Why Russia and China may Make Serious Moves in their Near Abroads in 2019-2020 – and why they may no
Courtesy of Bing
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The Russian-Chinese “Entente”
We humans are not very good at anticipating the future, but we understandably try. I think that there is a better than even chance that Russia and /or China will make serious strategic moves with international repercussions in their near-abroads in the next year or so. Yet, they also may not. In this blog, I put forward arguments for both eventualities. But first the background.
China and Russia started off 2019 by renewing their challenges to the Western world and the democratic order, an increasingly risk-free proposition in the time of Trump.
China’s challenge was that, if necessary, it would use force to prevent Taiwan from declaring its independence from the communist mainland. Unlike dictatorial mainland China, Taiwan is a robust democracy. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese do not want to become part of mainland China. Never mind that Taiwan has never been under mainland China’s control. But Beijing considers itself to be the power that decides what is good for Chinese whatever their history or geography or political preferences. This is akin to Washington deciding that Canada needs to be part of the US because of the two countries’ proximity and majority use of a common language.
Russia, for its part, has continued its efforts to put pressure on former Soviet states that Moscow considers its political property. The most recent focus is Belarus with Moscow threatening to jack up the prices of the oil that it sends its way unless Minsk is more amenable to Russian efforts to draw it further into its fold. Moscow wants to make Belarus fully a part of its Federation as in good old Soviet times. At the same time, Putin’s machinations against Ukraine continue and are set to go into higher gear in 2019, a multiple election year in Ukraine. This is just a short-list.
In parallel, China and Russia have been boasting about new weapons systems that they assert can defeat those of their American rival. Just how much of this is bravura, and how much bluff, is anyone’s guess. My sense is that this more about teenagers flexing muscles on the beach than an actual intention to get rough and tumble. But muscle-flexing can easily spin out of control.
(Note that the basic calculus of nuclear deterrence is that, however much firepower you direct at your enemy, she will still be able to respond if not in kind, then sufficiently seriously to lay the attacker to waste. So nuclear first strikes are not a great idea even if the idea can scare the hell out of a lot of people, myself included-)
Since 2012, when Russian President Putin returned to the Russian Presidency with a view to becoming the longest serving leader of his country since Stalin, and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping began his rise to become the most all-powerful-Chinese leader since Mao, the two countries have reinvigorated their bilateral cooperation. Russia has been providing China with energy, agricultural products and arms. China has been providing Russia with much needed investment in the wake of the Western sanctions against Russia imposed after its incorporations of Crimea and its hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine. The two countries have held joint exercises in the Mediterranean, the Baltic and the South China Sea. (For more on this, see my earlier Reflections on the Sino-Russian Relationship.)
All that said, Russia and China continue to have an uneasy relationship. The two countries are potential rivals in Central Asia. They do not see eye to eye on a number of geopolitical issues. For example, the PRC has never full-throatedly supported Russia’s incorporation of Crimea.
More fundamentally, the two countries’ political systems run on different political logics: Russia is an extreme case of a post-communist system taking on fascist characteristics. China is an extreme case of a still communist country trying to keep itself afloat by using the market but only up to a carefully controlled extent.
Yet, like Nazi Germany and the Communist USSR at the end of the 1930s, there is space for collaboration. Two years after the Soviet-German strategic alliance was put together, the two countries were at loggerheads. Still, without their limited alliance, World War II might never have been fought. This conflict changed the world and killed millions.
Whatever their divergencies, Russia and China are currently joined at the hip in an effort to upend the US-led international order that has prevailed since 1945. In particular, they have a common interest in changing the geopolitical circumstances of their respective near abroads.
They could agree to do this in unison, confronting the currently weakened and distracted West with a coordinated fait accompli in their respective regions. Or, the two sides could work in an uncoordinated fashion for a situation in which their entente partner becomes embroiled in a showdown with the United States in its near abroad, and in the process creates greater room for maneuver in its own.
To take a simple example, tensions have been rising in the East Chinese Sea as American warships have been showing the flag in response to recent moves by Beijing to claim these waters as its sovereign space. Moscow’s actions in the Sea of Azov against Ukrainian vessels maneuvering in areas where by virtue of a 2003 agreement that they had every right to do is a way for Russia to say to China “go for it” and then hope that resulting tensions in the East China Seas would provide more room for maneuver for Russia in its geopolitical space.
In the second part of this piece, I discuss the reasons why or why not we might expect Russian and China to make serious strategic moves with international repercussions in their near-abroads in the next year or so.
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