However, contrary to the US intelligence community’s assessment, China does not necessarily seek a complete overturn of the Western-led global system. Its latest defence white paper, “China’s National Defence in the New Era”, states that “China unswervingly endorses the central role of the UN in international affairs”, adding: “It firmly maintains multilateralism, advances democracy in international relations.”
Although the US tends to perceive China’s institutions only in geostrategic terms, the Communist Party has non-geostrategic motives in creating institutions to interact with the international community.
Therefore, the party wants to boost economic growth by creating institutions such as the belt and road global infrastructure push. Through this, Beijing sees potential benefits such as jobs growth and the expansion of its export market.
However, to achieve its two goals, China does not have to change the global system’s fundamental institutional framework, such as the World Trade Organisation and the UN.
If China has a business partnership with authoritarian states through their institutions, it does not necessarily mean Beijing will enhance those regimes; the same goes for democratic states with a business relationship with China.
The US should be comfortable with letting its allies take advantage of China’s economic support because that might strengthen its democratic political system in the end.
Kazuki Nakamura is a research intern at the Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based international think tank, where he studies international institutions focusing on the Asia-Pacific region. He is also a master’s candidate at New York University
Yet, although strategic theorist Zbigniew Brzezinski once warned of the danger of the “grand coalition of China and Russia”, The Economist has counselled patience. The magazine reckons the West can afford to wait until a Russian president looks westwards again, and “the man or woman in the Oval Office should emulate Nixon – and go to Moscow”.
In 2016, Russia replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s largest supplier of crude oil. In 2018, bilateral trade hit a record high of over US$100 billion and it is expected to double by 2024. When Putin ends his fourth term in 2024, his successor shouldn’t want to change this.
Between the US and China, Russia is more likely to stay closer to Beijing for two reasons. Politically, it is impossible for Moscow to wholeheartedly embrace the West so long as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation exists. The transatlantic security alliance still draws oxygen from the Russia threat, which is both its raison d'être and its reason for expansion whenever possible.
Every expansion of Nato is aimed at Russia and can only be taken by Russia as a threat. Economically, Moscow learned a bitter lesson in the 1990s, when Russia’s whole-of-government plan to become a Western market economy resulted in a national disaster.
Russia’s future lies in the east. Geographically speaking – unless it further develops the sparsely populated eastern portion that makes up more than 75 per cent of the territory – Russia looks more like the world’s largest developing country than China.
And who can best help develop Russia’s Far East? Only China. If China does become the world’s largest economy in the next 15 years or so, Russia ought to benefit from the prosperity of its neighbour. Russia has military, geopolitical and strategic conflicts with the US-led West that are hard to reconcile, but not with China.
As Harvard professor Graham Allison rightly observes about Beijing-Moscow ties: “At every point the United States and Western Europeans imposed pain, China has offered comfort.”
China needs to continue offering such comfort, even if the gap between China and Russia as measured in GDP, military budgets and hi-tech is widening. China is grateful.
How could the West ever break up the Sino-Russian relationship, which is at the strongest while transatlantic ties are at their weakest? The West as a whole is less stable. US President Donald Trump is shaking it from within, and whoever succeeds him in the White House will try to “Make America Great Again”, too, albeit using a different slogan.
Furthermore, the US’ labelling of China and Russia as “strategic competitors” can only draw the two closer together. Alas, Washington simply cannot lump Beijing and Moscow together and hope to drive a wedge between them at the same time.
Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with the PLA Academy of Military Science in China