metahistorically speaking, Russia was far more deeply wounded by the communist tragedy than China. Russia has lost the ability to think and plan grand-strategically, as evidenced by her largely reactive posture over Ukraine and by her utter failure to project anything resembling soft power abroad. China, by contrast, is as much the Middle Kingdom now as she has been for two and a half millennia, coldly contemptuous of the Wilsonian notions of a converging world. Russia responds, often clumsily, to immediate threats, real and perceived, while China plans for the long term, methodically and single-mindedly.
There is no natural affinity between their civilizations and their peoples. China does not forget the fact that Russia was a full-fledged participant in her 19th century humiliation by the Western powers. In the 19th century Russia annexed her Far Eastern region (the Amur basin, Vladivostok to Khabarovsk), and dominated Manchuria until the disastrous war with Japan in 1904-5. The ideological schism of the early 1960’s was but a veneer for deeper historical grievances.
China’s current muscle-flexing in the South China Sea is a carefully calculated ploy to achieve geopolitical advantage at little or no cost, especially in terms of a determined American response, above all regarding commerce. Beijing expects business to continue as usual, and Beijing is right. Lenin’s dictum (“the capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”) comes to mind.
Of course the Chinese leadership does expect a major confrontation with the U.S. in the fulness of time, but they are far from ready for it now. Overall, China has it made in terms of global trade flows and financial solidity, and she is harnessing her resources for the great showdown some time later this century. Russia’s needs in this respect are immediate, but Beijing thinks it is far too early in the day to up the ante. My considered verdict is that China will stay aloof to Russia’s optimistic rhetoric, while paying polite lip-service to the two powers’ decade-long strategic partnership. When it comes to America’s global interests, of course in the long term China is far more perilous to the putative pax Americana than Russia has ever been.