What is the myth?
The premise is superficially attractive: if China is the oncoming storm, then Western powers must make an ally of Russia to help combat or at least weather it. As China’s power as a global actor grows, there is understandable apprehension over its capabilities and agenda. As a consequence, in some circles the argument now holds that China poses a far greater long-term systemic challenge by comparison to Russia, that dealing with the former should be prioritized by Western policymakers, and that Russia’s existing relationship with China and potentially slightly greater biddability as a declining power should be leveraged to this end. While the scale of the Chinese challenge is not disputed here, the conclusions that Euro-Atlantic politicians and policymakers sometimes draw from that point – in particular, in respect of cooperating with Russia in the short term – are incorrect.
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
The presentation of a choice between allying with Russia or enabling Chinese dominance is recurrent in the pronouncements and writings of prominent figures in the field of international relations, especially adherents to the ‘realist’ doctrine who do not study Russia closely but claim to see the big picture. Thus, for example, this myth (or variations of it) is commonly repeated by generalist heads of think-tanks, as well as by business leaders for whom Russia is an important source of income. In the latter case, the motivations for promoting an alignment of convenience with Moscow sometimes seem questionable.
A number of politicians and influential foreign policy consultants have also found the argument for alliance persuasive over the years, and the trend continues to this day. Perhaps most prominently, Henry Kissinger has long been principally concerned about the threat from Beijing, and has favoured a so-called ‘pragmatic’ approach towards Moscow. In recent years, the essence of his argument has been that the Cold War is over and it is China that will overtake the US. This is particularly salient given the continuing influence of Kissinger’s foreign policy thinking through multiple US administrations.
As other chapters in this report have noted, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has advocated bringing Russia closer into the European family while arguably overlooking the darker side of Russian foreign policy. Macron appears also to see Russia’s international transgressions, at least in part, as having their origins in supposed Western provocation. He is not only the most vocal Western European leader to put hope before experience in calling for cooperation with Russia, but also, crucially, neglects to elaborate what this would mean for Russia’s vulnerable neighbours. The French president’s contention is not so much about relative threat perception or immediacy, but that Russia’s true place is in Europe, and that it should not be pushed into a more problematic alliance with China.
Why is it wrong?
The challenge from Russia to the rules-based international order is older than that presented by modern China, but age does not diminish the former’s substance or importance. Rather, Western policymakers are arguably guilty of comparative complacency given the temptation to focus on the emerging political, economic, security and international governance issues associated with China.
It can certainly be argued that China presents a systemic, long-term challenge to international order that is ultimately on a different scale to that associated with Russia’s disruptive actions – which in part are a response to the latter’s decline as a major power. And it is also the case that China’s rise may well prove not to be peaceful, especially given Beijing’s new assertiveness in the COVID-19 and new Hong Kong eras. One cannot dismiss its efforts to annex territory in the South China Sea or to claim areas – small and large – held by India and Japan. Nor can one excuse the kidnapping and incarceration of politically inconvenient individuals, Beijing’s muzzling of Hong Kong, or the propping up of a succession of North Korean dynastic leaders. It is neither necessary nor right to downplay these issues. But the threat remains different from that posed by Russia right now, and recognition of the former does not unequivocally justify a softer line on Moscow.
In considering the twin challenges posed by China and Russia, in other words, it is a mistake to believe that the West has the luxury of addressing one and ignoring the other. Specifically, there are at least four problems with the ‘unite against China’ argument. First, it underestimates Russia and the damage it can do even as the country slides into deeper socio-economic and political turmoil. Although China is no paragon of virtue, the proposition that it is a greater long-term danger than Russia to regional or international stability – and the accompanying assumption that the Kremlin must therefore be cultivated at almost any cost as a potential ally against that danger – should not be an excuse to overlook the egregious nature of Russia’s documented contraventions of international rules and norms.
Although the situation may change in the future, currently China is not crossing international borders in anger to annex or destabilize its neighbours (as Russia has done in Ukraine). The current Chinese government’s uncompromising foreign policy has partly relied in recent years on the explicit or implicit threat – rather than the outright use on any significant scale – of military force. Nor has China, unlike Russia, been proven to have assassinated (or tried to assassinate) its own citizens or others abroad. China has shown little interest in manipulating election results beyond its own borders – again, unlike Russia, which has sought to do so in locations as diverse as the US, Madagascar and Montenegro. And China is not as heavily invested in propping up dictators, which again Russia continues to do in Belarus, Syria and Venezuela, among other countries.
A second flaw with seeking to use Russia as a balance against China is that this prematurely dismisses the prospect for sustainable interactions between Western countries and China. The West and China will almost certainly continue to clash on many issues, perhaps severely, but that does not automatically mean that cooperation in good faith on issues such as climate change, the development of Global South economies or even, for that matter, dealing with Moscow is fundamentally beyond Beijing.
A third mistake is quite simply that the grand bargain is unlikely to work. A tenable alliance with the current regime led by Vladimir Putin has proven impossible, and will continue to elude Western diplomats and governments for the foreseeable future – as other chapters of this report argue on multiple fronts. Regardless of whether ceding a sphere of influence to Russia is even within the gift of the West, where is the evidence that Russia would be a reliable partner – and become a less disruptive international actor – if accommodated as some suggest? And where is the evidence that a better relationship with Russia would help address the challenges from China or deter China from acting in a particular way – for example, in asserting itself territorially in the South China Sea or in relation to Taiwan?
Russia is in any event inclined to attempt to align itself with China on specific issues, such as human rights, given the two countries’ similarities as fellow autocracies. Consider, for example, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Mariya Zakharova’s reproach in June 2020 that the rest of the world must not interfere in China’s ‘internal affairs’ over Hong Kong. Admittedly, China does not endorse Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but this is to avoid undermining Beijing’s stance on territorial integrity – Russia understands why China’s agenda on Xinjiang and Tibet forces it to take this position. But the two countries will not call each other out on human rights abuses, such as China’s treatment of its Uighur population in Xinjiang, or Russia’s conduct towards protesters following Alexei Navalny’s return to Russia and arrest in January 2021, for example.
In the light of China’s potential exposure to international opprobrium as the origin point of COVID-19, the Chinese leadership is unlikely to decide that its best move is a significantly closer relationship with a pariah state such as Russia.
A fourth and final error is to assume that normalization of ties with Moscow is needed to prevent the development of a Russia–China axis that, perhaps indirectly, could reinforce China’s growing reach and capabilities. But such an axis is less plausible a prospect than is sometimes assumed. Although Russia and China work together in multilateral institutions such as the UN on issues such as cyber governance and human rights, it is not axiomatic that the two countries will draw closer together in a broad strategic relationship if the former is strategically pushed away by the West through criticism and economic sanctions. In the light of China’s potential exposure to international opprobrium as the origin point of COVID-19, the Chinese leadership is unlikely to decide that its best move is a significantly closer relationship with a pariah state such as Russia. Western fears about ‘losing’ Russia to China are largely driven by Russia’s perceived ‘pivot’ to the east since 2014. But it is questionable whether such a pivot ever indeed occurred. Although Russia’s relations with China have been strengthening since the 1980s, the concept of a pivot is a recent one. It is primarily a construction used by Russia to unnerve Western audiences, and to give the impression that it has strategic options. The reality is that Russia’s elites remain overwhelmingly Western-centric in their identification of foreign policy risks and opportunities.
At the same time, politics and protocol in Moscow obscure Russia’s own significant reservations about closer ties with China. Russia is as aware as any other government of China’s power. The Kremlin’s caution reflects a variety of factors that include asymmetry in bilateral trade negotiations and age-old fears about the consequences of population disparity on either side of the China–Russia border. Russia’s security service culture and mindset apply strongly to eastern as well as western neighbours: for example, what does the FSB (Federal Security Service) make of Russia being forced to use 5G telecoms hardware from China’s Huawei, since Russia cannot produce equipment of sufficient quality on its own, given the cybersecurity concerns in many countries over the embedding of Huawei technology in the next generation of advanced networks?
What is its impact on policy?
Accommodating Russia would involve tolerating policies that contravene Western stated principles and that imply potentially grave harm (conflict casualties, loss of territory etc.) in other countries. Russia demands control in sovereign states that have been independent for some 30 years, and to which (despite its cultivation of other myths explored in this report) it has no justifiable claim. To borrow a historical analogy, it almost seems as if Moscow wants another ‘Yalta Conference’ to validate the carving up of neighbouring territory to its advantage. But for the West to effectively hand over Ukraine, for instance, as the price for cooperation against China would not only be a huge betrayal of Ukraine but would critically undermine Western credibility in other theatres in the future. The Soviet Union joined the Allies in the Second World War as a common enemy was (eventually) agreed on; the long-term effects for Eastern Europe were disastrous. A modern-day alliance with Russia against China might be appropriate if Western countries were at war with China, or even at a point-of-no-return stand-off. But that is not yet the case.
Supporters of normalizing relations tend to desire a return to something akin to the geopolitics of the 19th century, in which the exercise of power involves constant shifts in alignment and alliances without reference to values. It follows that the effect of this myth on policy would be the abandonment of the West’s stated norms, alongside the encouragement of Russia that rule-breaking gets results. Western states would suffer a far greater erosion of values than is already in evidence. So if the West did reach out to Russia, it is more likely that this would simply confirm the Russian leadership’s belief in its country as a geopolitical ‘balancer’ between East and West.
The West’s great strength is its democratic system, tattered as this is. Russia knows this. Compromising principles, as would be necessary in an alignment of convenience with Russia, would eliminate what remains of that strength. In doing so, we would disarm and weaken ourselves.
What would better policy look like?
As so often, better policy would involve recognizing the evidence before us and acting on it. The record shows that Russia is seeking to undermine Western norms and values in aggressive ways; this needs to be countered with actions, not just words. Currently this is being done primarily through sanctions – the most useful non-violent tool for expressing disapproval. But however it is done, the point is to respond, and not to simply accept transgressions as ‘typical’ or ‘unfortunate’, lest they are understood by the Kremlin as acceptable – and therefore repeatable.
The previous chapter has shown that attempting to drive wedges between Russia and China will not work. Logic then suggests that the countries need to be addressed on their individual merits and misdemeanours.
Although much of the world has woken up to the challenge posed by Russia, policymakers need constant reminding of this fact. Responding to China’s rise is admittedly complicated. Western policymakers should realize this, but not overreact and lose the chance to establish a sustainable relationship.
It should be self-evident that China’s increasing global footprint and diplomatic assertiveness present multiple international concerns requiring prioritization and the ability to address challenges on more than one front. This does not change the logic that, whatever China is becoming, it is of little relevance to what Russia is doing.