By Sarah McPhee
This post is part two of a three-part series on a panel discussing Russia’s relationship with China in the context of current events in Ukraine. This panel discussion, “Russia’s Pivot to China in the Context of a Burning Ukraine” was co-sponsored by the Ellison Center, the East Asia Center, and the Center for Global Studies at the University of Washington. Panelists included Judith Thornton from the University of Washington and Liz Wishnick from Montclair State University as well as Dr. Mikhail Alekseev from San Diego State University.
The concept of a “pivot” is often examined from the perspective of Russia’s interactions with China. Liz Wishnick, Associate Professor of Political Science and Law at Montclair University, explained how China views the American rebalancing of its foreign policy priorities. As Asian countries become increasingly influential on the world stage, the United States and Russia have taken more active roles as Pacific powers.
The United States has always been a player in the Pacific, but the Chinese have observed a readjustment after a period of intense focus on the Middle East and global terrorism. Wishnick has found that there is a spectrum of different perspectives among the Chinese, but “national-realist positions tend to dominate.”
At the very least, China seeks to thwart a potential US hegemony. Wishnick explained that there is a debate in China — is the US trying to contain China’s rise and legitimate interests or not? While some Chinese experts believe that time is on China’s side and advocate looking west to the New Silk Road, there is a distinct fear of encirclement, a fear that is shared by Russia.
The New Sino-Russian Relationship
Russia has an identity as an Asian state, and this Asian vector is necessary to be a global power. Without those regions, Wishnick contends that Russia would be simply “Muscovy, not a great power at all.” She admitted that Russia’s Asia pivot complicates China’s agenda, though Chinese experts generally see the pivot as neutral or positive. For Chinese observers, the value placed on Sino-Russian partnership offsets policy differences.
The Chinese response to increased American and Russia interest in Asia is to distinguish between itself and others in Asia. They have been developing an “Asia for Asians” approach, the “Asia-Pacific Dream” by engaging with a variety of neighbors. The approach is known as the Neighborhood Policy, and the Chinese seek to increase their hegemony in the region through the “good neighbor” legitimacy of its policies in the region — soft power.
In response, the Chinese have increased their investment along the “New Silk Road” in Central Asia, as well as increasing their presence on the “Maritime Silk Road” along Southeast Asia. While there have been some accusations that the Chinese navy has become more aggressive, China has been actively working to expand ports of call and participate in anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden.
Wishnick found that there is some difference in opinion amongst Chinese as to whether or not Russia is a part of the Asia-Pacific Dream or a competitor. She explained that initially trade maps circumvented Russia, but now the Chinese include Russia in Central Asia. There are cooperative ventures planned, and since both countries adhere to a “sphere of influence” concept, Wishnick insists that China wants to dovetail what Russia has in mind.
Russia’s domestic challenges and Near Abroad ambitions are daunting. The future of a Eurasian Union which is capable of operating as a supra-national structure is still uncertain, and Wishnick cited the Valdai Club’s description of Siberian integration in its publication National Identity and the Future of Russia as a “meta-project.” China’s involvement is indispensable to all of this, but the partnership is beyond economic. Wishnick contends that the two countries share both norms of behavior and political pressure from the West, creating much more than an “Axis of Convenience.”
What have the Chinese learned from Ukraine? Wishnick asserted that the conflict in Ukraine may indicate to some in Beijing that “Western interference in other countries is dangerous.” Wishnick also insisted that Putin’s Asia pivot is not the result of Ukraine, but a reengagement of the mutual cooperation between China and the USSR prior to the Sino-Soviet Split.
China is keenly aware that, as in Soviet times, Russia is not always a loyal friend. Sometimes, when it is perceived to be in Russia’s best interest, the Kremlin takes a neutral position and will be friendly with the enemies of allies. However, Wishnick contends that the relationship with Russia is largely positive for China, an Asian country which understands that Russia is a European state focused on developing the Eurasian Union, not dominating Asia. China is certain that Russia will not present challenges to Chinese ambitions in Asia.
Interested in listening to the entire panel? Check it out on SoundCloud! (We thank you in advance for your patience with the sound quality as we continue to improve our technology and social media offerings!)