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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 38 New Delhi September 8, 2018

Russia and China in Alliance Conditions

Sunday 9 September 2018, by M K Bhadrakumar


Three things stand out in the remarks made by the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Tuesday (August 28) in the context of Russia’s forthcoming Vostok-2018 military exercise in the Trans-Baikal Region in East Siberia during September 11-15.

At the obvious level, Peskov was speaking from the picturesque southwestern city of Omsk where he was accompanying President Vladimir Putin. Nothing that Peskov says can be unintentional and his remarks from Omsk carried added resonance, because he was also speaking from a vantage point in Russian history—from a garrison town founded by the Siberian Cossacks four centuries ago.

Second, Peskov was speaking about the forthcoming Vostok-2018, which is already being noticed in the international opinion, including in Western media, as a military exercise of strategic significance. Peskov indirectly referred to the NATO’s belligerent military posturing toward Russia when he said that Vostok-2018 is taking place in the backdrop of “the current international situation, which is frequently quite aggressive and unfriendly for our country”.

Only a few hours before Peskov spoke, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu had said that the drills will be unprecedented in their scope and will involve about 300,000 troops and over 1000 aircraft. The Vostok-2018 will focus on “traditional security” (read wars, external territorial aggression) as against “non-traditional security” (terrorism, separatism, religious extremism, etc.) and it is billed as the biggest Russian exercise since the famous Zapad-81 drills. Of course, the former Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact allies had participated in the Zapad-81.

Taking all of the above into account, it was Peskov’s remark regarding China’s participation in the Vostok-2018 strategic drills that acquires salience. Peskov said: “This (China’s participation) speaks about the expansion of interaction of the two allies in all the spheres.”

Now, this is a profoundly significant choice of words. In all these decades since the 1960s, it is impossible to recall a top Kremlin official characterising Russia and China as “two allies in all the spheres”. The common idiom is that they are “partners”. Officially, the Sino-Russian relations are described as “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination”.

But there is no big surprise that the Sino-Russian relations have reached alliance conditions. The fashionable Western interpretation is that the Kiev Euromaidan (2014) and the sanctions against Russia that followed had pushed Russia reluctantly into a Chinese embrace. But this is more of a self-serving Western notion, since Russia’s “pivot to China” by far predates the regime change in Ukraine and had much to do with Moscow’s strategic focus on the global shift in power to the East and about turning Russia into a hub of intra-Asian trade and cooperation.

Equally, Western analysts faltered in their estimation that “unfortunately for Putin, Moscow has limited capacity to make its pivot dreams a reality”—to quote from a 2013 essay by Fiona Hill who presently serves in the National Security Council in the White House. But then, these alliance conditions have been consciously fostered through sustained efforts, often at the highest levels of leadership in Moscow and Beijing, and it is all too obvious today that they stand on the firm foundations of mutual understanding and a rapidly expanding economic cooperation that is to mutual advantage.

What is the kind of alliance that Russia and China could have? For a start, what the two countries will not have is at once obvious if the obsolete North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is taken as the readily available benchmark. Evidently, no alliance headquarters is going to be built at a cost of 1.17 billion euros and there isn’t going to be any interest to define the casus foederis of the Russian-Chinese alliance. Nor is there going to be anything like the NATO’s $ 6 billion defence budget in 2017 (which is expected to jump to $ 7.8 billion in 2020).

Most certainly, the Russia-China alliance will not be riveted on cost-accounting principles of the sort US President Donald Trump is constantly dinning into the ears of his European allies. Needless to say, there aren’t going to be any “standing forces” on active duty on a permanent basis—or any grandiose notions that some day the Russian-Chinese alliance will blossom into a global security organisation, with its tentacles reaching out into the heart of Africa.

On the other hand, the Russia-China alliance will also be a “unique community of values”, as the NATO keeps proclaiming itself. Conceivably, these “values” will include strict adherence to international law and the UN Charter, respect for national sovereignty—no Libya or Iraq-style interventions, for example—and the peaceful resolution of disputes and differences without the use of force. However, one cardinal difference with the NATO will be that unlike the latter, which takes cover behind inchoate “values” such as “liberty”, “rule of law”, “democracy”, et al., the Russian-Chinese alliance will be focused and purposive on the strengthening of a multipolar world order.

Arguably, the Russian-Chinese alliance will be in sync with the spirit of our times—unlike the NATO, which must constantly justify its raison d’etre through the juxtaposition of an “enemy”, caught up in the tragic predicament of having to stir up paranoia and xenophobia among member-states in order to simply keep the herd from wandering away toward greener pastures.

Where the Russia-China alliance has an advantage is that it is a new type of alliance that allows the two countries to pursue their national interests while also creating space for each other through mutual support and foreign-policy coordination to manoeuvre optimally in the prevailing volatile international environment where it is no longer possible for any single power to exercise global hegemony. Indeed, the Sino-Russian coordination is working well in the Syrian conflict, the situation on the Korean Peninsula, the Iran nuclear issue or the struggle against terrorism and has become a factor of peace and regional stability.

Peskov’s meaningful description of China as Russia’s ally provides a new perspective on the forthcoming visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Russia and his expected participation in the Eastern Economic Forum summit in Vladivostok next month.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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