December 18, 2022
From a thread I posted on Twitter on February 27, 2022:
1. Some thoughts on the strategic relationship between Russia and China. A thread. The current closeness between the two is basically driven by two factors:
2. First, and this predates Xi, is China’s concern about the vulnerability of its supply lines, particularly oil, to interdiction by the US Navy in the event of a conflict. China is the world’s largest oil importer and its reliance grows each year.
3. This is matched by Russia’s eagerness to win a customer for its energy exports, and for years the two have been developing overland pipelines that would be secure from naval interference. This hasn’t eliminated China’s vulnerability, but it has partly ameliorated it.
4. In more recent years, China has built on this push for overland infrastructure, constructing rail lines to Europe (through Central Asia and Russia) as part of the Belt & Road Initiative, with Russia’s acquiescence (more than in a second).
5. Second, it is a shared reaction, by Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China, to the fear of “color revolutions” to overturn authoritarian rulers, whether in Ukraine, Libya, or Iran, and a conviction that these are the product of a concerted US strategy aimed at them.
6. Both looked on with horror at the Arab Spring in 2011, and vowed the same would never happen to them. So the enemy of their enemy (the US) become their friend.
7. None of this, however, was without caveat. Russia can never forget that a heavily-populated, resource-hungry China looms very large over its resource-rich under-populated Far Eastern provinces, which it conquered in previous centuries from … China.
8. I joked, before this conflict began, that this was the perfect opportunity for China to reclaim its lost provinces across the Amur River. And no, this is not a real strategic priority or possibility right now. But it’s not something side can ever completely forget.
9. If you doubt me, remember that the USSR and China fought fierce border skirmishes in this area in 1969 that many seriously feared could lead to a nuclear war. It was this conflict that opened the door to Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.
10. Today, Russia cannot be thrilled at China’s economic penetration of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. But it has been willing to turn a blind eye, for the moment, for the sake of other priorities and essentially accept a role as junior partner to Xi’s China.
11. For its past, China has interests and priorities, as the world’s 2nd largest economy, that span far wider than its relationship of convenience with Russia, and in some ways potentially conflict with them.
12. For instance, Russia hopes China can serve as its lifeline in the face of Western financial sanctions. On the one hand, China would love to capitalize on this, but it also has to be careful not to endanger more important interests and priorities by doing so.
13. In some ways, this is like China’s relationship with Iran. It is happy to capitalize on Iran’s isolation and hostility towards the West – to an extent. But going “all in” with Iran could seriously endanger its relationship with all sorts of partners that are more valuable.
14. So while China and Russia may share a certain affinity, as autocracies out of step with a US-led world order, the notion that they are now ideological blood brothers – a new Axis – glosses over a lot of differences and difficulties.
15. By the same token, the right-wing notion that Russia – under Putin’s leadership – could be turned into a crucial US ally against China, based on chimeras like “race” and “culture”, is far closer to meme-based fantasy than strategic reality.
16. Ever since its disastrous defeat by Japan in 1905, through WW2, Russia’s nightmare has been facing a war on its distant eastern front, across vast supply lines. And until it becomes vastly stronger, it is going to continue subordinating its ambitions to survival there.
17. Our best strategy, in my view, is to highlight the frictions in the relationship. Remind Russia how much it is ceding to China, but far more importantly – since Russia may not have a choice – focus China on the broader interests it puts at risk by getting too close to Russia.