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  Approaching China: Russia’s risky game

Viktor Denisenko
2014 07 11

Recently China has become a central theme of Russian political discourse. According to Moscow, having united its forces with China, Russia could squeeze out the U.S. from the dominant positions in international relations. However, according to sceptics, China is more dangerous for Russia than Western world.   

So far Russia has been increasingly demonstrating its positive views toward China. This is also determined by growing Russia’s confrontation with Western world concerning Ukraine. Although pressure on Russia cannot be referred to as total, according to the U.S. and Western Europe the Kremlin should get an adequate response for its actions. First of all, in the form of economic sanctions.  

If so, Moscow has no other way out but to redirect its market from Europe, and here the factor of China comes first. In this context the agreement signed in Shanghai on export of Russian gas to China has become an important event.  Moscow presented this agreement as a geopolitical and economic victory, yet its actual economic benefit is not clear. According to experts, having estimated the investment to infrastructure and other issues, Gazprom can incur a loss of about 14 billion US$.

But hardly this economic factor will be determining in the above case. The agreement could be interpreted as an ideological Moscow’s victory, as well as Moscow’s stronger market position, because Europe is not the only one dependent on Russian gas; Russia is also dependent on European market.

Thus, Moscow can start preparing for other conflicts. The events in Ukraine demonstrate that Russia has seriously prepared for an ideological and even direct struggle for the post-Soviet space; thus, it is necessary to protect the country from a possible impact (in this case economic) of Western world. Here the formation of an anti-Western coalition becomes relevant, and again China is the first that comes to mind.    

Moscow’s strategy is more or less clear: to establish, with China’s support, a powerful centre of geopolitical force which could overshadow geopolitical potential of the U.S. But will China approve the above plan? Will Beijing agree to become Russia’s instrument? And who will play the role of an “older brother”: Moscow or Beijing?

V.Kashin, expert of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, provides interesting forecasts related to the perspectives of Russia-China relations. According to him, for Moscow orientation toward Chinese market is important, but it is also related to certain dangers, because Beijing is good at tough negotiating and is able to get trade preferences. V.Kashin indicates that Russia redirecting its economy toward Asian region should also enhance relations not only with China, but also with Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

Forecasts on possible military confrontation between China and Russia are even more interesting. V.Kashin highlights that such a confrontation would be “a looming nightmare” for Russia; it would not be able to protect Siberia and Far East and Russia’s nuclear weapons would be the only instrument of defence.

In fact, all the above forecasts are hypothetic; so far the possibility of real military conflict between Russia and China is hardly possible. But other conflicts of interests between the two states are possible.  Beijing has shown increasing interest in the natural resources of the Arctic; it has even started constructing an icebreaker fleet in the Arctic. But the Arctic represents a number of strategic interests for Russia as well.  Moscow should also start worrying about China’s interest in strengthening its position in the post-Soviet space; first of all via joint projects, and not only in Central Asian republics of former USSR. For instance, Belarus and China are developing a joint industrial park; Beijing also has plans in Ukraine. Yet these processes have been recently suspended.

On the one hand, China for Russia is a natural, on the other hand a dangerous ally. By directing its strategy against the West, Moscow is oriented toward China which doesn’t belong to Western world. Moreover, China is indifferent to issues of democracy both in China and other countries, and demonstrates rapidly growing economic power. The Kremlin hopes that this direction will facilitate realisation of own plans in the post-Soviet space, and will provide more opportunities in the big geopolitical game. But then Russia is at risk of becoming the zone of China’s influence and interests; and in case of any confrontation with China Russia will stay alone, without support of Western world.  Moscow should treat this situation as one of the most dangerous. But the possibility of choice was and still is in the hands of the Kremlin, and it seems that it has already made the choice.

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