Why Russia’s eyes are now firmly focused on China
THE RUPTURE between Russia and the West stemming from the 2014 crisis over Ukraine has wide-ranging geopolitical implications. Russia has reverted to its traditional position as a Eurasian power sitting between the East and the West, and it is tilting towards China in the face of political and economic pressure from the US and Europe.
Moscow is now closer to Beijing than to Berlin. This does not presage a new Sino-Russian bloc, but that the epoch of post-communist Russia’s integration with the West is over.
A serious shift
In the new epoch, Russia will seek to expand and deepen its relations with non-Western nations, focusing on Asia. Western leaders need to take this shift seriously.
Russia’s foreign policy has traditionally sought to create balance in Moscow’s relations with all key players around the world, starting with the US, China and Europe.
Its outreach to the Asia-Pacific region was initially meant to add to, not subtract from, the Euro-Atlantic dimension of Russia’s foreign policy.
And even within the region, Moscow was looking for a balance in relations with the key powers such as China, India and Japan. In 2014, after the Crimea invasion and the West’s response to it, this elaborate architecture took a big hit, and the balance was lost, at least for the time being.
Before the events following the Maidan revolution in Ukraine unfolded, Putin envisioned an economic and political link between Russia and Germany that could potentially have formed an axis. It was a vision of what Putin called a “Greater Europe,” an economic, cultural and security space from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
In that scheme, Russian natural resources would have been linked to European industries and technologies, with Russia providing the EU a geopolitical and strategic channel to Asia and the Pacific.
However, the idea of such a union with an authoritarian Russia, attractive as it was to the German business community, evoked much scepticism in Germany’s political class and the media.
In the end, Chancellor Angela Merkel cold-shouldered it.
As a result, the key relationship with Germany is now broken. Since 1989 – when then general secretary Mikhail Gorbachev put forward the idea of a “common European home” and then allowed Germany’s reunification – Russia had been moving towards some form of loose association with Western Europe, centred on Germany. But by 2014, it had become alienated from its principal foreign partner.
All things considered, China turned out to be the biggest beneficiary of Russia’s conflict with the West. On the face of it, Russia’s actions violated the principles of Beijing’s foreign policy. However, the Chinese leaders could not ignore the events in Kiev that had precipitated Moscow’s reaction.
To them, a Western-supported revolution, like Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests, was a bigger threat to stability, including potentially China’s own, than Moscow’s response. For at least some Chinese officials, Putin’s resolve in dealing with Crimea was something to be admired, even emulated.
Most important, confrontation between Russia and the US relieved China of the potential concern that Putin’s pragmatism might lead Moscow to seek an understanding with Washington.
It also severely narrowed Russia’s international options, making the country more amenable to partnering with China on conditions that favoured Beijing.
China, of course, did not want to back Russia outright. Siding with Moscow would damage Beijing’s central relationship with Washington. In a rapidly changed environment, Beijing came to be seen by Moscow as a source of money, investment and even some technology.
With Western sanctions in place, China was left as the largest economy outside the anti-Russian coalition. In addition, since 2009, China has been Russia’s number one trading partner, with two-way trade reaching $95 billion (R1.18 trillion) in 2014.
The West-East swing by Russia has coincided with China’s foreign policy becoming more active. Under President Xi, China has reached a platform from which it can be more assertive in promoting and defending its interests.
Russia’s turn to Asia is above all an embrace of China. But Russia has also embraced China for lack of other viable partners in the region.
China and Russia share not only a host of fundamental interests but also, increasingly, elements of a common world view. At the top of the list is the importance of a strong state.
Meanwhile, Russia is no longer in the running for world primacy. It is merely seeking to establish itself as a centre of power in Eurasia and a member of a global concert of powers.
Dmitri Trenin is the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, the Russia-based think tank of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This article initially appeared on The Globalist. Follow The Globalist on Twitter: @Globalist