President Vladimir Putin (R) hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping on state visit at the Kremlin, Moscow, June 5, 2019
The cascading tensions between Russia and the United States brought into play the Russian-Chinese “comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation”. The topic has been the stuff of animated discussion among strategic thinkers lately.
But opinions varied. The rubrics attached to the partnership by western analysts speak for themselves — “unholy alliance”; “alliance of autocracies”; “strategic partnership short on strategy”; “bad marriage”; and so on. Evidently, it evokes negative emotions in the western mind borne out of unease over the “known unknown”.
The illusion that mainstream western analysis propagated has been that the Russian-Chinese alliance is weak and transitory and is always available as a target for a “reverse Kissinger” (an effort to draw Russia away from China) as if the two countries were pieces in a Lego set — “fixed in shape, and easy to handle,” as an Estonian think tanker at the Brussels-based European Council for Foreign Relations wrote last December.
This illusion is also at the root of the present crisis between the US and Russia. Washington is still stuck in the groove that Madeline Albright and Strobe Talbott had cut during the 1990s. Admittedly, when it comes to China, succinctly put, given the US-China interdependency, the mode of Washington’s containment strategy was different.
It was not unilinear, as in the case with Russia. But the competition-cum-cooperation was predicated on the notion that China at the very core prioritised the relationship with the US over Russia and therefore, its partnership with Moscow was a mere marriage of convenience devoid of strategic intent.
This resulted in the delusional thinking that China will be “neutral” in the US’ current standoff with Russia. It explains the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s audacious call with Chinese state councilor and foreign minister Wang Yi on January 27 to solicit Beijing’s help.
The clarity and firmness of Wang’s response would have been a rude awakening for Blinken. Wang cited President Biden’s retraction from assurances given to President Xi Jinping and accused the Biden Administration of “still sticking with erroneous words and deeds related to China, which have dealt a new blow to bilateral relations.”
Wang reminded Blinken: “The burning issue is that the United States should stop interfering with the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, stop playing with fire on the Taiwan issue, and stop creating various anti-China “small cliques.”
Wang then underscored that Beijing endorses the principles underlying the Russian position — the earnest implementation of the Minsk Agreement, the indivisibility of security, the futility of “strengthening or even expanding military blocs” for security, and the imperative need to address “Russia’s legitimate security concerns.”
China has since fleshed out its position in the statement made by its permanent representative to the UN Ambassador Zhang Jun at the Security Council Open Meeting on Ukraine on Monday. Beijing stood shoulder to shoulder with Moscow.
We need to revisit at this point an important remark by President Xi during his virtual meeting with Putin on December 15 (the same day, interestingly, that Moscow delivered its draft bilateral treaty on security matters to the US.) Xi said, “this relationship even exceeds an alliance in its closeness and effectiveness.” This is the crux of the matter.
An alliance in international politics is usually defined as a formal agreement between states for mutual support in case of war. Contemporary alliances provide for combined action and are generally defensive in nature, obligating allies to join forces if one of them is attacked. Even informal alliances are typically formalised by a treaty of alliance, “the most critical clauses of which are those that define the casus foederis, or the circumstances under which the treaty obligates an ally to aid a fellow member.” (Britannica)
Clearly, the Russian-Chinese partnership does not fit into the above definition. For a start, It is not about wartime contingencies. Rather, it is built on commonality of interests dating back to the early years of the post-cold war era and is far from a time-serving alliance of limited objectives. It is built on the principles of equality, mutual respect and on the complementarity between their political economies. Unsurprisingly, an exceptional “closeness” developed in course of time between the two countries.
The mutual trust and confidence grew as it was a pragmatic and flexible arrangement of good-neighbourliness where neither side prescribed norms of behaviour, and both allowed space and the freedom to manoeuvre for each side. It did not put obligations on the other side — so much so that China did not support Russia over the emergence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states (2008) or over the referendum in Crimea to become part of Russian Federation (2014).
Indeed, the congruence of interests became broad-based over time and the core concerns and aspirations of the two countries being so similar, their comprehensive partnership has come to acquire a multiplier effect on their respective national strategies and in turn have provided a support system.
Then, something radically changed in the external environment when the West staged a coup in Kiev to instal an anti-Russian regime. Since 2014, China and Russia have strengthened their relationship, increasing political, military, and economic cooperation. Arguably, the perceived threat from the Obama administration to both China and Russia hastened this process.
The two countries have since focused on eliminating the scope for Washington to create daylight between them. In the military sphere, the diffusion of military equipment and technology, additional joint planning and intensive exercises have brought the relationship to a stone’s throw from potential joint basing and/or the possibility of joint military operations.
The aggressive US intentions toward Russia and China have become a cementing factor in their partnership, although that is far from the leitmotif as such. Put differently, the partnership has acquired gravitas in multiple directions – cooperation in energy, trade, technology, etc. In fact, the two countries are just about to finalise a blueprint to establish a joint lunar base for scientific research and space exploration!
Yet, the effectiveness of their strategy can be fully understood only if we factor in that the aggregate Chinese and Russian power may have already approached US power and may even exceed it in a conceivable future. The US is encountering sophisticated weapon systems in greater numbers in the inventories of both Russia and China.
Today, the US has reason to worry that Chinese-Russian cooperation is a reasonable possibility in a security crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Lavrov emphasised recently that Russia viewed Iran as “part of a team” that supports the principles of international law, universal agreements, the UN’s central role, etc.
Beijing strong support for Russia’s efforts to quell the “colour revolution” in Kazakhstan. Although it may seem far-fetched that China and Russia may make coordinated moves on Ukraine and Taiwan, the fact remains that the Chinese Ambassador to the US Qin Gang chose the present moment to say in a rare interview with the US media that if the Taiwan island authority, emboldened by the US, keeps going down the road for independence, it would most likely involve China and the US “in a military conflict.”
No doubt, it is direct warning to the US and a clear signal to the US political elites. Indeed, there are also striking parallels with Ukraine. In both cases, Washington has brazenly dismantled the “guardrail” — the three joint communiqués in the case of Taiwan and the assurances on NATO membership in the case of Ukraine — and resorted to “salami tactic” in an attempt to get Beijing and Moscow to reconcile with new facts on the ground.
China is a stakeholder in the denouement of the US-Russia standoff. With Washington continuously increasing pressure in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, China and Russia are pushed into a “back-to-back” position in Eurasia. China is going to be an indispensable partner in Russia’s ongoing crisis with the US, while on its part, China cannot remain indifferent if Russia gets crushed by the US, lest it loses “strategic depth”.
To be sure, the meeting between Putin and Xi Jinping on Friday will be hugely consequential for world politics. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that “significant time will be spent on exchange of opinions on the international agenda this time. This will include strategic stability in Europe, guarantees of security for Russia, Russia-US and Russia-NATO dialogue, as well as regional problems.”
On December 28, Tass news agency quoted a senior Chinese politician Xia Baolong, Vice Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and Director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, as saying that “an important political document will be approved” during Putin’s visit.
Ambassador Andrey Denisov, Russia’s veteran envoy in Beijing since 2013, has said that Putin’s visit will be “crucially important for us (Russia), is crucially important for China, and I would say, for the entire world. The leaders of two major countries that have a great impact on global politics are meeting, and they are meeting during rather contradictory times.”