Sat. Sep 26th, 2020


Russia and the Conflict Between China and the United States

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For Russia, the question now is not how it will deal with China in the future, but how threatening Beijing’s confrontation with the United States is for its survival right now. If Russia assesses its neighbour’s confrontation with the United States as a systemic one, the task of breaking this Western adversary looks paramount for the survival of the country and its political system, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev. So paramount, that it will be necessary to think about how to arrange relations with China, should it theoretically win a new Cold War. This is to say little of the short-term consequences of such a choice. They are generally of little importance for the development of Russia.

The rivalry of great powers is a common phenomenon in international politics, which has determined its development over several millennia, as war is the main way to resolve interstate conflicts. It can be caused by the revolutionary behaviour of one of the most powerful states, or simply by the objective growth of its power, which causes fear among others. In this sense, the growth of China’s opportunities in the international arena provokes fear in, for example, Russia or Europe, no less than the indignation and desire to stop this growth on the part of the United States. In Thucydides’ formula, “the growth of the power of one increases the fear of the other” the names of specific states are not at all important — the rule is the same for everyone.

When we witness an American offensive against China, we must be aware that it is based on the same emotions that every member of the international community can feel. The difference is that for the United States, the strengthening of China poses a threat to the American way of life and its role in world politics since World War II. For Russia, Europe or India, the rise of China only provokes a natural desire to hedge against the consequences of uncertainty in the foreign policy of states. In modern conditions, a nation has two options: building up its own power capabilities, and/or including relations with China in a complex balance of power.

The growing confrontation between China and the United States is gradually pushing out all other issues from the international agenda, directly or indirectly subordinating them. It is not surprising, in this regard, that other states throughout the world are increasingly thinking about their role in the context of this conflict, and Russia cannot be an exception. So far, most of the US declarations and practical activity in this conflict look like manifestations of internal American confusion, or, at best, an active search for sources of strength to combat Chinese pressure. Even amid conditions where the United States itself has come very close to the brink of an internal civil conflict, most observers are still confident that the US will somehow succeed in defeating China in a new Cold War.

The colossal opportunity that the United States has created over the past 100 years is a fantastic example of “structural strength”, to use Susan Strange’s definition. These opportunities cover not only the military or economic fields, but also the information, ideological, cultural and many other areas. An important source of them is the current political system in the United States. It not only provides the administration with a flow of fresh blood, in which many other states are limited, but also promotes the aggressiveness which is, in principle, inherent in democratic states. China, in turn, has not yet shown a similar willingness to fight; a significant part of its elite is closely integrated with the West and its positions are still strong.

However, even the combination of these factors is not enough to argue decisively, albeit on a purely hypothetical level, that there is no possibility the People’s Republic will survive. And, moreover, to “win” in this confrontation, it will only need only the support of another great power. The question seems to be quite reasonable: how much should such a power be wary of partnership, in order to be successful in achieving its main goals, in the long term? For Russia, this question is no longer purely theoretical. From the moment the tensions between China and the United States became irreversible, the pressure on Russia from both has been considered, among other things, in the context of attempts to secure Russian support in the longer term. 45 years ago, the fact that China sided with the United States in the Cold War became one of the most important external factors in the defeat of the USSR. A partnership with China would alter the dynamic along Russia’s longest border; Moscow would not need to be so concerned about its security.

For more than 10 years, Russia has been actively developing cooperation with other Asian countries. They may be more restrained if Moscow becomes more active on the side of China. The partnership with Japan, for example, is hindered by the question of the Kuril Islands, whose affiliation to Russia is now indirectly enshrined in the Constitution. In the case of South Korea or the ASEAN countries, common wishes over the past 10 years have not led to serious joint projects or investments in the Far East. Assessing the scale of Japanese or Korean investments in Russia, it is difficult to say that even greater restraint on the part of these partners is possible. So, in the case of other Asian countries, Russia is still looking at castles in the sky. Despite all the calls and ideal conditions for doing business, 80 percent of total investments in the Far East are of domestic Russian origin, and of the remaining 20 percent, China accounts for half.

Therefore, in the discussion about Russia’s position in the Sino-American conflict, fears related to the reaction of other countries to deepening cooperation between Moscow and Beijing may not come to the fore. Much more important are the strategic goals of Russia itself and how much China can help achieve them. Let us make a caveat that, in the framework of this analysis, we take Russia’s ability to ensure its own freedom of foreign policy by force as an axiom. Because, if this is not the case, then there is not much to talk about.

In the 1970s, it was so important for the United States to defeat the USSR that it created a significant part of the Chinese economic miracle itself. The author of American policy at the time was Henry Kissinger, one of the best-known realists in international relations. This gives reason to believe that the alliance with Beijing against Moscow was not then viewed in the United States as a guarantee against the fact that in the future they would have to deal with China itself. However, the success in the Cold War was worth creating the “monster” of the Chinese economy, integrated into the liberal economic order, where the norms and customs were determined by the United States. There were those in America who believed that as a result of the policy of reform and openness, China would become part of the liberal order led by the United States. But, as the most serious experts can confirm, such hopes have never been dominant.

Therefore, for Russia the question now is not how it will deal with China sometime in the future, but how threatening its confrontation with the United States is now? If Russia assesses Beijing’s conflict with the United States as a systemic one, the task of breaking this Western adversary looks paramount for the survival of the country and its political system. So paramount, that it will be necessary to think about how to arrange relations with China, should it theoretically win a new Cold War. This is to say little of the short-term consequences of such a choice. They are generally of little importance for the development of Russia.

It is important that Beijing is not the leader of any sufficiently powerful group of states and it is unlikely to become such even if it achieves convincing success in its relations with Washington. For this, China does not have the main thing it would need — a socio-economic model and development ideology that could claim universality. For the United States, the use of globalisation in order to satisfy its selfish interests became possible precisely because it initially represented a revolutionary ideology and was ready to see it “dissolved” in the world around it. China continues to maintain a conservative idea of sovereignty, which is based on its own national interests.

Even if relations between the United States and its allies are not very good now, with the most important of them — the Europeans — America is united by a political structure and basic foreign policy interests. China cannot yet boast of such allies “in blood and spirit” and there is no reason to believe that they will appear. But more importantly, since China is not part or the leader of a bloc, it will not act on the basis of collective interest. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has constantly encountered this interest in the West and had many opportunities to make sure that this interest is able to completely subjugate the individual mind and morals of individual members of the community. In this respect, China is clearly preferable to Europe as a partner, because the European countries will always place their collective interest above the need to think about Russia.

The question of how far support for China should go in these difficult times is not idle or momentary. The answer to it can determine whether its independence in international politics will be determined by its own forces, or will increasingly depend on external factors and the balance of power, taking into account the many opinions — Europe, the United States, or various Asian countries. Strengthening China and weakening the United States as much as possible will leave much more room for Russia’s security to depend only on itself.

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