hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

China and Russia: Wind, Gas and Strategy

Alphen, Netherlands. 21 May. 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 Putin’s state visit to China this week is hard grand strategic calculation by both Beijing and Moscow that will shape the adversarial grand politics of the early twenty-first century.

This week’s gas supply deal with Russia 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 having abandoned the West China is fully aware that Russia is in a weak strategic position in desperate need to reduce its reliance on Europe for 80% of its energy sales. 

Moscow is at a strategic crossroads.  Russia could at this point still seek to mend its relations with the West, Europe in particular.  Moscow could signal that what has 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 signalling by the nature and the tone of Putin’s visit to China 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 is 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 this week with China. 

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 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 defence 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 are more in its favour.  However, Beijing’s sharp response to 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 neighbours testing American resolve and tiring capabilities.  However, it is clear; in the Chinese strategic mind a day of reckoning with America will come.

For the West these shifting strategic tectonics imply profound dilemmas.  First, only the United States (and only part of the US) is prepared to see the new order for what it is – big, dangerous and adversarial.  Second, 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 continues to view defence as a function of accountancy rather than strategy.  This week’s crisis in the Atlantic has revealed just how hollowed-out the Royal Navy in particular has become.  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 – modern ships but not enough of them.  And the lack of a capable maritime patrol aircraft that could have assisted in the search for the lost British sailors was cut four years ago by the Government even as it was being built. For Britain not to have a capable maritime patrol aircraft is not only absurd it is perverse.

As for the rest of Europe they are either incapable, unwilling or both.  Indeed, a poll this week of German public opinion revealed just how difficult Europe’s most important power finds facing up to the new strategic realities.  The German public are still essentially pacifist.  Consequently, there is a strategic black hole in the heart of Europe that will continue to mean Europeans punch well below their respective weight on the twenty-first century world stage.  And all this just as America really needs allies.

Not without irony it is perhaps the Russians who need most to understand the price they are about to pay.  There may be patriotic hoopla in Moscow today over the annexation of Crimea but over the longer-term it could prove to have been a disastrous move.  China will certainly not hesitate to exploit a needy Russia.  As he was welcomed by President Xi 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. 

If Western politicians could stop confusing politics with strategy they would realise the importance of the moment and what it means for longer-term world stability and defence.  America cannot continue to cut its defence budget 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.

Julian Lindley-French 

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