Over the last few months we’ve heard several voices accusing Russia-China duo of possible Anti-Western sentiment. In fact this non-ideological and non-invasive relationship of the two close neighbours faces complexities of its own. Above all, this union has to try its best to refrain from appearing as an antagonist of western powers, EU in particular, and to show that it has a potential for making contribution to the Eurasia’s stability from the eastern side while promoting a necessary multipolarism.
Duo seen as a threat
Several opinion leaders as well as significant segments of the international civil society, including WikiLeaks, see the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) as a highly secretive agreement and a comprehensive geopolitical strategy aimed at not only restructuring the international economy in a radical way, but also at curtailingboth the economic and political dimension of BRICS, whose natural leaders are Beijing and Moscow.
Seeing China and Russia as enemies of geostrategic Western interests is a Manichean kind of view. In fact there is a lot of room for synergy between the West and the East that sometimes brings remarkable results. Consider, for instance, combined negotiating efforts to settle the Iran crisis, the cyclical appeasement of North Korea by delicatemeans, as well as the scale of trading and investment opportunities for China’s vis-à-vis Western countries.
It is true that China and Russia are more powerful and more influential now than at any given moment in the pastsince the end of the Cold War. They have managed to position themselves as common denominators of the key East-West and North-South organizations in an incremental way, starting with their traditional adherence to the UN Security Council, followed most recently by their membership in the G-20, but most importantly with the creation and enlargement of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB), and by their recent decision to tie the development of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union with the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt component of the “One Belt and One Road” (OBOR) policy.
In response, traditional XX century Western-centric geostrategic designs seem to be reappearing in a new guise. What we are witnessing are the direct and indirect confrontational actions from Washington and some related allies towards Moscow and Beijing, the latest of which is encouraging fissures between them. It looks like a reanimation of the obsolete Mackinder’s early-XX century geopolitics whose classic dictum is worth remembering: "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the World."
Levels of cooperation
With strong and popular governments at home, Moscow and Beijing are bound to mutually support their systems from internal and external threats such as “colour revolutions” in Russia or separatist movements in China.
Nevertheless, it is clear that one of the major prerequisites for a real multipolar world is the deterrence capabilities of the players. Both Moscow and Beijing as the champions of multipolarism are aware of Washington’s extraordinarydefence budget. By acting together Russian-Chinese forces can pose a credible barrier in limited but highly strategic scenarios, including NATO’s Mare Nostrum.
At the moment, Beijing can do little to support Russia in tension over Ukraine. Equally, Moscow can not do much too support China in the South China Sea claims. But that might change soon as Beijing would like to strengthen coordination with Moscow in the Asia Pacific, a region where they are neighbours. “Joint-Sea 2015 II” in the Peter the Great Gulf, in Russia’s Primorsky Region, from August 20 to 28, the second phase of the annual China-Russia naval exercises (the Mediterranean representing the first phase), is showing that this naval collaboration initiated in 2012 now has potential to project from North-East Asia to the South China Sea and slightly beyond in the very Pacific too.
Another big and promising achievement in the field of multipolarism is the Chinese and Russian recent decision to connect Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union with Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt (part of “OBOR”).
China as an active global player with OBOR and Asia Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) on its hands needs a deeper understanding of Eurasia. Without a question, Beijing can benefit from the expertise Russia can offer with its projects in Central Asia and Caucasus in exchange for better economic conditions for Russian and Eurasian Economic Union’s interests in China. One of the points in this cooperation could be the Azerbaijan-Chinese railroad project.
Another potential collaboration exists in joint strategies based on respective expertise in hydropower and water management. In this field, by engaging in Central Asia hydropower projects of macro-regional significance, an additional possibility to collaborate with Pakistan and India (newly accepted members of the SCO) might open.
Tangible challenges for several parties
Of course, Russia-China ties have tasks ahead. First, if the West continues challenging Moscow in both strategic and cultural way, Russia’s reliance on China will grow. To what degree? Impossible to say, but in any case Russia will keep in mind how important it is to maintain its role as a bridge between the East and the West in Eurasia.
On the other hand, it springs to mind that in 2007 Moscow revised its arms transfer programs with China probably due to Moscow’s long-term strategic assessments that take into account possible future imbalances between both countries.
The EU should consider that China and Russia plus the post-Soviet states are bound to deepen their level of integration. This fact requires changes of the EU strategy for Central Asia and a general reassessment of the instruments Brussels and Washington employ in Asia.
Joined effort of China-led OBOR and Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union to resolve old disagreements by engulfing different countries with various interests into a large common prosperity zone is the best way to move forward on the Eurasian chessboard.
And once again, it is important to keep in mind that Beijing, while having political and trading disagreements with various Western countries, does not see itself as an antagonist to the West.