Russia and China put cooperation on display

Russia and China put cooperation on display… but they have too many fundamental differences to form an effective, enduring partnership

Xi Jinping and Donald Trump
Xi Jinping and Donald Trump

By any measure, Russia’s Vostok (meaning “east” in Russian) 2018 military exercises in mid-September were meant to leave the impression of the Russian military’s might and adaptability. It was sought to put the West on notice that its armed forces were powerful and resilient, and several other regional partners were invited to participate, being China, Turkey and Mongolia. It successfully captured the imagination of a few media outlets, the public and Western governments alike with bold statements from Moscow describing these exercises as being the largest of its kind on Russian territory for nearly forty years. Whether this statement is true or not is difficult to confirm, given the lack of evidence provided by footage and independent reporting, but what the Vostok 2018 exercises do tell us for certain is one thing: Russia and China will look to work together to offset Western dominance of global governance, although the picture is more complicated than that.

Russia inviting China to these military drills was a brilliant masterstroke for several reasons. On the one hand, it implies that Moscow and Beijing are, and can be close allies in a military sense should the need arise. Also, given that the military drills were being held in Russia’s far eastern region, and there are a lack of plausible threats to Russia’s security in the region barring China, it made sense to invite China to the war games to put Beijing’s mind at ease that the exercises were not training for a potential future conflict between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China. The inclusion of Turkey in the invitation is particularly noteworthy, given that it is a member of NATO, and its participation would cause alarm in NATO headquarters and allied capitals. Ankara sought to strike a balance by sending military observers to the Vostok military exercises, thereby only moderately pleasing Moscow and raising far less concern in Brussels and elsewhere.

Despite popular perception, however, Russia and China are not necessarily natural allies. Whilst both countries can claim to be aggrieved by policies emanating from Washington D.C. (Sanctions on Russia, and trade tariffs in China’s case), they also have different priorities and overlapping interests. Moscow is seeking to expand its political and military areas of influence into Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia; effectively looking to claw back some of the areas of influence it had lost after the end of the Cold War. China is seeking to expand its economic sphere of influence from the South China Sea and overland in Asia, all the way to central Europe through Africa, Southwest Asia and the Middle East. These two goals are not easily compatible and cannot co-exist without some friction.

The United States remains the global hegemon, capable of influencing issues and developments at places and times of its choosing – providing it chooses to do so. With the Trump Administration taking a more “hands off” stance than its predecessors in places like Syria, Yemen and Libya, as well as a more withdrawn approach to international organisations, it has given a significant opening to both Moscow and Beijing to begin to stamp their influence in the regions. That influence is a mix of both hard and soft power. The US has reinforced its grip over its quasi-monopoly of the use of hard power, through military force and economic sanctions; but its moral leadership has been eroded since the turn of the millennium, and if anything has accelerated under Trump’s stewardship. Its ability to influence and convince other nations to agree to its point of view is weaker than it has ever been in living memory, and that provides a good opening for Russia and China to step in.

According to Russia’s Ministry of Defense, Vostok 2018 was to consist of 300,000 Russian troops, 1,000 aircraft, 1,100 tanks and some 80 naval ships. They would be accompanied by 3,000 Chinese soldiers, along with 900 assorted pieces of military equipment and 30 combat aircraft. Whether the amounts were as high as this is a matter of some debate, but what is certain is that the exercises were large and sought to act as a show of defiance to the United States in particular – to put on show Russia and China’s willingness to work together if their interests are infringed upon by Washington. This works for the short to medium term, but in the long term, these two partners have more that divides than unites them.

This may seem like an odd statement, considering, for example, Russia is a large exporter of energy and China is such a large consumer of it. However, this also factors into their strategic thinking: Russia will allow events to unfold, or encourage them, to see energy prices rise. China is of the opposite school of thought, looking to ensure stability in energy market to not negatively impact their ability to export nor their breakneck speed of economic growth. These are incompatible priorities, which will see the two global powers on opposite sides of various issues with implications for the energy industry for years to come.

Moreover, whereas China has a number of energy suppliers from which to choose from, Russia ability to export energy in vast amounts to China is more limited; which means that China is able to negotiate a better price than Russia might like.

The United States’ traditional foreign policy has push Russia and China together, at least for the foreseeable future, but despite the optics of the Vostok 2018 military exercises, it will be difficult for this partnership to stand the test of time. China’s future rests upon its economic strength, whereas Russia’s future is heavily dependent on the image of its military power and political influence. China was happy to participate in Vostok 2018, just as Russia was happy to host them. But a Chinese-Russian political alliance suffers from too many incompatible goals, rendering it only somewhat effective at best. The US will be challenged more strongly in the years to come, but those challenges will come from Russia and China as nation states – not as an allied force.

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