The Sino-Russian Alliance Comes of age — Part 1

Yevgeny Khaldei’s iconic photo of the Red Army soldiers raising the Soviet flag on top of the Reichstag building in Berlin, May 1945. 

The joint statements between two countries are usually riveted on a particular event but in extraordinary circumstances involving great powers, it could assume an epochal character and can be viewed as diplomatic communication that reflects what the Germans call the zeitgeist — the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history — and frame geopolitical power relations. This is more so in the case of great powers that have long traditions in diplomacy and have left deep imprints in the march of history.

To be sure, the joint statement issued after the visit of the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Moscow on September 10-11, 2020 falls in this second category. 

Wang’s visit to Moscow was in connection with the foreign minister level meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. His “bilateral” with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took place on September 11 at the fag-end of the visit but from the perspective of international security and the world order, it will stand out as a momentous event as a turning point in the evolution of the Sino-Russian entente.

The document that came out of Wang’s visit turns attention to the core areas of the Sino-Russian partnership for discourse analysis, and two powers’ mutual interests, and the ever-evolving global geopolitical context in the contemporary world situation. 

The joint statement is more in the nature of a Sino-Russian declaration on the current  international situation and key problems, especially global political stability and global economic recovery. It is the sort of declaration that we generally attribute to close allies and it signifies that a qualitatively new stage is approaching in the Sino-Russian comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation, which has already brought the bilateral relationship to its historically highest level.  

Clearly, the Russia-China joint statement of September 11 is a negotiated, public-facing document of a bilateral relationship that reflects not only the political ideologies of the two countries but also their “common vision” and their recommendations to find solutions together to their common problems. It references a world that is “undergoing a stage of deep transformation. The turbulence is growing stronger… The coronavirus epidemic has become the most serious global peacetime challenge.” 

 The twelve core areas of partnership outlined in the joint statement as such reflect the two countries’ foreign policy objectives as well. These twelve areas include, first, the invidious campaign begun by Britain and the United States, which was picked up soon by a clutch of other countries (including a chorus within India), that the blame for the coronavirus pandemic — “Wuhan virus” — must be squarely put on China, where it began, for its alleged failure to fulfil its international obligation to share details with the world community. 

The “politicisation” of the pandemic didn’t gain traction in the international community eventually — even within America — but the US and its close Anglo-Saxon allies used it as a handle to vilify China, to be intrusive in China’s internal affairs and to swiftly mount unjustified attacks on the Chinese political system itself. 

The September 11 document underscores that Moscow stands four-square behind Beijing in urging other governments and states, public organisations, media and business circles to promote cooperation and jointly resist false information, to stop politicising the pandemic and instead pool efforts in order to overcome the coronavirus infection and jointly respond to various challenges and threats. 

No doubt, it will be a matter of great satisfaction and comfort for Beijing at this point in time that as much as Moscow is signalling the high quality of the Sino-Russian entente, it is conveying the Kremlin’s strong solidarity on this issue of high sensitivity to the Chinese leadership. The two countries have underscored that they insist on the coordinating role of the WHO in the international efforts to counter epidemics, deepen international cooperation in this area and to oversee the accelerated development of medications and vaccines. 

“Historical truth” about World War 2 

A second vector of last week’s joint statement concerns the”historical truth” about World War 2. This may seem an esoteric subject but it is anything but that. A seemingly innocuous western campaign has been going on in the recent years to downplay and belittle the heroic sacrifices of the former Soviet Union in defeating Nazi Germany. Moscow was quick to grasp its invidious, treacherous intent. 

Simply put, the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the burden of resisting the Nazi aggressors, but the facts of history are being systematically falsified in countries such as Poland and the Baltic states, often with the subtle encouragement of the US. The campaign fuels anti-Russian sentiments but even more dangerously, it encourages irredentism and militarism. 

The joint statement pledges that Russia and China “will not allow anyone to revise the results of World War II, which are fixed in the UN Charter and other’s international documents.” The common Russian-Chinese stance touches on the gradual transition taking place in Germany and Japan in the recent years to shift away from pacifism towards militaristic ideologies. This needs explaining. 

Russia has been watching with growing disquiet that Germany is in another historical transition that holds disturbing parallel with the transition from Bismarck in the pre-World War 1 European setting and, subsequently from the Weimar Republic to Nazti Germany, which led to two world wars and caused horrific destruction to mankind.

To illustrate the change sweeping over the German ideology, in an interview with the weekly magazine Die Zeit in July, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (who is also the acting chairwoman of the ruling Christian Democratic Union party) stressed that it is “high time” to discuss “how Germany must position itself in the world in the future.” 

She said Germany is “expected to show leadership, not only as an economic power”, but it also concerns “collective defence, it concerns international missions, it concerns a strategic view of the world, and ultimately it concerns the question of whether we want to actively shape the global order.” Plainly put, the German voice is no longer the voice of pacifism. 

Bundeswehr soldiers sit on a Bueffel (“buffalo”) armoured tank recovery vehicle in Grafenwoehr, Germany, prior to deployment to Lithuania bordering Russia, January 31, 2017 (File photo) 

Kramp-Karrenbauer said “the claim of the current Russian leadership” to advocate their interests “very aggressively” must be “confronted with a clear position: We are well-fortified and in case of doubt, ready to defend ourselves. We see what Russia is doing and we will not let the Russian leadership get away with it… If you look at who is within range of Russian missiles in Europe, then it’s just the Central and Eastern European states and us.” She promised to “work on a joint threat analysis” with European allies to develop “defence systems,” which would increasingly involve “drones, swarms of AI-controlled drones or hypersonic weapons.” 

Suffice to say, seventy-five years after the end of World War 2, German imperialism is stirring — and, once again, targeting Russia. A comprehensive militarisation of society is back on the German agenda. Germany’s elites, as in the past, will stop at nothing to push forward the interests of German capital both at home and abroad. 

Three features are to be noted here. As in Weimar Germany, right-wing extremist networks in Germany’s Bundeswehr (armed forces) and the security services have once again begun their operations largely unhindered by the German ruling elite. A comprehensive militarisation of society is, once again, under way. As Kramp-Karrenbauer put it, she is pleased “that we have been able to make the Bundeswehr somewhat more visible in the midst of society, with troops taking a public pledge before the German Bundestag (federal parliament) on the Bundeswehr’s birthday and the free train rides for those in uniform.” 

In response to the prompter by Die Zeit that “comradeship, war, dying for one’s country, killing someone” was “practically non-existent in the public self-representation of the Bundeswehr,” Kramp-Karrenbauer promptly replied that precisely this had to change. “We are an army. We are armed. When in doubt, soldiers must also kill,” she declared. Unlike in the past, “today, dangerous foreign missions are common. Those who join the Bundeswehr know that. That is also part of what I understand by a well-fortified democracy and a strong Europe.”  

The German-American tensions and the recently announced American troop withdrawal from Germany is in reality working as an excuse to accelerate Germany’s rearmament plans. Germany has recently massively increased its military expenditure and is planning armament projects worth multi-digit billions, although the budget still currently stands at only 1.38 percent of GDP. In reality, this enables Germany to become militarily independent from the US. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the high-quality Swiss newspaper known for its objectivity and its detailed reporting of international affairs, wrote with great prescience recently, “At first glance, Trump may have punished the country. But in truth, the withdrawal of troops opens up an opportunity: all those Realpolitikers, who for years have been speaking out against the partly pacifist, partly anti-American majority opinion in Germany, are now at an advantage for a change.”

“Does it want to retain the comforting feeling of being a ‘peace nation’? Until now, this has meant that others have ensured peace. Or will the country come out from under the shadow which spreads from its past, and secure peace for itself and its European partners?” 

The German public militates against war and militarism. The horrors of the world wars and the crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany on humanity are still in collective memory. What is taking place is that the return of German militarism comes exclusively from the ruling elites with strong backing from the industrial conglomerates that have a gory history as arms manufacturers and shameless record in war profiteering. Put differently, faced with a deep crisis of capitalism and growing international tensions, the ruling German elites are returning to the means of militarism and war to secure their wealth and power.

Return of militarism

In the east, we see, similarly, the rising wave of Japanese militarism. After its disastrous defeat in World War 2, Tokyo renounced years of warfare in favour of a pacifist outlook, vowing to only use force to protect the Japanese homeland in the event of an attack — never to wage war on an enemy unprovoked. In recent years, however, Japan’s political leaders, especially Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have tried to break the country out of its post-war shell.  

The rise of China provided a useful alibi for Abe to find ways to bolster his nation’s forces with minimal domestic blowback. Abe pushed through legislation allowing Japan to defend allies, approved a new muscular defence plan, and was campaigning for amending Japan’s war-renouncing constitution to formalise the resuscitation of the nation’s armed forces when he was forced to step down two weeks ago. 

Japan can now more effectively defend its mainland and hundreds of islands, fight back if challenged, patrol global sea lanes, and counter adversaries where and when appropriate. This evolutionary shift from militaristic empire to pacifist nation and back to a pro-military political culture gives the US a much stronger ally to fight alongside, but on the other hand it holds the potential to seriously raise regional tensions and the prospects of war with China and Russia. 

Russia was the victim of militaristic Germany twice already in modern history. And both Russia and China have taken a heavy toll historically at the hands of Japan’s militaristic ideology. In 1904, Japan went to war against Russia by launching a surprise attack. After years of fighting and pseudo-rule, Japan officially annexed the Korean Peninsula in 1910.  And in 1932, Japan created its own puppet state in China. 

It is an undeniable  historical fact that Japan was unusually forceful, unrelentingly ambitious, and unsparingly brutal toward China. During the six-week massacre in China alone, now known as the “Rape of Nanking”, in less than two months, Japanese soldiers killed around 300000 Chinese people and raped upward of 80000 women. 

In the case of both Germany and Japan, there are incipient signs of history repeating. Japan is in many ways a carbon copy of what is unfolding in Germany. Abe’s agenda on the hand was to jump-start Japan’s sputtering economy, while on the other hand, pursue a muscular foreign policy with a special focus on countering China. Only a few months into assuming office as prime minister, Abe told Wall Street Journal in an interview, “I’ve realised that Japan is expected to exert leadership not just on the economic front, but also in the field of security in the Asia-Pacific.” 

In December 2018, Abe released a new 10-year defence plan, which amongst other things, called for converting the Izumo helicopter carrier into an aircraft carrier, giving the nation its first vessel of that kind since World War II; spending about $240 billion on the Self-Defence Forces (army) over the next five years, continuing the nation’s steady increase in defence expenditures; and purchasing new fighter jets to replace old ones. Clearly, all that equipment are not meant to safeguard the mainland but add to Japan’s capability to project power abroad.

In contrast with Germany, however, the Japanese public opinion under Abe has become deeply divided and perhaps somewhat ambivalent about his legacy-defining initiative of militarisation. Abe’s party shares power with Komeito, to stay in charge, and Komeito’s base is largely pacifist. Komeito’s ambivalence turned out to be a major hurdle for Abe’s ambitions to change Japan’s constitution and make the country a regional power with a global vision. 

To be fair, Japan under Abe also senses it is in danger, surrounded by an imminent threat, North Korea, and a long-term challenger, China. The Japanese military is the most respected institution in Japan and the Japanese society isn’t anti-military anymore, albeit still antiwar. But the point is, even after Abe’s impending exit, a future leader who desires a more traditional military in Japan will have a propitious political climate to push for change. 

True comradeship on the battlefields 

Berlin plays a leading role in the western offensive against Russia and leads the NATO battlegroup in Lithuania. Germany and the US are also working closely together on NATO moves against Russia. Germany is the most important staging area for NATO units deployed at the Eastern European border with Russia. And the German media is awash with opinion demanding that the NATO commitment should now finally be fulfilled and military spending increased to 2 percent of gross domestic product. (It currently stands at 1.38 percent of GDP although it recently massively increased its military expenditure and is planning armament projects worth multi-digit billions.)

Whereas, in the Asia-Pacific, Abe has not hidden that his primary objective is to counter Beijing’s growing economic and military prowess that could allow it to reshape the region and the world in its image. Japan also has simmering territorial disputes with both Russia and China. Abe’s critics have argued that his militarism would give Japanese forces a pathway to war against other countries, and some Japanese critics even called the law changes he piloted as “war legislation”, and depicted him as Germany’s Adolf Hitler.

To be sure, against such a poignant backdrop, it comes as no surprise that the joint statement issued in Moscow on September 11 reserves its most powerful passage on the raison d’être of the Russian-Chinese alliance in the emerging international situation by recalling their historic struggle against Nazism and Japanese imperialism: 

“The Soviet Union and China were hit the hardest by Nazism and militarism and bore the brunt of the burden of resisting the aggressors. At the price of enormous human losses, they stopped, routed and destroyed the occupiers, displaying unparalleled self-sacrifice and patriotism in this struggle. The new generations are deeply indebted to those who gave up their lives for the sake of freedom and independence, and the triumph of good, justice and humanity. Entering a new era, the current Russia-China relations of comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation have a powerful, positive feature of true comradeship developed on the battlefields of World War II. It is a sacred duty of all humanity to preserve the historical truth about that war. Russia and China will jointly counter all attempts to falsify history, glorify the Nazis, militarists and their accomplices, and tarnish the victors. Our countries will not allow anyone to revise the results of World War II.”  

Indeed, the historical analogy carries profound echoes in the current situation in Europe and the Asia-Pacific. The German government is openly accusing the Russian state of poisoning opposition politician Alexei Navalny and is threatening Russia with sanctions. Germany’s language toward Russia has dramatically changed. It is no more restrained by any sense of guilt that the blood of 25 million Soviet citizens are on its hands. It is talking as if it is already planning the next military campaign against Moscow. 

Above all, as had happened once before in the 1930s, other western powers, in their obsession with containing Russia and China, are not only turning a blind eye to the growing militarism in Germany and Japan but are surreptitiously encouraging it.