China’s economic rise, coupled with military development, has poised the country to become a powerful world player in international politics. More importantly, China’s strategic imperatives clash with those of the US: China needs to be more secure in procuring necessary oil and gas resources which are currently mostly available through the Malakka Strait. In the age of US naval dominance, the Chinese imperative is to redirect its economy’s dependence as well as supply routes elsewhere from the Malakka Strait. Thus, comes the famous almost trillion US Dollar Belt and Road Initiative to reconnect the Asia-Pacific with Europe through Russia, the Middle East and Central Asia. At the same time, Chinese naval ambitions are on the rise to thwart the US dominance close to its shores.
Since the domination in the oceans is at the heart of the US global power and insecurity of the Chinese economy, mutual suspicions between Beijing and Moscow are bound to increase over the next years and decades.
Numerous foreign policy scenarios have been proposed on whether China is similar to an expansionist Germany of pre-WWI and there being a coming showdown between the two powers. However, what seems lacking in those at times very good analyses is the Russian position. The country stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific and ensconced between the West and China in fact is poised to play a pivotal role in the possible US-China confrontation due to its geography and military and economic capabilities.
Shut in the West, Open in the East
It is fundamental to understand Russian-thinking as the country sees within this conflict a possibility to advance its geopolitical agenda, much constrained by the Europeans and Americans over the past three decades of competition.
The current crisis between Russia and the West is formed from so many fundamental (geopolitical) differences, both in the former Soviet space and elsewhere, that there are indications the relations will remain stalled for long into the future unless one of the sides makes large concessions. This, as well as successful western expansion into what was always considered as the “Russian backyard,” in some sense isolated Russia’s projection of power and diminished the country into the north of Eurasia – between the fast-developing China, Japan and other Asian countries and the technologically modern European landmass.
Nowadays, Russia claims that the country’s western borders are vulnerable because NATO and the EU are marching East. In fact, Russia has far more vulnerable territories, such as the North Caucasus and the porous Central Asia.
In some respect, the Russians are simply spending too much of their national energies on problems with the West. Costly military modernization and support for various separatist regimes in Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia weighs much on the Russian budget.
Some Russians could rightly question as to why their country is spending so much on the former Soviet space when Russia’s current borders are more in Asia. Why is their country spending so much on unsuccessfully derailing the Western influences in many parts of the former Soviet space? It is doubly true when one looks at the map of Russia with its large Siberian lands uncultivated and free of population masses.
Today, when Europe is as much a source of technological progress as Japan and China are, never in Russian history has there been such opportunity to develop Siberia and transform itself into a powerbase of the world economy.
Russia’s geographic position is indeed unique and will remain so for another several decades, as the ice cap in the Arctic Ocean is set to diminish significantly. The Arctic Ocean will be transformed into an ocean of commercial highways, giving Russia historical possibilities to become a potential sea power.
Chinese and Japanese human and technological resources in the Far East of Russia, and European resources in the West of Russia, will transform the country into a land of opportunity.
Geopolitics and Russia’s Civilizational Choice
This geographic position of Russia should be kept in mind when analyzing Moscow’s position in the China-US competition. However, apart from this purely economic and geographic pull that the developed Asia-Pacific has for Russia’s eastern provinces, the Russian political elite could see the nascent US-China confrontation as a good possibility for enhancing its weakening geopolitical stance throughout the former Soviet space. Russians are right to think that both Washington and Beijing would dearly need Russian support, and this logic would drive Moscow’s preferably non-committal approach towards Beijing and Washington. In purely cold-blooded understanding of the international affairs, Russia would try to position itself in a situation where the US and China would strongly compete with each other to win Russian favor.
In allying itself with China, Russia instead would expect to increase its influence in Central Asia where Chinese power has grown exponentially since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although the Russians have not yet voiced their official concerns, this is not to deny the existence of any within the Russian political elite.
However, if Russians choose the US side, the concessions the latter would have to make could be more significant than from the Chinese side. Ukraine and the South Caucasus would be the biggest prizes, while NATO expansion into the Russian “backyard” would be stalled. The Middle East can be another sticking point where Russia might get fundamental concessions, for example in Syria, if the conflict in the country remains long-lasting.
Beyond the grand strategic thinking, for the Russians it will also be a civilizational choice molded in the perennial debate which exists within Russia on whether the country is European or Asiatic, or rather Eurasian – a mixture of the two. Geography will inexorably pull Russia to the east, but culture – to the west. While similar decisions are usually expected to be based on geopolitical calculations, cultural affinity will also play a role.
Tied into the culture aspect is the fear that the Russians (as in fact most in the world) do not know how the world would look under Chinese leadership. The US might represent a threat to Russia, but it is still a “well-known” for the Russian political elites. Potentially, a China-led Eurasia could be more challenging for the Russians considering how open Russian frontiers and provinces are to large Chinese segments of population.
As such, the Russian view on the nascent US-China confrontation will be opportunistic and based on which side would offer more to resolve Moscow’s problems across the former Soviet space.
This article was published at Georgia Today
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