By Yu Bin
06 September, 2008
Asia Times Online
Sino-Russian relations have been under intense scrutiny lately because of the Georgian-Russian conflict over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia. For many in the West, China’s cautious “neutrality” is a departure from, if not a betrayal of, its strategic partnership with Russia.
Such a view, among others, misreads the state of the Sino-Russian relationship without an adequate understanding of its depth, breadth and complexity. As a result, the Western perception of Beijing-Moscow ties has swung from one of threat against the West prior to the South Ossetia crisis to the current premature celebration of its obituary.
Neither is right. Both look at the superficiality while ignoring the substance. With the looming confrontation between Washington and Moscow over South Ossetia, the West itself seems to be getting lost in its tireless effort to renew the “Western civil war”, which was said to have ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
South Ossetia and China’s ‘strategic ambiguity’
In the early morning of August 8, 2008, when President Dmitry Medvedev was on vacation and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in Beijing attending the Summer Olympics Games, Georgia launched a military offensive to surround and capture Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia.
Putin, who was in Beijing prior to the Olympics opening ceremony, immediately informed the Chinese side in his meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao on August 8. China’s reaction to Georgia’s assault, according to Putin, was that “nobody needs the war”, which was also US President George W Bush’s reaction.
Meanwhile, China expressed serious concern over the escalated tensions and armed conflict in South Ossetia, and urged both sides to exercise restraint, cease fire immediately and resolve their dispute peacefully through dialogue. In a way, Beijing did not publicly and explicitly support Moscow.
China’s “strategic ambiguity”, if not neutrality, regarding the Georgia-Russian conflict has been the focus of the media and pundits. Many tend to highlight the differences and conflicts of interest between China and Russia. China’s move is seen as an effort to maximize its interests while Russia is going through difficult times with the West. China’s own Taiwan problem is perhaps one major reason that China cannot publicly support Russia over this issue.
Most Central Asian states are also said to have reservations regarding Russia’s policy, due to the large number of ethnic Russians living in this “near abroad” area and their “cautious neutrality” also shows the growing influence of China in this traditional sphere of influence of the Russians.
These apparent differences between Russia and its Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) partners – China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – are indications of the fragility of this regional security group, and many of its members simply dream different dreams while sleeping on the same bed with Moscow. Last if not least, Georgia lost no time in thanking China for not taking sides.
These assessments, among others, may make some sense. There is, nonetheless a discernible switch in the West from exaggerating the strength, or threat, of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership to one of overplaying their differences, deliberately or not.
Both views are rooted in a misperception of the Beijing-Moscow strategic partnership, which essentially means a normal relationship. It is the result of a long and sometimes painful learning experience in the second half of the 20th century – in which relations between Moscow and Beijing oscillated between excessive dependence (particularly China on Russia) and almost zero interactions.
What is essential for today’s Russian-China relationship is the absence of the ideological factors and border disputes that constantly besieged the two nations up to the early 1990s. On the operational level, it means that the two sides attach great importance to bilateral ties and share a strong willingness to commit to their enhancement. At the operational and functional level, it is largely a pragmatic approach “to conduct strategic coordination without alliance and close relationship without excessive dependence”. Moreover, there is a willingness to develop the more cooperative aspects of their relationship while managing those of disagreement and competition.
It is within this context of normal relationship, not one of alliance, that China reacts to the Georgian-Russian conflict. (In terms of trade, bilateral trade between China and Russia, which has been growing at an average 30% pace annually over the past nine years, may reach US$50 billion in 2008, according to Gao Hucheng, Chinese vice minister of commerce. Bilateral trade hit $32.3 billion, up 29% year-on-year, in the January-July period of this year.)
‘West’s civil war’ again? Stupid
In a broader sense, China’s “harmonious world” means stability of the existing international system, despite the fact that it is dominated by the West. Indeed, China would like to see, as much as the West would, the stability and continuity of the existing international system, from which China has benefited enormously.
The Georgian-Russian conflict is in essence between Russia and the US. While finger-pointing was hurled between Moscow, Washington and Tbilisi regarding who made the first move, it is inconceivable that a small Georgia would dare to take on its giant neighbor without explicit support from Washington.
Indeed, Washington was not only aware of Georgian military actions before they started, it also explicitly sided with Tbilisi for the August surprise, which may have contributed to Saakashvili’s recklessness and miscalculation. Whether the world is heading back to the Cold War or pre-World War I setting, the ghost of “Western civil war”, which was claimed to have come to an end with the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, is being rekindled by the Georgian/US-Russian conflict. Given this specter of a possible general instability of the international system, Beijing’s cautious approach is perhaps quite natural.
Beijing’s public “neutrality” toward the Georgia-Russian conflict, however, should not be a surprise in that it has been the pattern in China’s diplomacy since the 1980s. In almost all cases ranging from international crises (Korean Peninsula, Iran, Kashmir, etc) to bilateral disputes (the South China Sea with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the East China Sea with Japan, border settlements with Russia, Vietnam, India – in progress- etc), China has opted for dialogue and compromise, rather than confrontation or side-taking. The same operational principle has applied to difficult issues such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Aside from this predictable pattern of China’s approach to conflict and disputes, the timing of the conflict was also an irritant for Beijing. China did not want any conflict at the historical moment of hosting the Olympics, whether Russia was part of the conflict or not. Given the complexities of the ethnic conflicts dating back to the 1920s, its evolving nature and the US looming large in the background, China’s cautious reaction was expected, if not desirable for Moscow.
SCO sounds no SOS
During the SCO’s annual regular summit on August 28, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Medvedev briefed the SCO heads of state on the Georgian-Russian conflict and Russian policies. The Dushanbe Declaration does support Moscow’s six principles of settling the conflict in South Ossetia and supports Russia’s “active role” in promoting peace and cooperation in the region. The wording of its call for peaceful negotiations of the conflict, however, is vague and general at best.
The reason for the SCO’s “neutrality” is both complicated and simple, complicated in that all of the SCO’s Central Asian states were former Soviet republics. Many, if not all, of them do not want to see any replay of the Georgian-Russian conflict in their part of the world. That concern of the Central Asian states, however, remains a distant possibility, given that the SCO provides a framework for its members to resolve disputes and to achieve common purposes of security and development.
The key to the SCO’s stance, however, lies in the nature and structure of the regional security group. Far from becoming a military bloc, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in which members are obligated to defend one another, the SCO is a huge and diverse community of nations with considerable space for individual members to pursue their own policies for their own interests.
There is simply no obligation for SCO members to automatically commit themselves the way members of typical military alliances would do. Given these reasons, Medvedev perhaps never explicitly asked or demanded public support from the SCO members.
Under these circumstances, the SCO’s joint Dushanbe Declaration actually means quite a lot for the Russians, particularly in Article 3: “The SCO welcomes the approval on 12 August 2008 in Moscow of the six principles of settling the conflict in South Ossetia, and supports the active role of Russia in promoting peace and cooperation in the region.” The member states of the SCO also “express their deep concern” over the tension around the issue of South Ossetia and call for peaceful means through dialogue for reconciliation and facilitation of negotiations. This can be seen as directed to both sides, particularly Georgia, which started the ball rolling on August 8.
China back to its past, for the future
Last if not least, what China did was perhaps rational within the context of its strategic partnership relations with Russia. It is perhaps what Russia would do in a scenario of a China-US conflict over Taiwan. That is, Russia would more likely remain neutral though expressing sympathy for China. This was exactly what Moscow did in 2001 when a US spy plane (EP-3) collided with a Chinese jet fighter (J-8II) off China’s coast, leading to a major crisis between China and the US.
Even if the Russians did not get all of what they wanted from China and the SCO summit, this is by no means the beginning of the end of their strategic partnership. Over the past 30 years, China’s diplomacy, particularly its relations with Russia, has become far more sophisticated, nuanced, measured and matured.
To a large extent, China’s foreign policy has gone back to its deeper philosophical underpinnings of “unity, harmony with or without uniformity” ( he er bu tong). This is also one of the psychological anchors for the Sino-Russian strategic partnership after the two extreme types of relationship of “honeymoon” (1950s) and “divorce” (1960s and 1970s) between Beijing and Moscow.
Western perceptions and expectations that Beijing and Moscow are heading toward some sort of “separation” are, therefore, an overstatement at best. It is also largely derived from the West’s own experience and practice, which insists on unity because of (or by, of and for) uniformity. Hence, NATO members must be democracies and the European Union must be European, Christian and perhaps white. Applying the same “recipe” to the SCO and recent Sino-Russian relations, which have largely transcended the past practice of alliances, may lead to nowhere.
‘Splendid isolation’ in the 21st century
When the Georgian dust settles, the West may start to comprehend that the Sino-Russian strategic partnership is perhaps not as strong or weak as it appears. What is unclear, however, is whether the crisis between Washington and Moscow will be over, as Washington has rushed US$1 billion aid, and Vice President Dick Cheney, to Georgia and NATO is amassing warships in the Black Sea.
The US presidential candidates, too, are rushing to demonize Russia and glorify Georgia as if there is no tomorrow. If this continues, the “Western civil war” may well turn into a brave new page for the 21st century focusing on Russia as the problem.
The irony is that Russia has wanted to rejoin the West over the past 20 years and is in no mood to confront the West. Each time, however, its unrequited affection of the West has led to dismay. Soon after assuming his presidency, Medvedev unleashed in Berlin his grand blueprint for a Euro-Atlantic community from Vancouver to Vladivostok. Within this community, Russia and Europe were said to share common roots, history, values and thinking. A month later, the Russian president again tossed around the same “Medvedev doctrine” at the Group of Eight summit in Japan. On the same day, however, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Czech Republic signed a missile defense agreement, to the dismay of Moscow.
Putin, too, began his presidency with an unambiguous Westpolitik (visiting Britain for his first foreign tour as Russian president, toyed with a “hypothetical” idea of Russia joining NATO, and “confessed” to the visiting Rice his “European essence” and his Asian superficiality of practicing judo and eating Chinese food). Over time, however, Putin became increasingly Euro-Asian.
Even Boris Yeltsin, father of the Russian Federation, began with an obsession of Western-style political democratization and economic shock therapy. Prior to his sudden exit from power at the end of 1999, Yeltsin chose Beijing to remind the West of Russia’s huge nuclear arsenal, in a manner more like a recidivist Soviet premier. In between, the man who brought down the Soviet empire became progressively more disillusioned with the West.
It is time for the West to reflect on its current Ostpolitik (missile defense, NATO expansion, etc), not necessarily for the West’s own interests, but the human race as a whole. The alternative is to stay the course in making Russia a problem for the 21st century. A key difference between this newfound obsession of the West and past stages of the Western civil war is that the world is now in an era of weapons of mass destruction.
Already, pundits are talking about possible mushroom clouds for World War III if Russia’s rusted conventional military hardware fails to deter the other side. This scenario, no matter how distant, remains a possibility, which is qualitatively different from its predecessors of the 19th century when the West dealt with the French problem (the Napoleon Wars) and of the 20th century for the German problem (World War I and II). The latter sucked the whole world into West’s own senseless mutual slaughtering.
If this remains a possibility, China, together with the rest of the non-Western world, will be better off staying out.
Yu Bin is senior research fellow for the Shanghai Association of American Studies and professor of political science at Wittenberg University, Ohio, US. He can be reached at •••@••.•••.
Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd.