Will the union between China and Russia help strategic stability? President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping will be in Russia on July 4. What is important about this visit, apart from its bilateral aspects, is its international context. Held in Brussels and Taormina in late May, the NATO and G7 summits were an example of difficult relations between the United States and its European allies. The new US president’s hard talk impressed some analysts so much that they began speaking about a split in the Atlantic community of nations. Somewhat later, tension was further aggravated by the demonstrative US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change, which is seen by the Europeans as a crucial international document. Moreover, it is clear that even if Donald Trump has to step down before the formal expiry of his term in office, a return to the former arrangements in relations between the United States and Europe will hardly be possible or easy.
Against the background of the relative mess in the Western community, the high level political relations between China and Russia can be described as prosperous. In May 2015, President Xi attended the anniversary military parade in Moscow that was demonstratively boycotted by Western leaders. In May 2017, the Russian president was the only head of a major power, who attended the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing. The Chinese capital seems to be a foreign city that the Russian leader visits most often. Putin and Xi Jinping are politicians who meet with each other more frequently than they do with any other world leaders. In 2017 alone, there were two such meetings held under different circumstances. One gets the impression that these meetings and talks have become a permanent channel for an exchange of information and views between close allies.
However, skeptics will say that these relations have had no strong effect on the economy and bilateral trade, even though Chinese investment in the Russian economy is growing. In 2015, for example, it amounted, according to Chinese estimates, to $3 billion. The official figure will hardly be less in 2016. Russian experts say that this makes Russia the third largest recipient of Chinese investments in Europe after the UK and the Netherlands. Trade is being gradually restored and new categories of Russian products make it onto the Chinese market. It would not, therefore, be quite right to say that the economy is absent from the bilateral relationship.
However, strategically, a totally different thing is of much greater importance for Russia. No doubt, economy is important as far as relations go. But history shows that it is still an open question to what extent trade and the economy in general are guarantees of strong political relations and non-existence of a conflict potential. Let us consider several examples. It is common knowledge how brisk trade and economic exchanges were between Britain and Germany on the eve of the Great War (1914-1918). Both nations were the most important trading partners for each other. For Russia, Germany was one of the biggest investors before the war too. Nevertheless, this did not prevent one of the bloodiest armed conflicts in human history from starting between these two countries.
In 1960, the Soviet Union was the biggest and most important trade and economic partner for China, which was still partly isolated by the international community. During some years of the previous decade, China itself was the most important trade partner for the Soviet Union. East Germany managed to ease it aside only in 1957. China employed Soviet engineers and military advisers; the USSR provided credits for the construction of numerous industrial facilities that used Soviet technologies. In 1955, for example, bilateral trade amounted to $1.29 billion. But this did not help to prevent a dramatic deterioration in political relations. Between 1960 and 1969, the two countries slid from almost an alliance to a local armed conflict. The next decade saw the phasing out of practically all contacts and a railway between them fell obsolete. The reason why all this happened was a sudden rift in how the two national leaderships saw the key issues of bilateral and international relations.
But there are some fresher examples. By 2014, the European Union controlled over 50 percent of Russia’s foreign trade, which made the EU its most important trade partner. Some European diplomats even cracked incautious jokes about Europe being a “major shareholder in Russian trade.” It should be noted that the EU, as a bloc, retains this status up to this day, accounting as it does for 46 percent of Russian foreign trade. Germany was, until recently, Russia’s biggest single trade partner. It was dislodged by China only a couple of years ago. At the same time, there is no doubt that political relations between Russia and Europe, including Germany, are at their lowest point since the mid-1980s. The parties are trading strong-worded statements and making military preparations that are potentially directed against each other.
Yet another example is relations between the United States and China. In terms of importance for the world economy, they are perhaps second only to the US-EU relationship. In 2016, US imports from China amounted to $481.7 billion, while its exports totaled $115.7 billion. However, this does not prevent the US from periodically touching China on the raw side as regards sensitive regional issues. The lack of a common vision of the key international and local problems leads to a situation where relations between China and the United States, though still based on cooperation, are on the downward path and tending towards a hidden confrontation.
There are also strong economic ties between China and Japan. But it is difficult to call the political relations between these leading Asian countries anything but cool.
All of this does not mean, of course, that a war is likely to break out between China and the US or between China and Japan. But armed with this knowledge, we can better understand that a high level of trade and economic ties is no guarantee of good relations, respect and mutual trust when it comes to politics. Meanwhile it is mutual trust that is the only way for states to avoid what is known as “Thucydides trap,” a situation where an uncertainty about each other’s intentions makes the parties build up military preparations. It is in mutual trust that we now find a reason for the shaken Western unity, even though the same trust and a common world outlook has enabled the emergence of a unique community of nations, within which a war is impossible in principle.
Over the last few years, it is the political solutions rather than the “invisible hand of the market” that promoted Chinese-Russian relations to an unprecedentedly high level. China, for its part, is making a bid for global, rather than just regional, leadership, which is a fantastically serious and ambitious task. If China copes with it, it will be able to blaze an alternative path which will be chosen by many others. But this should be done in such a way so as to be able to persuade a large group of strong and rich countries that they will benefit from maintaining order. An order – global or regional – is always a product of ideas and resources contributed by several players rather than a political incarnation of an ideal scheme.
Simultaneously China will not avoid the need to respond to tough challenges that it will face increasingly often. While it has been provided with rather comfortable conditions for development in the Eurasian heartland, this cannot be said about other geographical zones. For example, it is clear that in South Asia Chinese policies will meet with a serious resistance from India. The Indians are displeased with an increased Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi refused to attend the May Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. The formal reason is that one of the routes of the Road from China to Pakistan was built in an area that India regards as its territory. But the real reason is India’s growing displeasure with the increased Chinese influence in Asia and Eurasia. However, New Delhi’s actions will most likely seem small headaches by comparison to the challenges posed by the administration of “businessmen and militarists” in Washington. China obviously should expect more visits by US carrier task forces to sensitive coasts and islands and other moves intended to test mental stability of its leaders.
Under these circumstances, some political scientists in China discuss a likelihood of a formal alliance between Beijing and Moscow and terms that will make it possible. But this proposition is rejected by other Chinese experts. It should be mentioned that a hypothetical alliance is a much less urgent issue for Russia. Unlike middle-sized and small states in Europe and Asia, Moscow does not see an alliance with anyone in terms of national security or defense against external threats. Russia is capable of defending itself from any external threat entirely on its own. Moreover, it does not need to bother about the problem of US naval domination.
From Russia’s point of view, a no less important question is what contribution a Chinese-Russian alliance can make to world stability (or instability)? This is particularly topical in view of an increasingly reckless US policy and unfriendly passivity of Europe. The United States is doubly unpredictable: no one knows the outcome of the war that the elites are waging against the president, nor is it known what is to be expected from President Trump himself. The moves by these key world players – the United States and Europe – are unlikely to become more responsible or predictable in the near future. So, more responsibility devolves on other key members of the world system and its central states, Russia and China. Their relations should not derive from the West’s often unpredictable actions in relation to both Moscow and Beijing.
The formal nature of Chinese-Russian relations should be separated from their national foreign policy agendas; the potential significance of a hypothetical Chinese-Russian alliance ought to be analyzed from the point of view of the need to preserve global peace. In this case, we can see, if we go by analogies suggested by our day and age and the “strategic frivolity” era of 1890—1914, that in many respects it is the lack of a formal alliance between China and Russia that makes it impossible to complete the analogy. If created, this alliance would reproduce in the current setting the Entente-Quadruple Alliance situation, where each grouping includes both status quo and rising states motivated either by the wish to turn the tables or dissatisfaction with the existing order. It is possibly for this reason that Moscow and Beijing should indeed not be in a hurry to formalize their allied relations at this historical stage. This would have made the international system dangerously inflexible and, as a consequence, vulnerable to conflict. And this is particularly threatening, given the present-day quality of foreign policies of states and the system characteristics of world politics.