The fable of the eagle, the dragon and the bear


How will Russia react to China’s rapid ascent as a global power? Will it develop its eastern links to spite the West, or join a USA led attempt to freeze Beijing out? Pavel Salin argues that this is a simplistic view of things and that Moscow may choose a third way.   

Pavel Salin
23 January 2013

The situation in Syria has led to the widespread stereotypical perception in the West that Russia and China have formed a strategic alliance, ready to gang up against any initiative by Western countries anywhere on the globe. Moscow and Beijing (though the latter does not particularly advertise this) are certainly doing their best to block all Western efforts to depose the regime of  Bashar Assad. At the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai in December, Russia and China made a concerted effort to give national states sovereign control over the internet: this was greeted with hostility by other countries and triggered a wave of media concern about ‘attacks on free speech’.


The WCIT conference in December saw Russia and China attempt to give national states more control over the intenet. Photo: (cc) Flickr/ITU

If one ignores the deeply-entrenched parameters of development and change in Russo-Chinese relations, the events of the last few months do indeed create the impression that Moscow and Beijing have entered a strategic alliance. But the situation is by no means as simple as it appears.

Russia and the West: a failed friendship

Russia’s brief love affair with the West, which coincided with Vladimir Putin’s first presidential term, ended in deep disillusionment for its elites. In return for supporting the West’s war on terrorism, they expected to be included in international decision-making processes and accepted as part of a global, which for the moment means Western, elite. Not only did this not happen, but the Russian government was faced with a string of ‘coloured’ revolutions, organised with Western help, in countries which it was accustomed to see as its own exclusive sphere of influence – Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

On the one hand, both countries were dissatisfied with the ‘old’ world order, based on Western domination. On the other, both their elites are supremely pragmatic, interested less in abstract concepts like ‘national security’ than in business opportunities.

All this crystallised into a terrible feeling of disillusionment about the prospect of Russo-Western cooperation, a clear sign of which was Vladimir Putin’s celebrated ‘Munich Speech’ in February 2007. It was at this point that the Kremlin began an active search for an anti-Western ally to demonstrate that Europe was not the only game in town for Russia’s elites.

Then, China seemed like the obvious choice. On the one hand, both countries were dissatisfied with the ‘old’ world order, based on the domination of the West, in which the concerted viewpoint of the USA and Europe was by definition the only possible position for ‘world opinion’ as a whole. It is their antagonism to this cliché that Moscow and Beijing are demonstrating in the situation with Syria. On the other hand, the elites of both countries are supremely pragmatic, interested less in abstract concepts such as ‘national security’ (a key concern of both the Americans and the Russians during the Cold War) than in business opportunities, which squeeze abstract values out on to the fringe. This pragmatism, shared by the elites in Russia and China, together with the possibility of mutual economic benefits, has created ideal conditions for the development of relations between the countries in the last few years.   

A prospect of mutual benefit …

Beijing’s interest in Russia is perfectly transparent and is focused on the secure supply of raw materials for its burgeoning economy. On the one hand, practically the entire world can be seen as a resource base for the Chinese economy: the Middle East, Africa, Australia and Latin America as well as Russia and Central Asia. Most of its trade routes, however, involve crossing the Pacific Ocean. In the case of any escalation of conflict with the USA, this would make them vulnerable to interception by the American navy, which is much more powerful than China’s own. In the next decade the most China can hope for is to secure its interests along its coastline and adjacent waters, while the USA’s aircraft carrier forces will continue to dominate in the Pacific, with the capability to disrupt China’s main sea supply routes.

Most of China’s trade routes involve crossing the Pacific Ocean, which in the case of any escalation of conflict with the USA would make them vulnerable. So the Russian land route would appear to be the best bet.

In this situation, Beijing’s need for a secure and reliable supply line can be best met by two overland routes, through Russia and Central Asia. The latter route, however, enters China through the troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the local population could cut it off, were relations with the West to deteriorate. So the Russian route would appear to be the best bet.

Until recently, Moscow’s interest in China also appeared quite straightforward.  In the first place, it seemed a lot simpler to cooperate on energy matters with Beijing than with Europe, which exasperates Russia by trying to link cooperation to human rights and other ethical issues. The simple and pragmatic formula of ‘resources for cash’ satisfied both sides. In the second, it suited Moscow to have a partner that was ‘on the way up’, that would share its desire to overturn the ‘old’ world order.

Another significant factor in the rapprochement of the two countries was an unspoken pact about the division of spheres of influence in the post-Soviet space, which Moscow considers her exclusive fiefdom. There is no question that the expansion of Western countries’ influence in the FSU (the clearest embodiment of which has been the ‘coloured’ revolutions) was the main reason for the deterioration of relations between them and Russia in middle and late 00s.

It seemed a lot simpler to cooperate on energy matters with Beijing than with Europe, which exasperated Russia by trying to link cooperation to human rights and other ethical issues.

The fact is that both Russia and the West prefer a military-political presence in Central Asian states, which is why they are jostling for position there. An obvious example of this is the protracted indirect conflict between the USA and Russia over the establishment of military bases in the region: each side tries to persuade one or other country’s government to accept their base and block the other side’s attempts to do the same. China, on the other hand, has gone down the road of economic expansion in the region, which until recently allowed it to avoid any direct conflict with Russia there.


MIlitary-political presence in Central Asia has long been an arena for rivalry between Russia and USA. Photo: (cc) Shutterstock/Tracing Tea

...brought its own disadvantages

In the last couple of years, however, the Kremlin has begun to realise that what seemed definite pros were starting to turn into cons, and that China’s growing economic dependence on Moscow will inevitably acquire a political dimension as well. The expectation, for instance, that ‘the Chinese threat’ would scare Europe into making concessions has not been borne out by events. To take one example: Russia hoped its threat to redirect its gas sales towards the Chinese market would succeed in exempting its gas suppliers from the EU’s ‘Third Energy Package’ regulations. These came into effect in March 2011 and seek to liberalise the European gas market by barring suppliers from controlling the transport infrastructure used to deliver their gas. The Chinese, however, have turned out to be completely inflexible business partners: no price for Russian gas has been agreed, despite many years of negotiations, and Europe has ceased to worry about the ‘Chinese plan’ hinted at by Moscow.

The ‘China factor’ could scupper one of Vladimir Putin’s pet projects, the Eurasian Union, designed to bolster Russia’s position as a regional power. And now China is also showing an interest in the western fringe of the post-Soviet space, with active economic links between Beijing, Minsk and Kiev.

The Russian elites are also increasingly worried about China’s active economic expansion into the post-Soviet space, particularly Central Asia. There is a dawning awareness that the area’s growing economic dependence on Beijing will turn into political dependence. This would be a particularly dangerous development given the generational change that will take place over the next decade in the political leadership of the two key countries of the region, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The ‘China factor’ could scupper one of Vladimir Putin’s pet projects, the Eurasian Union, designed to bolster Russia’s position as a regional power. Yet another worry for the Kremlin is Chinese interest in a completely new area – the western fringe of the post-Soviet space. The last two years have seen the development of active economic links between Beijing, Minsk and Kiev (Russia has always seen European countries as its only rivals in Belarus and Ukraine).     

Beijing’s growing global ambitions are another cause for concern. Experts close to the military and defence industrial complex are increasingly unhappy about China’s interest in the natural resources of the Arctic region. Its position on this issue is being discussed in the same terms as the supposed statement by Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State in Bill Clinton’s administration, that Russia’s natural resources should belong not only to Moscow, ‘but to the whole world’.


China is actively exploring Arctic's resources which causes worries internationally about its plans and ambitions. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia/Timo Palo

A ‘third way’ forward?

Moscow’s elites are in a difficult situation at the moment. On the one hand, they can’t allow Russo-Chinese relations to just go on developing gradually as before, which is what Beijing is pushing for. That would mean Russia’s economic dependence on Beijing becoming political dependence, which is unacceptable to Moscow. The Russian establishment loyally accepted economic dependence on China as the price to pay for Russia holding its own against Western domination.  But now, as the centre of global influence moves inexorably towards the Asia-Pacific region, it risks ending up in the same marginal position as it did in Europe – excluded from the decision-making process in a new world order.   

The position of the West, and especially of the USA, which has adopted a policy of ‘strategic encirclement’ of China, just as it did in the past with the USSR, is equally unacceptable to Russia. Appeals from Western intellectuals like Zbigniew Brzezinski to join the West in the anti-China ‘trench’ have not met with any positive response. Moscow’s ambitions are set rather higher than a foot soldier role in a war where it is excluded from key decision making. And developments such as the passing of the Magnitsky Law, which has raised doubts about the security of the elites’ assets in Europe, have not helped bring them over to the West’s position, forcing them to look eastwards instead.  

At present Russia and its elites are standing at a strategic crossroads, and the development of the country over the next fifty years will depend on the direction they choose. On the one hand, Moscow will no longer be satisfied by the role it occupied in Beijing’s game plan two or three years ago. On the other, the West’s suggestion that Russia join the USA led anti-China alliance is no more promising. In this situation, with a new US-China Cold War on the cards, the idea is growing in Russian intellectual circles that Moscow could find a new role, as a ‘third force’ at the head of a new Non-Aligned Movement of countries who have no desire to be pawns in someone else’s game.   


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