By Jonathan Power
In her famous decree in 1767 Empress Catherine the Great proclaimed Russia to be a European power. She wanted Russia to be a major player in European politics. She compelled the Europeans to accept Russia as a great power as a condition for doing business. In 1815 Russia was considered an equal in the 1815 Concert of Europe.
In contrast, Imperial China at that time was self-sufficient and inward looking. It basked in its own superior culture. It did not want to open up trade relations with Europe and the emperor questioned the ability of the British who were knocking on the door to “acquire the rudiments” of Chinese civilization.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century, what have we? The heart of Russia, economically, politically, scientifically, culturally and educationally is west of the Ural mountains. This part would like to be European and at one time there was talk from Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian presidents Boris Yelstin and Vladimir Putin of a desire to join the EU and NATO.
President George H. W. Bush, (Senior), appeared to want to keep that hope alive (despite some actions that weren’t in Russia’s interests), but he didn’t win a second term, defeated by a less visionary Bill Clinton who rebuffed Russia, expanding NATO eastward and breaking a solemn American promise made to Gorbachev not to. Now the Russian leadership doesn’t speak of joining up with Europe, although my feeling from continued visits there over 50 years is that most people in the west of Russia would like to be attached to Europe. (East of the Urals I don’t know about.)
There was some rapprochement during the era of President Barack Obama which led to significant cuts in both sides’ nuclear weapons, but Obama was outwitted on Russian policy by a hostile Republican Congress. Trump, a Republican, has built on that.
In contrast, China has continued today its tradition of being the Middle Kingdom, “all under heaven”. It believes it has a superior culture. Its population size gives its belief in itself enormous heft. It wants to be politically self-sufficient and like Russia it doesn’t want to be encircled- by America’s allies, Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam and by American warships that patrol off its coast in a way that the US would never permit off its coast. This explains its militarization of nearby small islands.
The West, in particular the US, but supported more quietly by the EU, has for years kept up a drumbeat of criticism because of China’s government decision to remain communist-ruled while becoming capitalist economically and keeping political power exclusively in its own hands. The US for a least a decade has gratuitously added China to its list of nuclear targets. (Since the Korean War in 1950-53 China has never militarily seriously threatened American interests.) Now President Donald Trump is sledgehammering China in a trade war and some of his advisors are talking about introducing short-range missiles that could be nuclear armed on the soil of its local allies. The EU might not like all of this but it doesn’t loudly speak up against it.
It’s not surprising that after two decades of drifting apart Russia and China are now embracing each other. A rebuffed and wary Russia and the confident behemoth China, constantly challenged by the West, find that once again, as in Soviet times, they should seek each other’s support, politically and economically.
This does not mean they are totally at loggerheads with the West – not yet. China has backed up America’s attempts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arms. Until last year, when the US counterproductively blackballed it, it participated in the biennial “Rim of the Pacific” military exercises involving 20 nations and commanded by the US. Despite the hype, although China has substantially increased its military spending it’s from a small base. China believes in soft power more than hard power.
Russia helped the US and the EU negotiate with Iran a means of capping its nuclear research so that nuclear bomb-making was impossible. It still allows American troops and materials to travel overland to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. The US buys rocket engines from it and uses Russian rockets to carry its astronauts to the jointly owned International Space Station. Russia has worked with the US to remove chemical weapons from Syria.
The above is the big picture. We can see why, despite some positive elements, Russia and China are being pushed into a tight embrace. In the small picture are the everyday slights that the US and the EU inflict on China and Russia.
Does the West think, even for one minute, where its negative policies will lead? I see little sign of it. Neither of these two proud countries will allow themselves to be bullied. They never have.
Note: Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune. Copyright: Jonathan Power. Website www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com.