In a piece today for RT (which you can read here), I discuss Ed Lucas’ latest article in which he seeks to define “victory” in the West’s geopolitical struggle against Russia and China. As I argue, victory as seen by Lucas wouldn’t do the West any good: either Russia and China would drag the West down with them, or you’d get “democratic” regimes in those countries who would pursue their national interests even more assertively than the “autocratic” regimes do at present.
Putting all that aside, what Lucas’ piece reveals is the worry, verging on panic, that China induces in policy circles in the West. Hegemony is slipping out of their grasp and they don’t know what to do about it. As Lucas puts it, “The bleak truth is that China (for all its problems) is rising, while we are floundering. Defeat is visible, while victory is not. That’s bad.”
For analysts like Lucas, Russia is a malevolent force but ultimately a bit part player in the larger scheme of things. China is what really matters. Still, Russia is large, has an impressive military, and helps tip the balance of power in China’s direction by being, if not an ally, at least very friendly with it. This leads to the issue of what can be done about the China-Russia relationship.
There are, roughly speaking, two schools of thought. The first sees Russia and China as an inseparable “axis of evil.” The second believes that Russia naturally belongs in the West and can brought back over from the dark side to stand with the West in opposition to the Chinese.
Lucas fits within the first school. Russia and China are different, he says, but their threats “overlap”. Pay too much attention to China, and Russia will attack while you are looking elsewhere. The way to get at Russia, he implies, is via China. Knock China down, and Russia will fall with it. Or as Lucas writes, “Nobody is safe against Russia if the West fails to deal with China.”
To put it in the language of military strategy, the logic here is that Russia and China are two fronts of a common war of autocracy against democracy, but the centre of gravity is China, which must therefore be the point of main effort.
Proponents of the second school disagree. Sun Tzu remarked that the best strategy is “to attack the enemy’s strategy … the next best is to attack his allies.” According to this view, it’s best to avoid strength and concentrate against weakness. Knock out the allies, and you weaken the stronger body while avoiding a direct fight with it. This logic suggests that the West should focus on Russia and attempt to detach it from China. If Russia ceases to be a Chinese ally, the Chinese position will become that much weaker.
An example of this thinking comes in an article by Charles Kupchan this week in Foreign Affairs magazine. Entitled “The Right Way to Split Russia and China,” Kupchan argues that US president Joe Biden “can’t stop China’s rise, but he can limit its influence by trying to lure away from China its main collaborator: Russia.” Kupchan notes that Russia and China aren’t natural allies, and that Russia doesn’t want too close a relationship with the Chinese because it knows that it will be by far the weaker partner in that relationship. There are, therefore, grounds for believing that Russia can be pulled away from China if given sufficient inducements.
To this end, Kupchan proposes that the United States drop its “democracy versus autocracy” rhetoric, since it serves only to drive Russia into China’s arms; that it (and its European allies) expand trade with Russia, so as to strengthen its ties with the West (for which reason, Kupchan believes that the US was wrong to oppose the North Stream 2 pipeline); that it refrain from additional sanctions; that it negotiate with the Russians over strategic arms control; that the US engages Russia over the Arctic; and so on.
If all this works, says Kupchan, Russia may make up with the West. At that point, China will no longer feel that its northern flank is secure, and will have to divert forces to defend itself against Russia. This will weaken China’s ability to threaten the USA and its allies.
Former Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, thinks that this approach might be worth pursuing at some later date, but not as long as Russia remains an “autocratic” state. In a recent article for The Washington Post, McFaul argues Russia has nothing to offer the United States beyond oil, of which the US already has plenty. Besides that, “in return for pivoting, Putin would demand unsavory concessions, especially regarding Ukraine and Georgia. That’s a bad trade.” “Someday,” says McFaul, “the United States should seek deeper partnership with Russia in containing and competing with China. But that policy should be initiated with a democratic Russia, not an autocratic Putin.”
As I point out in my RT article, such attempts to view democratization as the solution to international problems are misplaced. There’s no reason why a “democratic” Russia would want to ally with the West against China any more than an “autocratic” one would. Russian national interests would remain the same regardless. In fact, I rather suspect that a more democratic Russia would be more hostile to the West than is the government of Vladimir Putin.
But putting that aside, I have some sympathy with McFaul’s belief that attempts to split Russia and China will bring few benefits. The main reason is that such attempts are unlikely to succeed. Imagine that the West did what Kupchan suggests and that Russian-Western relations improved. Why would that induce Russia to be more hostile to China? Why would China suddenly worry more about its northern border? These things aren’t related.
Russia’s leaders seem to have a fairly good grasp of the international situation. They understand that China’s rise is inexorable. Given that China is a neighbour, hostile relations with it are completely against Russia’s national interest. Whoever rules in Moscow will want good relations with Beijing. There’s nothing that the West can do about that. Better Russian-Western relations won’t mean worse Russian-Chinese relations.
I have no objection to the policies Kupchan proposes, but the reason he proposes them is, in my opinion, a little odd. The fundamental problem between Russia and the West at present is a total lack of mutual trust. Anything that can be done to overcome that is a good thing. But trying to fit Russia into the Western-Chinese struggle is, I think, completely pointless. If nothing else, the Russians have absolutely no interest in getting involved. Improving Russian-Western relations is a worthy aim, but one worth pursuing for its own sake. At least in this respect, China is irrelevant.