international analysis and commentary

China and Russia: wind, gas and strategy

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In 1957, at the height of Soviet power, Chinese leader Mao Zedong made a prediction. “It is my opinion that the international situation has now reached a new turning point. There are two winds in the world today, the East Wind and the West Wind. There is a Chinese saying, ‘Either the East Wind prevails over the West Wind or the West Wind prevails over the East Wind.’ I believe it is characteristic of the situation today that the East Wind is prevailing over the West Wind”. Behind the civilities of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s May 2014 state visit to China is hard grand strategic calculation by both Beijing and Moscow that could well shape the adversarial grand politics of the early 21st century.

The deal for Russia to supply gas to China and the hard bargain China has driven demonstrate two important Chinese strategic principles. First, China accepts that implicit in Russia’s use of Machopolitik in Ukraine is a new East-West Machtpolitik stand-off. Second, Russia is no equal but part of China’s growing sphere of influence. Indeed, with Russia in the process of abandoning the West through its actions in Ukraine and elsewhere China is fully aware that Russia is in a weak strategic position and in desperate need to reduce its reliance on Europe for 80% of its energy sales.

Moscow is also at a strategic crossroads. Russia could at this point still seek to mend its relations with the West, Europe in particular. Indeed, Moscow could easily signal that what happened in Crimea was forced upon it by circumstances and that Russia is still open to a political settlement that would confirm Ukraine’s sovereign rights but protect both Russian-speaking minorities and the fleet base at Sevastopol.

Instead Russia is further upping the anti-Western ante and signaling by the nature and the tone of Putin’s visit to China and Putin’s July 1st address to Russian diplomats that the breach with the West is structural and permanent. This is reinforced by Russia’s deployment of state-of-the-art Bastion P 330K anti-ship missiles to Crimea. By so doing (and given the recent cruise of the aircraft-carrier Kuznetsov) Moscow’s ambition seems to be clear; to rebuild the Russian Navy into an anti-Western blue water fleet albeit focused on the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. This was clearly the message in the joint naval exercises conducted with China the Sea of Japan. An implicit counter-message was sent recently by the British with the launch of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of the new British super-carriers.

China has different motivations. Whilst Moscow shares China’s classical balance of power, sphere of influence world view, the respective levels of ambition of the two powers are markedly different. Russia’s strategy is inherently defensive in its far east and only regional-strategic in its near-west. China on the other hand is preparing to take on the US and its allies in South and East Asia. Russia is attractive as a satellite because it forces an America with a declining defense budget to look two ways at once, thus complicating US strategic calculation.

Equally, China is still willing to bide its time until what it sees as the correlation of forces is more in its favor. However, Beijing’s sharp response to 2014 US charges of cyber-espionage against five Chinese military officers is indicative of what is to come. Chinese state cyber-espionage against all Western powers (civil and military) is rife and getting more so. For the time being China is satisfied to extend its sphere of influence through the use of intimidation of its East and South Asian neighbors so as to test American resolve and tiring capabilities. However, it is clear: in the Chinese strategic mind a day of reckoning with America will one day come.

For the West these shifting strategic tectonics imply profound dilemmas as demonstrated in the July 2014 spying spat between Germany and the US, which reflects a deep difference of opinion about foreign and security policy. Only the United States and in fact only a part of the American political elite is prepared to see the new order for what it is – big, dangerous and adversarial. Sadly, America’s key allies are in utter denial about the implications of such strategic shift over the medium-to-long term.

Even Britain, long America’s staunchest strategic ally, is only beginning to again view defense as a function of strategy rather than accountancy. Prime Minister David Cameron’s July 14th injection of an additional £1.1 billion into the defense budget is the first time Britain’s leader has talked about the relationship between a changing world and the need for powerful British military capabilities. Still, for all the new capability-investment (£160 billion over ten years) the Royal Navy is an example of the wider European paradox. According to Global Firepower the Royal Navy, a century ago by the far the most powerful navy, is now the world’s 36th largest force with an array of ultra-modern ships in the Fleet or soon to join but simply not enough of them.

As for the rest of Europe they are either incapable, unwilling or both. Indeed, a recent poll of German public opinion revealed just how far Europe’s most important power is from facing up to the new strategic realities. The German football team might be world-beaters but that cannot be said for their armed forces. The result is a strategic black hole in the heart of Europe that will continue to see Europeans punch well below their respective weight on the 21st century world stage. And all this just as America really needs allies.

Equally, Russians should also understand the price they are about to pay. As he was welcomed by President Xi Jinping in May, Putin described China as Russia’s “reliable friend” and pointedly referred to China as Russia’s major trading partner. Any analysis of history reveals the first statement to be untrue – China has never been Russia’s reliable friend. And, whilst the second statement is factually correct the gas deal reveals the fundamental tension in the Chinese-Russian relationship; China no longer regards Russia as an equal let alone a leader.

Therefore, if Western politicians could stop confusing politics with strategy they would realize the importance of the seismic geopolitical changes taking place in 2014 and act accordingly. However, that would take big politicians with big ideas and plenty of courage – and all three are in short supply these days. The bottom line is this; America cannot continue to cut what its armed forces are able to deliver globally, and if NATO is to mean anything to Americans nor can Britain or the rest of Europe.

That is the message carried on the East Wind from Beijing and Moscow. And it is a bitter wind that will blow only harder in what is a slowly gathering storm.