Vitaly Vorobyov is a senior research fellow at the Center for East Asia and SCO Studies at the Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He is also Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary.
Resume: It seems Washington wants to provoke China into muscle-flexing. If Beijing shows restraint and cold calculation in response, this may have a restrictive, if not sobering, effect on Washington. Russia is interested in preventing the South China Sea from becoming a proving ground for testing the strength of one’s nerves.
Cooperation and interaction between Russia and China, based on equitable and constructive partnership, over the past twenty years have become truly strategic and all-embracing, both rhetorically and practically. The formula “forever friends, never enemies” succinctly but vividly conveys the general political vision of what Russian-Chinese relations should be like now and in the future, and contains a kind of genotype of these relations.
The Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, which turns 15 years old in 2016, outlines the basic features of the partnership between Russia and China. The main advantage of the treaty is that it promotes continuous onward movement, deeper mutual understanding and confidence, and closer ties in concrete areas. Not only is this important for the development of good-neighborly relations, but this is required by the turbulent international situation. It becomes increasingly clear that strong and durable Russian-Chinese relations serve as a stabilizing factor of global significance.
Partnership is not a rigid construct, but a dynamic and extensive system of ties and contacts between sovereign states, which have their own internal specifics and independent approaches to international problems. The meaning of partnership is in matching each other’s interests, finding common ground, and acting together or coordinating their actions for the sake of mutual benefit.
The partnership model is becoming more and more attractive and widespread in international relations. It was used 15 years ago to create the Shanghai Cooperation Organization on the initiative of Russia and China.
Unlike a military-political alliance, a partnership is not directed against anyone; it is not geared towards confrontation or containment; it does not imply ideological unity and complete concurrence of views; and it does not enjoin mandatory internal discipline.
Some “enthusiasts” in Russia and China simplify the current international political and economic situation in an old-fashioned manner and view the aforementioned features of partnership as its weaknesses. They urge the two countries to get rid of them and build an alliance instead, even though it has already been proved that an alliance cannot serve as a solid foundation for lasting relationships between two countries.
In reality, the partnership model allows countries to closely integrate their interests and approaches in many aspects of cooperation. Bilateral relations can be developed further in the foreseeable future not by revising the partnership model, which has proven to be successful for twenty years, but by continuously strengthening and improving it.
Specifically, the two countries could more actively use such terms as “interconnection” and “integration” (“dui jie” in Chinese) to adequately describe the attained level of partnership and prospects for its facilitation.
At the political level, it is important to continue sending reciprocal signals to each other in order to dispel remaining mutual prejudices which were implanted in the two countries’ public consciousness during the so-called ideological polemics and interstate confrontation in the 1960s-early 1980s.
Neither country is confident that their mutual border issues have been settled completely and finally. Russia and China have their own, often conflicting, views on the history of their mutual border. More publicity should be given to Deng Xiaoping’s statements made in May 1989 when he called for “putting the past behind” and “forgetting about settling old scores” between the two countries. Furthermore, it would be reasonable to emphasize that the Russian-Chinese border was drawn “once and for all,” and that it is not a dividing line but a belt connecting the two great neighbors.
The 2015 celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the victory in World War II showed the vast resources the two countries have to strengthen their friendship and good-neighborliness on the basis of shared historical experiences. It would be useful to jointly prepare a calendar of joint anniversaries for several years ahead. This work could involve friendship societies, major bilateral public organizations, and inter-party ties.
Special attention should be given to maintaining positive attitudes and a mutually supportive atmosphere in bilateral trade and economic cooperation. This sphere is very sensitive to changes in the international situation and difficulties in the two countries’ economies. Many traditional business contacts have been suspended or even severed. The implementation of major investment projects has slowed down, often due to international payment restrictions. The two countries should refrain from mutual criticism and address each problem in a businesslike manner, not chasing the fast buck (those times seem to have gone for good) but looking for mutually advantageous options and new areas for cooperation (for example, agriculture and food).
In view of the emerging differences in how the two countries intend to overcome economic difficulties, it may be worthwhile to analyze the prevailing points of view in a more professional and detailed way. In particular, Russia and China could hold consultations on the integration of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt project (which actually means mutual adjustment of the EEU and China).
The United States as an Omnipresent Outsider
The two countries should continue improving the coordination of their positions and actions on strategic international issues. Current exchanges of views could be complemented with a comparison of projections in order to coordinate preventive actions in the medium and long term.
Constant attention should be given to productive interaction and cooperation in international affairs, especially on various aspects of U.S. policies.
No matter what party is in power in America since WWII, the White House consistently keeps to one strategy—upholding the country’s leading “superpower” position in the world. The style changes, depending on the president’s personality and the domestic situation, but the essence remains the same, and it will hardly change after the new president is elected in the fall of 2016. But the tone may become tougher, especially in the initial period.
The U.S., which projects its interests globally, does not view itself as an “outsider” or “extra-regional” player anywhere in the world. According to the American logic, the policy of containing Russia and China is not something special; rather, it is a natural part of the U.S. aggressive policy aimed at protecting the country’s sole domination in the world.
This arrogance stems from the deep belief that the U.S. political system is exemplary and right and that U.S. economic life is well and effectively organized. Also, it rests on a well-equipped army. These factors will keep feeding the U.S. hegemonic ambitions for long yet.
Washington’s opposition to attempts to reform the existing world order reveals the same deep desire to continue to occupy the super-dominant position. This explains its skeptical attitude to the “multipolar world” theory. It is interpreted not as a growing objective tendency but as an encroachment on the United States’ unique status in the world. Another factor playing into Washington’s hands is that propagandists often present the concept of “multipolarity” in a way close to the American interpretation. Meanwhile, some of its basic categories remain obscure, for example, what should be considered a “pole.”
Central Asia’s Role in Russia-China Relations
Everything indicates that the strategic importance of Central Asia will keep growing, while the situation there will become more and more complicated. Elements of instability will increase in the region as some authoritative leaders leave the political stage for natural reasons. The financial and economic crisis has a strong negative impact on the development of Central Asian countries. The spread of Islamic fundamentalism under the influence of Islamic State leads to the radicalization of sentiments. Knotty problems involving interstate delimitation, inherited by countries in the region from the past, and diminishing water resources slow down efforts to overcome regional disunity.
Multi-vector foreign policies pursued by Central Asian countries, with a bias towards Russia and/or China, allow the West to establish its economic and political presence in the region. The United States becomes increasingly pushy, and, given dim prospects for peace in Afghanistan, is willing not only to breathe new life into former projects aimed at drawing Central Asian countries into the orbit of its interests but also to create new mechanisms. One of them, the C5+1 (U.S. and five Central Asian states), set up in Tashkent in 2015 with a broad agenda, immediately began to gather steam.
Russia and China are equally interested in having a stable Central Asia, preventing outbreaks of tensions from escalating to high-profile and acute conflicts, solving problems through negotiations, and seeing the interests of consolidation, good-neighborliness and friendly relations prevail in the region.
The harmonization of Russia’s and China’s views, which at the turn of the century became the main motive for the creation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, should remain its backbone, no matter how many new members it may have (their number cannot be infinite, after all). It is important that the admission of new members not blur the focus of the SCO’s priority attention and not shift it away from Central Asia. The Central Asian members, which founded the organization, should not feel marginalized in it and find themselves pushed to the sidelines of “big players’” interests. The SCO’s enlargement should not create dividing lines within the organization or devaluate the culture of dialogue among its members, created by the “Shanghai spirit.”
East Asia is the focal point of U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategic decision, made eight years ago, on a “pivot towards the Asia-Pacific region.” The next U.S. administration will hardly backpedal on this policy, even slightly. The main goal of Washington’s policy in Asia, as anywhere else, is to retain the U.S.’s “superpower” preponderance. The obvious priority is to check the growth of China’s power and influence, and substantive rapprochement between China and Russia.
In the north-eastern part of East Asia, Pyongyang’s actions and statements play up to U.S. plans. North Korea’s demonstration of its “inflexibility,” regardless of the cost, looks like speculative bait intended to keep the country and its leader in the international limelight. Pyongyang has succeeded in doing this for many years. Apparently, it is increasingly less interested in a real and comprehensive settlement of the Korean issue. The North Koreans would like to take control of the six-party talks on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and reduce them to a North Korea-U.S. dialogue. Yet, it would be wrong to say that this delicate negotiating tool is useless.
It is doubtful that North Korea can independently create and maintain smoothly working technology-intensive facilities for the mass production of nuclear warheads, missiles, and guidance and control systems. Yet it may be capable of laboratory or test assembly of individual elements or whole units and their demonstrative one-off testing. One can feel a flavor of continuous political gambling by Pyongyang here. Of course, this kind of gambling is very risky, and it should be blocked in the most decisive manner.
Pyongyang apparently presumes that no one is planning to use force against it—not for fear of retaliation but because no one needs this for political or economic reasons. The United States does not mind such “surprises” from Pyongyang, because they provide ever new pretexts for Washington to build up its military capabilities close to Russia and China, and thus improve the monitoring of their missile launches and, if necessary, destroy enemy missiles in the boost phase of flight. On top of it all, the U.S. gets additional opportunities to have a stronger voice in Northeast Asian affairs.
North Korea will hardly attack South Korea. It must be aware of possible disastrous consequences for the existence of its political regime. Russia and China apparently should proceed from the assumption that the present status quo between the two Koreas will remain for an indefinitely long time and that Pyongyang will continue to be an irritant in this part of Asia.
The current Japanese government is unambiguously committed to shaking off the legacy and burden of a country that lost World War II in order to present its country as a “victim of the victors.” At the same time, Tokyo would like to regain the status of America’s main dialogue partner in the Pacific and neutralize the shift in Washington’s priorities towards Beijing.
This policy is no obstacle to the United States, as it does not lead to the loss or weakening of allied control over Japan. At the same time, it gives Washington more room for maneuver in strengthening its position in East Asia and building relations with regional countries according to its own scenarios.
The U.S. is supportive of Japan’s plans to join in the discussion of the South China Sea disputes. Washington may even try to encourage Tokyo to take a leading (but not the main) role in the sea over time as an interested regional state.
The U.S. clearly benefits from the alienation in Japan’s relations with Russia and China over territorial disputes. Outwardly, Russia and China have different situations: Russia controls the South Kuril Islands, while Japan administers the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands. However, the essence of these problems is the same: both groups of islands were taken away from Japan after its surrender in World War II. References to various historical documents and records only obscure the matter. Japan has turned the issue of disputed territories into a national symbol of struggle against the “injustices” of the WWII legacy. Russia and China, on the contrary, view it as “just” punishment for the aggressor. There are no signs of solutions yet that would suit each party. Situations like this require patience and readiness to continue the dialogue and avoid aggravation of tensions and emotional buildups which are hard to control and which always exacerbate the general atmosphere of relations.
The South China Sea is an area where the interests of many states interlace, with each state offering its own interpretations of the situation. Parties to territorial disputes base their claims primarily on historical arguments, which, not surprisingly, are in their own favor. At the same time, their evidence is weak. There are very different views as to what the internationally recognized limits of the South China Sea are. Some islands, reefs and shoals are claimed by several countries. Under these circumstances, it is very difficult to enforce the perfectly sound principle that the territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be considered and resolved entirely on a bilateral basis.
If ASEAN countries continue building a real community of nations, sooner or later they will realize the need to give up their territorial claims against each other on land and at sea and, following the EU example, recognize the current territorial status quo. This will create a completely new situation where they will be able to consider starting bilateral negotiations with China.
The United States insists that it takes no sides in the South China Sea territorial disputes. At the same time, it sends public signals of support to some countries. Actions by the U.S. Navy and Air Force in the region are intended to show that Washington considers the entire area within China’s “nine-dash line” open for any kind of navigation, including continuous patrolling by its warships. By trying to cause Japan, Australia and India to indicate their military presence in the South China Sea, the U.S. wants to demonstrate that its approach to these disputes is shared by other countries as well. Regardless of whether it succeeds or not, the United States will seek to internationalize pressure on Beijing over the South China Sea issues.
The U.S. will hardly enter into a military conflict with China in the South China Sea, but it will willingly maintain controlled tensions in the region. Combative statements by some Southeast Asian countries vis-à-vis China are echoes of the U.S. policy. It seems Washington wants to provoke China into muscle-flexing. If Beijing shows restraint and cold calculation in response, this may have a restrictive, if not sobering, effect on Washington.
Russia is interested in preventing the South China Sea from becoming a proving ground for testing the strength of one’s nerves. It would also like all parties to show restraint and refrain from using force. In geopolitical terms, Russia wants no conflict around China as its strategic partner.