By Dr. Subhash Kapila*
Russia-China strategic nexus and the troubled China-US relations are the most hotly debated topics in global strategic nexus in the 21st Century.
These revolve around the unpredictability of China whose aspirational objective of emerging as the next global superpower impinges heavily on Russian and American strategic interests, and ironically both of these mighty nations tend to appease and aid China’s not so peaceful rise in global affairs.
China has not been steadfast in its loyalty to either Russia or to the United States even when in different periods in the last few decades it has oscillated in swinging its strategic proximities between Russia and the United States. This is all part of recorded history. China more pointedly was never fully loyal even to its ideological mentor and strategic patron of the formative stages of consolidating its nationhood, namely the former Soviet Union.
The Russia-China strategic nexus is an opportunistic so-called strategic arrangement which sprung into existence in the immediate wake of the first few years of the Post-Cold War era in the 1990s. It is difficult to designate it as a ‘Strategic Partnership’ because today there are less of strategic convergences and more of perceptional strategic divergences of their respective neighbourhoods. The Russia-China strategic nexus was a reactive knee-jerk reaction to the emergence of unbridled United States strategic dominance of the last two decades.
Russia and China have divergent views on Japan and the most serious in terms of differing perceptions. China views Japan as an implacable enemy because of its historical experiences and fears that a Japan reorienting its military priorities and security philosophies can in the future again emerge as a security concern for China.
Russia despite the territorial dispute with Japan over the Northern Islands is keen to establish good political and economic relations with Japan. Russia does not figure as a threat in Russian strategic thinking today. It is more of a challenge and opportunity for Russia. Japan would be crucial to Russia’s announced ‘Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific’.
Vietnam is another major differing issue between China and Russia in terms of strategic perceptions. Russia has been a long term strategic patron of Vietnam and with good ideological ties. Russia today has contracted to supply six submarines to Vietnam along with Combat aircraft and anti-ship missiles. Russia is keen that Vietnam does not slip out to strategic proximity with the United States which also will soon be supplying non-lethal military hardware to Vietnam.
China on the other hand with its aggressive brinkmanship and military aggression against Vietnam over the South China Sea disputes has treated Vietnam like an ‘enemy nation’ despite ideological affinity. China continues its conflict-escalation bullying against Vietnam in complete disregard of international norm and conventions. China’s such unfriendly activities against Vietnam has induced strong anti-Chinese sentiments in the Vietnamese public
Russia perceives China as a long term strategic threat especially in relation to the security and integrity of its Far Eastern provinces on the Pacific littoral which China covets and in which region China has already infiltrated thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants.
South Asia is the only one region where this year there appears to be a strategic convergence that has emerged on Pakistan. Russia presumably in deference to China or out to spite India for moving closer to the United States is forging a strategic partnership with Pakistan. However, it is a Russian strategic gamble and the longevity of this new-found Russian embrace of Pakistan is doubtful.
The Middle East is crucially fundamental to Russian national security interests and here China besides making some rhetorical support arguments in support of Russia on Syria has done nothing more substantial. The only activity worth noting was of joint Russo-Chinese naval exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean this year.
Europe, Russia’s and Chinese do not appear to have any convergent strategic perceptions. Europe is bound to Russia for its energy security supplies whereas Europe’s interest in China is more trade and commerce-centric.
In my earlier Papers on this subject I had raised the question as to how would Russia and China react if either of them got involved in a direct confrontation with the United States? My answer then and my answer now remains the same and that is neither Russia nor China would go beyond rhetorical support.
Within Russia also there are seems to be strong opposition to Russia getting entangled in a strategic nexus with China arguing that Russia’s colossal energy supplies to China and sale of armaments to China would only beef-up China’s military capabilities with two adverse effects. The first is reinforcing of China’s war-waging capabilities which may complicate ties with Russian friends like Vietnam, besides that China could one day turn on Russia itself militarily. The second reason is that cumulatively this would lead to diminution of Russia’s strategic standing and image.
Concluding, one would like to venture a thought and that is that the only way to rupture the Russia-China strategic nexus is for the United States to genuinely ‘re-set” its Russian policy formulations mindful of the reality that China is the real threat to United States national security interests .United States appeasement policies of China have failed to convince China that it needs to integrate itself with the global community and a law-based international order.
*Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at [email protected]