Caixing Media – translated into English over at Worldcrunch – recently came out with a nice piece on the burgeoning relationship between Beijing and Moscow. Examining why Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Politburo, the plenipotentiaries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), have suddenly become bureaucratic bosom buddies, journalist Chen Qin writes,
Last month [Putin] refused to attend the G8 summit held in the United States. Since he re-took office on May 7th, not only was China scheduled in his first round of foreign trips, it was also the destination with the longest stay. All this demonstrates China’s importance in his eye.
Why is that? Put simply, Putin needs China. His need is even stronger than it was 12 years ago when he came for his first visit.
Qin explores the reasons and rationale behind Putin’s sudden push toward China: the economic malaise still beguiling Russia; an attempt to counter America’s recent Asia-Pacific alignment; tightening security controls as NATO winds down in Afghanistan. He also cites the scratch-my-back rationale that keeps both China and Russia from allowing any UN sanctions in Syria, as well as the plodding pace with which both nations have approached pressuring Iran. All of this posturing, coming on the heels of Putin’s re-ascension, would seem to point toward a blossoming alliance that not merely shunts the three remaining member of the BRICS but also represents a partnering of the world’s two foremost autocracies.
This will, naturally, send a series of tingles down America’s collective spine – of worry, for the End of History crowd; of excitement, for neo-cons; of confusion, for all those who sat behind the ‘reset.’ Our ears, and our haunches, have perked. After all, these are the two viable bogeymen of American foreign policy, and, as an American, it’s a due honor to see some existential threat lurking behind all the politicking. Communism once took top billing, but that caved. Pan-Islamism, stuck between the Arab Spring and Obama’s ‘Terror Tuesdays,’ is on the outs. What better replacement to justify the bloated defense budget, what better meat to toss to the hawks, than the SCO*? No single nation could hope to challenge the United States – why not toss a few together, and see what happens?
*Also members: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, with Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan as observer states. Turkmenistan is a mere ‘Guest Attendee.’ I have no idea what that means, but leave it to Turkmenistan to throw a wrench into the whole thing.
Thankfully, Qin isn’t Tom Clancy, and he doesn’t run with the narrative that the Putin-Politburo partnership is some new threat to Pax Americana. Instead, and what makes this piece worth sharing, is that Qin makes sure to rebut that narrative:
However, behind the appearance of this united front, the two allies’ relations actually remain quite distant. China is unhappy that Russia sells arms to Vietnam, and the stalemate in gas negotiations between the two states found no breakthrough during Putin’s visit.
Of course, such intricacies are lost on a Western populace that sees Putin sitting next to Hu Jintao and immediately posits that the SCO is merely an updated Warsaw Pact. The majority and the hawks will merely see that Russia’s new czar – the guardian of Russian irredentism, the one continuing to harass America’s diplomatic corps – is out looking to join forces without our ascendant rival, and that he is attempting to cobble as many opposition forces as he can under one diplomatic umbrella. Toss in the fact that Iran and Pakistan have gained SCO observer status, and you’re sure to set the narrative of the evil-minded-madness in stone.* (Likewise, it doesn’t help that the most popular game in the history of anything has also deemed the SCO as the baddies of the future.)
*I nearly tossed in an analogy to Marvel’s Sinister Six, Spiderman’s sextet of baddies, but couldn’t figure out whether Hu should be Doc Ock or Mysterio. As it is, I found Putin, with his affinity for tigers, as Kraven the Hunter; Ahmadenijaad, with Iran’s extensive deserts, as Sandman; and Nazarbayev, because of his age and the Kazakh tradition of eagle-hunting, as the Vulture. I may have too much time on my hands.
As Qin notes, there’s too much beyond the photo op, too much left unsaid, to think of this as the means to a nascent Cold War. The 20th-century relationship between the USSR/Russia and China is as fraught and fickle as any shared-border nations, especially of this magnitude. The two leaders of the Communist order saw border spats, nuclear tensions, and, in one of the funniest moments of modern diplomacy, a scene in which Mao foisted Khrushchev, a horrific swimmer, into a pair of ‘water wings’ while the Chinese dictator swam laps around him. Relations were, for decades, frosty. And while the two nations have recently backed one another in Security Council resolutions, there remains geopolitical gaps – in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, in the former Soviet ‘stans – that would prevent this new relationship from moving beyond much more, in the short-term, than a mutually beneficial economic swap.
As it is, contra Call of Duty, the SCO stands little likelihood of evolving into a militaristic hegemon – look merely at The Economist’s recent long-form on China’s military expansion and you’ll be reminded why the US, with NATO/Australia/Japan/South Korea in tow, stands shoulders beyond where the militaries of the present and former communist nations currently sit. Any comparison is laughable. So while SCO military ventures are planned and inevitable, this is not some Bear-Dragon chimera, not some new Axis of Evil, that the narrative would allow. This is not another existential threat, or a meeting of malevolence, as Mr. Romney seems to believe. Saying anything else is mere bellicosity for its own sake.
Still, the growing relationship is, if nothing else, interesting. By spurning the G8 summit, Putin lends a tad more credence to those who claim that his anti-America screeching was more than just pointless campaign-speak. And China, in cleaving a bit tighter to Mitt’s Enemy No. 1 – to a nation that continues an autocratic backslide – does itself no service in projecting any sort of reformist guise.
But, please. This isn’t Warsaw. This isn’t the Axis. These are two tepid rivals, seeing a bit of mutual beneficence, and an opportunity to stave off economic slow-down. As Qin points out, China and Russia have found themselves relatively unscathed by the Great Recession, and, while past performance does not guarantee future returns, these two countries are long from requiring the bailouts besetting southern Europe. This is about rubles and yuan, not drones and expansion. Despite Putin’s best scowl, this isn’t iniquity as its finest. The SCO, and the Sino-Russian relationship, is not the Next Great Existential Threat.
Beyond those two nations – because, of course, there are still other countries in the SCO – what would a tighter Sino-Russian relationship mean for Central Asia? Well, it’s one more step in the dusted-off Great Game, certainly. As the West’s influence in Central Asia wanes, Russia’s – and now China’s – increases. As always, the ‘stans, while not necessarily pawns in this new turn, continue to play second-fiddle in their larger neighbors, and should have little sway in dictating any new partnership. (That being said, Joshua recently pointed out that the ‘stans are in fact looking to play a larger role in future SCO endeavors, especially in Afghanistan ).
But a tightening of the Sino-Russian relationship, nominally, solidifies a bit of the security concerns still found within Central Asia. Should the relationship continue to flourish, risk of a future border dispute between Russia and China – or between the latter and any of the other members of the SCO – would seem to diminish. It’s a regional fastening – and in an area that shares such volatility, that’s not necessarily the worst thing.
Interestingly, and in a bit of a humanistic light, closer Sino-Russian relations may foster a more favorable portrayal of the Chinese across the steppe. Central Asians, namely the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, have an especial antipathy toward the Chinese – both nations abut Xinjiang, and both have ethnic ties to the increasingly maligned Uyghurs.* After all, Kazakhstan, much like East Turkestan once was, is a sparse land of myriad riches. The Chinese, meanwhile, are bursting with populace and military. Not the most difficult formula to figure out. (Look no further than the reactions following Nazarbayev’s purported land-lease plans with China to see a bit of this fear play out.) But if this new Sino-Russian relationship can assuage some of that tension, well, all the better for it. Inter-ethnic ties are always something we could use more of.
*One of my favorite memories in Kazakhstan involves informing my coworkers that many of my friends in America were Chinese. There was momentary befuddlement, as if I’d claimed I was a Texan voting for Obama, before the audience asked me what these Chinese people were like. Even after I assured them they were “nice” and “funny,” skepticism hung. Small steps, guys.
Regional security, increased empathy across cultures – the new relationship between Russian and China may yet provide dividends beyond the pipelines. And that’s not the worst thing, I suppose. Now if you don’t mind, I’m about to go conduct some cyberwarfare against the SCO in Call of Duty. Because you just can’t trust those guys, you know?