Russia and China, friends with caution

The learning experience of a group of students returning from a study mission in Moscow as part of the Eastwest European Institute’s “World in Progress” program

During the third week of September we had the privilege to travel to Russia, specifically to its capital Moscow as part of the Eastwest European Institute’s “World in Progress” program. One of the trip’s goals was to show us the Russian view on the world, exploring different aspects of Russian foreign policy, how it is strategized and how Moscow is dealing with currently developing global challenges.

In order to better understand these topics, we were given the opportunity to attend meetings with different high-profile representatives of the Russian government, economy and education, as well as members of European business and political institutions operating in the Russian Federation.

One of the most fascinating topics we encountered in our meetings and wanted to focus more on in this article, was the relationship between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China. In particular we sought to shed light on the question: to what extent does Russia consider China a possible future geopolitical and military threat?

In this paper, we briefly outline the relevant global historical context in relation to global geopolitics. Then shed light on the more recent state of affairs of Russian foreign policy in relation to China and finally analyze their current state and potential future development.

Historical context

The reality of changes in geopolitical dynamics in Asia and indeed the world regarding the PRC’s influence, result from the rapid growth of the Chinese economy and subsequently of its military capabilities. This emergent China has quite quickly changed the reality of international politics, especially regarding geopolitical competition conflict lines.

This new reality was made clear and elaborated upon by the Higher School of Economics professors and geopolitics experts Dmitry Suslov and Sergei Karaganov. The Russian position and in particular the relations with China were also discussed further with other experts of foreign policy at the RIAC (Russian International Affairs Council), among them Director Andrey Kortunov and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Igor Ivanov.

In order to fully grasp Russia’s current foreign policy, let us first briefly recap the relevant history of global international relations over the past thirty years.

During the Cold War the world was practically bipolar geopolitically: the two main diametrically opposed powers and their spheres of influence were the United States of America (USA), and the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early nineties and the beginning of the new millennium, the world’s geopolitical state transformed into what essentially became a US-led hegemony. This essentially relegated the newly formed Russian Federation, or Russia, to a second-tier power on the world’s political, economic and to a lesser extent, military stage. The world then essentially became a US-centric hegemony.

As stated by both Russian and Western foreign policy experts, this US-centric, post-Cold War world reached its zenith after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the plans for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 had been rolled out and decided upon. NATO and the US’ allies waged war against Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the regime of Saddam Hussein, while the Russian Federation expressed its objections, partly due to the perceived feeling of need of urgent military intervention from the US, and partly because of its past, fruitless and bloody experience in Afghanistan which ended in 1989.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was able to not only keep, but expand its sphere of influence. The Russian Federation in contrast lost a great deal of the influence it once had as the Soviet Union, essentially making Russia a regional player in the Caucasus and Central Asian regions (with the exception of Afghanistan for the aforementioned reason). The US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to some Russian observers, marked the end of the US-led unipolar world order in favor of a new multi-polar one. While if this is true will remain to be seen, one thing that is clear, is that the withdrawal opens the door for new influence in Afghanistan by both the Russian Federation and/or China.

This new multipolarity in global politics would essentially mean a world in which there is not a single superpower which leads or dictates in geopolitics, but multiple individual, more or less regional powers, that all engage in continuous bargaining with each other over topics of mutual interest. The People’s Republic of China and especially the Russian Federation are among the countries that would surely benefit most from such new multipolar dynamics.

China has developed rapidly in the last decades becoming one of the largest economies in the world. It has a steadily increasing technological level, strong economic relations, especially regarding international trade flows, and rapidly developing military capabilities.

The rise of Beijing as a new center of power in Asia doesn’t particularly concern Moscow: Sino-Russian relations have resulted in close cooperation on a variety of interests throughout the last decade. The two countries have joined forces in managing regional conflicts, creating new economic zones, especially in Central Asia. Furthermore both countries see themselves as a legitimate counterbalance vis-a-vis the US and other western countries’ influence.

Regarding Central Asia, both China and Russia have been members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) since it was founded as the “Shanghai Five” in 1996. The SCO aims to establish and strengthen security collaboration in Asia. The joint military exercises organized through the SCO allow Russia to showcase its military power and prowess within the organization and beyond.

These military joint exercises combined with Russia’s participation in China’s New Silk Road Initiative, which is building a great deal of infrastructure throughout the region indicate the strong presence and participation of the Russian Federation within the SCO and by extension in Central Asia and the Caucasus. It is precisely there that Russia and China want to counteract the EU’s out-stretched hand, currently “reaching” for more bilateral and multilateral agreements to its east. Russia and China presenting themselves as the “ideal partner” of 2020, similar to how the EU presented itself to Eastern European countries in the 1990s. While China is gaining influence throughout the Region (and indeed the world) through its sizeable investments, such as through the aforementioned Silk Road Initiative, the Russian Federation, which does not have the same economic means, aims to gain influence through a soft power approach - often even acting as a mediator for Chinese investment.

The Russian Federation aims to present itself as a key partner for countries gaining influence through diplomatic and military cooperation, gaining favor through spreading the prevalence of Russian culture, education and science, while “safeguarding state sovereignty and independence” regarding its partner’s domestic issues, so the Russians. The last point is meant as an alternative to western nations, which the Russians accuse of wanting to “dictate” to other countries and people how to live and govern. Recent military escapades, such as in Syria have also signalled to Russia’s allies that it is willing to commit its sizable military apparatus to alliances and mutual interests.

Russia’s current foreign policy strategy is expanding to a global dimension, attempting to affirm itself as a key independent great power again. Its central traits are an independent foreign policy, strong military and defence capabilities and cooperation, and leveraging Russia’s status as a nuclear power.

Regarding military power the Russian Federation’s army is generally considered the second best in the world, composed of over 1 million active soldiers, the world’s largest stock of nuclear warheads and a yearly budget of roughly 6.1 billion USD (2020-2021). According to Russian sources, Russia’s high defense expenditure and large army are its response to NATO, specifically its last enlargement towards the east, which the Russian Federation perceives as a threat. It is also because of this, according to Russian sources, that the Russian Federation deems it necessary to showcase its military might to the West on different occasions. Notable examples of this have been through large military exercises near the border with Ukraine or in joint exercises with Central Asian countries (such as most recently during and directly after the US troops were withdrawing from Kabul).

Russian military capabilities don’t only focus on overpowering potential foes with sheer numbers, such as is the common perception, but also on the development and implementation of new weapon systems. One example of this is their cutting-edge array of highly advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven weapons. This new AI technology is being used for a variety of applications, such as next-generation drones (UAVs) or air defence systems, such as the S-400 Triumph. The latter can use and maneuver short to medium-range missiles to intercept aircraft, via a new remotely piloted and semi-automatic unmanned combat ground vehicle, the Uran-9. Moscow’s race to create cutting-edge weapons systems, shows the willingness and ability of the Russian Federation to challenge the world’s “first-tier” geopolitical powers in certain domains, attempting to achieve more influence and successfully “punch above its weight”.

This arms race is primarily directed (according to the Russians as a response) towards western nations, such as the United States, and not towards the PRC, which Russia currently does not consider a military threat. Russia views China as more of a big relatively “friendly” neighbor and potentially close partner to collaborate with in order to solve conflicts and develop new relations.

Russia’s technological developments in the realm of smart weapons as well as other fields of military research, could for example be a way for Russia to establish itself as a reliable supply partner of new weapons systems for the Chinese army.

Russia wants to ensure itself as the predominant influence and an indispensable power in the decision-making in the regions where its interests are present, such as in e.g. Central Asia and in Africa. It is in those aforementioned regions specifically, that Russian interests coincide with a closer collaboration with China.

Two different approaches to international influence

One example of the collaboration between the Russian Federation and China, is how they aim to gain influence internationally: In Africa, for example, China focuses on economic development in order to prevent security threats and armed conflicts. Military security is therefore seen by China as a tool to enable peace, while they call developing the local economy by injecting investment: “developmental peace”. China’s strategy differs from France's for example in its level of involvement: China doesn’t only rely on military intervention, but heavily supports such interventions with major development projects in the specific areas where Chinese peacekeeping troops are deployed. This, according to some, helps China to build trust with local decision-makers differently than western countries tend to be able to do.

The Russian approach on the other hand is more vague. The Russian agenda for Africa has been relatively frozen since the fall of the USSR. However now Russia is aiming to rebuild on the very agenda it had while it was still the USSR (minus the spread of communist ideology of course).

The agenda there is based on the “common history” between the former USSR and many African countries: it claims to support African countries in “freeing themselves from colonization and dependency from foreign states”. This goal puts Russia more in a type of mediation and nexus position through which it claims to want to enable the “independence” of the countries it cooperates with and lets them grow “on their own without interfering”. This is in contrast to the Chinese approach, which is more domestically invasive (or at least investive). According to Russian sources, Russia strives to coordinate mutual cooperation and the development of agreements between African states, setting itself in a more distant and observational position of the events happening on African soil.

The Russian Federation’s Africa strategy, if to be believed as a true guideline, moreover illustrates the soft-power strategy that Russia claims to adopt when establishing relations with other countries. The image that Russian sources project in summary is of Russia as a a key security provider and defender of state sovereignty, empowering individual states with more independence, while at the same time promoting Russian culture and science in states that cooperate with it through mutual programmes and projects.

Increasing instabilities in Africa could give Russia more opportunities, transforming its current distant, diplomatic approach into a more tactical, directly invested one. Approaches such as were the case in Libya, where Russia mostly used relations and economic leverage in the region to its benefit, or even something like their Syria approach, consisting of a direct military intervention, could potentially be possible. The latter aforementioned approach essentially (and rather effectively) counter-acted the military and financial interventions of western countries in the country.

Although the USSR in the past, could and would act more expeditiously, attempting to counteract the US and its allies in the region, it does not have the same capabilities now that it did back then. However, considering the different level of investment of Russia and China in the region and Moscow’s superior expeditionary military capabilities, the Syrian approach to solve smaller, local conflicts is something that could probably be conceivable to Russia in key areas of Africa as well, if not also even in cooperation with the PRC to defend some of their mutual interests. However, it is also tenable that colliding interests or the difference in approaches themselves if a crisis were to occur in Africa or Central Asia could result in conflict of interest, competition and a souring of Russia-China relations.

Despite their proximity and therefore possible territorial disputes (of which there are ample historical examples), China and Russia are currently enjoying good economic and military relations due to their interests being aligned in what both governments consider key regions for both nations.

China’s “New Silk Road” has been supported by Russia, which sees an increase in its prestige and influence through brokering/supporting/participating in the building of infrastructure. However, while Sino-Russian relations seem to be “rosy” at the moment, this could very well change.

Practically all of the Russian experts and government representatives we had the privilege to speak with spoke of their goal of an “independent foreign policy” for the Russian Federation. This would necessarily mean that Russia would have to successfully remain independent from Chinese influence as well, which regarding the current icy relationship with the West may serve to be a challenge. Furthermore, some even clearly stated that they are weary of the potential influence of the PRC in Russia through increasing technological, economic and political dependency. Nonetheless, nobody we spoke with could conceive of the PRC being a military threat to the Russian Federation (or at least for the foreseeable future).

A Future Balancing Act?

The United States and China going “head to head” may also result in the Russian Federation becoming more relevant to both sides for potential partnerships, increasing its geopolitical value and options. Nonetheless, if the Russian Federation would want to remain “independent” from China and the West, it will most definitely have to carefully balance its policies towards both. The current Russian-Chinese geopolitical symbiosis could very well become a one-sided dependency, which consequently would result in the Russian Federation becoming swallowed up by new spheres of global influence. Russia would end up losing the geopolitical “independence” the government so desires to maintain. Only time will tell if the current sinophile foreign policy, the potential of a multipolar world and future east-west balancing act will allow Russia to remain so.

Go to the Eastwest European Institute's website.

Alex Pombo, Basel (Switzerland) is currently enrolled in the master's degree program in Political Science at the University of Geneva (Switzerland).

Matteo Bertani, Canegrate (Italy), master’s degree in Management (major CRM, marketing and sales) at the International School of Management in Hamburg (Germany).

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