“Potentially, the most dangerous scenario would be a grand coalition of China, Russia, and perhaps Iran, an ‘anti-hegemonic’ coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives
The relationships between China, Russia and the United States are a lot like the three-body problem in classical mechanics; there are only so many combinations, yet the variables are so complicated as to defy predictions.
Ever since Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, China has always wanted to partner with the US. Even today, in the face of hostilities, it still wants to avoid having the US as an enemy. But wisely, Beijing has also hedged its bets with Russia, just in case Washington would turn on it, as it does now.
America, however, forgot to hedge its bets.
In dry diplomatic language, there is an extraordinary passage buried in the “Joint Statement”. It said: “The sides [China and Russia] are seeking to advance their work to link the development plans for the Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt and Road Initiative with a view to intensifying practical cooperation between the EAEU and China in various areas and promoting greater interconnectedness between the Asia Pacific and Eurasian regions.
“The sides reaffirm their focus on building the Greater Eurasian Partnership in parallel and in coordination with the Belt and Road construction to foster the development of regional associations as well as bilateral and multilateral integration processes for the benefit of the peoples on the Eurasian continent.” (The italics are mine.)
The Eurasian land mass has, for almost two centuries, been considered the exclusive backyard of the Russian and then the Soviet empire. Now Moscow has formally declared China to be a joint partner in its own “sphere of influence”. To appreciate how extraordinary that is, consider two points: (1) a hitherto unrealised potential combination, with China and the US sharing power in the Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific and (2) the traditional hostility of large segments of Russia’s nationalistic military and foreign policy establishment against China’s incursion into Eurasia.
In his controversial 2012 book, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, Hugh White, a former Australian defence official, argues for equal co-leadership between the US and China, to avoid confrontation and war in the Asia-Pacific.
In the event, Washington now prefers confrontation and to risk war. In this context, Russia’s granting of a leadership seat in Eurasia is as extraordinary as the US appeasing China by sharing power in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.
Consider Russian arch-Eurasian nationalist/imperialist, Aleksandr Dugin, sometimes described as Putin’s brain. In light of Putin’s support of the Belt and Road Initiative and acquiescence of China as a Eurasian power, Dugin’s influence in the Kremlin is probably greatly exaggerated. There is no question, however, that his “Eurasianist” position is widely shared within the ruling and military elites in Moscow.
In his 1997 book, Foundations of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia, Dugin explicitly formulates an axis of Russia, Germany, Iran and Japan to counter American hegemony, to the deliberate exclusion of China. Indeed, he sees China as a threat to his country’s traditional dominance in Eurasia. It’s not clear why he thinks Germany and Japan, both staunch US allies, would join such an axis. Perhaps he sees parallels in both countries’ post-war humiliation and occupation by the US and at least in the case of Japan, a resurgent militarism, with Russia’s own humiliating experience after the Cold War and its military revival.
Or perhaps Dugin was thinking of a “reverse” Hitler, who tried to dominate the Eurasian land mass, first with the Nazi–Soviet Pact and then Operation Barbarossa.
What does all this mean for China?
God or geography has been much kinder to America than China. The US has two oceans that serve as natural defences against invasion and encirclement; while both oceans offer its economy convenient trade routes.
China’s maritime borders have been encircled by the US and its allies. Quite simply, contra Hugh White, Washington doesn’t seem willing to concede one iota of dominance as a Pacific power. And, until recently, China has been landlocked by the Eurasian land mass.
It is, however, achieving a breakthrough, with Russia’s support, through its western regions. Moscow, no doubt, has concluded that the US and its Western allies – Nato – pose a greater threat and constraints on its Eurasian ambitions than China.
Russians and Americans may see China as the new Eurasian power. Beijing, however, considers it a return to its historical primacy from the times of the Silk Road. What the Mongol Khanate failed to realise by conquest, contemporary China may do so though business and economic development. It is, at least for now, unlikely to start a military build-up in the region and risk a potential flashpoint with Russia. So it may rise as a dominant economic power in Eurasia, but Russia will still dominate militarily. In this, both depend on each other’s good grace – and a grand bargain. Will that last?
On this specific point, coming from opposing sides, Graham Allison of the “Thucydides’ trap” fame and Dugin, among others, have argued that China and Russia may be short-term partners but long-term rivals.
All these variables in play seem to be the 21st century repeat of the Eurasian pivot idea of Halford Mackinder. According to this grandaddy of modern geopolitics, the Eurasian land mass, that is, the Russian empire, would be the land power that challenged the supremacy of the sea power of the British Empire.
As the last century developed, Russia became the Soviet Union, and the British Empire was replaced by US hegemony, which was and remains an awesome “hybrid power” from its supremacy in both land and sea, and perhaps even from outer space.
The biggest question is whether China will break out as a super-hybrid power of sea, land and/or space – or not at all.