What's behind the 'friendship' between Russia and China?
Bilateral consultations between Moscow and Beijing on strategic stability were held this week in Shanghai. At the end of the conference, the secretary of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, said the Russian-Chinese bond was confidently established among the key factors in maintaining international security and stability and in the establishment of multipolar world order. Interestingly, such statements are frequently heard from the Kremlin's high-ranking politicians, who are responsible for the development and implementation of the country's foreign policy. Most Russian experts see in this statement a signal that Russia and China adhere to a common position regarding the formation of the future architecture of international relations. However, there are more cautious conclusions considering the prospects for further development of the political dialogue between the two largest Eurasian powers. In fact, the modern foreign policy philosophy of Putinism proceeds from the rational understanding that Russia has only two allies — its army and navy — and everything else is a temporary cautious partnership. Relations with Beijing are no exception.
It is important to recall that the active rapprochement between these countries began as a result of the failure of the international policy of Barack Obama's administration. The Democrats' indecisive actions created all the prerequisites for strengthening and expanding Russian-Chinese relations. This can be considered a significant foreign policy failure, given how much effort President Nixon's Republican administration made to establish the maximum number of barriers between Moscow and Beijing. In other words, Obama's team ignored the basic warning of Henry Kissinger: not to allow strategic rapprochement between Russians and Chinese. Fortunately for American interests, there are serious systemic contradictions in relations between the Kremlin and the Celestial Empire, and President Donald Trump uses them quite skillfully.
The key ones are civilizational and geopolitical contradictions. Despite the crisis in relations between the United States and Europe, Putin still sees Russia as a country with a Western culture, Christian religion, and perception of social norms. For most Russians, China is a complex and incomprehensible country that is trying to conquer the world, using exclusively its quantitative resources. At the same time, being a classical realist and representative of the power elite, Putin cannot but understand that as China's geopolitical appetites grow, it will increasingly look toward the neighboring Russian regions of Siberia and the Russian Far East. Russians still keep in mind that in the 1980s, there was a popular slogan in China: "Return us our rivers and mountains." During the reign of the liberal elite, led by Boris Yeltsin, Moscow made concessions to China and agreed to a border along the fairway of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers. As a result, Damansky Island and territories near Khabarovsk went to the Chinese.
Territorial claims were made in line with China's unified foreign policy toward its neighbors. Its communist leadership began to claim all the lands of the former Manchu Qing empire since the middle of the 20th century. Besides that, they consider the territory of the Mongol Empire their own, annexing Tibet and other areas on this basis. For Chinese leaders, the concept of "territorial dispute" never existed. Their logic is simple: no state can claim the lands that were once declared part of the Celestial Empire. Beijing is already actively invading the zone of geopolitical interests of Russia, trying to completely remove Moscow from Central Asia and the Caucasus. Moreover, the Kremlin is not particularly enthusiastic about China's rapidly developing relations with Belarus. An expression, "the great Chinese friend," is firmly established in the foreign vocabulary of official Minsk, and President Alexander Lukashenko even said the modern history of Belarus is entirely connected with China. There is no doubt that these circumstances are considered by the Kremlin when building a dialogue with Beijing.
In fact, relations with China are a geopolitical necessity for Moscow in the context of Western policy to isolate Russia. The worse relations with the United States and European countries are, the fewer maneuvering opportunities Moscow has. In other words, it is Beijing that is the main beneficiary of Washington's senseless confrontation with Moscow. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin understand this best of all. However, inside the U.S. and Russia, there are influence groups that are not interested in establishing a pragmatic dialogue between the leaders of the two countries. As long as the situation remains the same, China will win.
Den Kalmyk is a PhD and expert in economics. He was a Senior Lecturer at Yale University and Oxford University.