It has long been known but frankly far too infrequently stated that sanctions and tariffs are twin siblings of the same parents. While the justification behind each is slightly different and while the specific methods of how each is employed differ in terms of specific mechanical measures, in respect of the overriding intent of the sanctioning/tariff levying side and the impact on those on the receiving end – the effects are largely the same. This was made clear beyond any reasonable doubt when just prior to the opening of the 73rd meeting of the UN General Assembly, Donald Trump issued sanctions on elements of China’s People’s Liberation Army, due to Beijing’s close military partnership with Russia, something which of course includes the purchase by China of advanced Russian military hardware.
As China and Russia will enter into a full free trading agreement beginning in 2019 in the form of the China-Eurasian Economic Union free trading agreement and as likewise, the Presidents of both superpowers have vowed ever closer cooperation in trade, economic connectivity, research and development, security, diplomacy and hi-tech innovation, there is no doubt that China and Russia, two neighbours with generally good relations over their long history of sharing a common geographical space, will only grow more intense in terms of their already important partnership.
And yet there remain worrying signs that while Donald Trump’s sanctioning of China due to its relationship with Russia is as clear an indication as any that Russia and China are viewed as holistic rather than compartmentalised “threats” to the US, many in Russia still arrogantly cling on to old Cold War dogmas that seek to underplay the incredible strategic and economic importance of the Sino-Russian partnership for peace through prosperity in the 21st century.
Part of this psychologically and economically retarded mentality among certain Russian policy makers is limited purely to the realm of rhetoric designed to “troll” Washington in the context of the wider infowar that both the US and Russia are openly and at times gleefully waging upon one another. A clear example of this was when Russia’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on social media in support of Donald Trump’s controversial speech before the General Assembly which was packed full of anti-Chinese rhetoric. But while it seems clear enough that Zakharova was attempting to cheekily highlight the hypocritical schism between Trump’s praise of national sovereignty and the fact that at the same time he continued threatening much of the world for exercising sovereign decision making processes that run contrary to the will of the United States, she nevertheless walked a tightrope between her infamously playful rhetoric and becoming dangerously caviller in the face of a clear anti-Chinese provocation by the US President. Put simply, if Russia is to be as good a partner to China as China already is to Russia – the rhetoric and the mentality of Russia’s very visible spokespeople must rise to the occasion as has already largely happened in respect of the Chinese side.
Chinese policy markers continue to speak about a world based on respect for sovereign nations and individual cultures, bespoke bilateral solutions aimed at building more international economic-connectivity, openness in trade and cooperation across continents to build peace through prosperity in the context of the Belt and Road initiative. Crucially, Chinese policy makers speak about the same issues whether in front of the UN, a Russia delegation, a Zambian delegation, a Pakistani delegation or a European delegation. Because of this, Russia’s top policy makers including the President himself will be all too familiar with China’s aims, goals and the rhetoric through which China seeks to define them. Yet for Russia, in “balancing” Trump’s cynical version of sovereignty against China’s positive version of sovereignty, Russia’s clearly expert info-warriors may actually be doing more harm than good in terms of the Sino-Russian partnership. This isn’t due to any malice on the part of people like Maria Zakharova but instead due to how some of the older men (almost exclusively male in the literal sense) in her audience might misinterpret her remarks and hear them as a “dog whistle” to retreat towards a regressive Soviet mentality towards China.
Along with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which links north-east Asia with south Asia and the wider Afro-Bengal Ocean region, the north-east Asian trading hubs which would ideally include a segment of One Belt–One Road running from South Korea into both China and Russia via the DPRK, before turning west and south into central Asia, western Eurasia and eastern Europe, is of central importance to Beijing. Furthermore, the resource rich and economically untapped Russia Pacific Region (still insulting called Russia’s “far east”) represents a focal point of Beijing’s intention of rapidly increasing bilateral trade and on the ground cooperation with its Russian friend and partner.
The Russian President Vladimir Putin who has a deeply close relationship with President Xi expressed his enthusiasm about Xi’s goal for an ever more united north-east Asian space. The only problem is that a number of Russian politicians and both high and low level civil servants and diplomats have still not grasped the importance of China’s partnership with Russia nor the importance of the Russia Pacific Region and of the city of Vladivostok as this region’s de-facto capital.
To understand why some powerful Russian political players still do not understand how Russia is nothing if not a major Pacific power, one must delve back into the Sino-Soviet split of the Cold War. In spite of having centuries of general warm neighbourly relations except for a brief war in 1929 and another short conflict in 1934, the Sino-Soviet split of 1960 represented a cataclysmic aberration in what was otherwise a long chain of generally warm relations between two large neighbouring powers.
Beyond the geopolitical competition of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and China, the mentality of the period has sadly outlasted the realities on the ground in the minds of some Russian officials. Such officials spend much of their time lamenting the very real US provocations staged on Russia’s western frontiers and its southern frontiers in the Caucasus. But while there is rightly much for Russia to worry about in terms of that which NATO is doing in Kiev, Tbilisi and and even Yerevan, there is a golden opportunity to radically change and forever alter Russia’s economic fortunes by cultivating the Russia Pacific Region and turning it into a dynamic Shanghai or Hong Kong like economic hub that could rival Moscow in terms of geopolitical importance and rival both St. Petersburg and Moscow in terms of cultural importance.
So long as the Belt and Road initiative remains the artery of the wider global east and south in so far as it feeds prosperity into the places where the belts and roads in question twist and turn, so long will Russia attain a distinct advantage as a military superpower with vast economic aspirations that happens to share a strategically important border with China.
The young generation of Russians increasingly understands the importance of this and likewise understands that in the modern era, Russia’s Pacific characteristics are of much more importance to the economic survival of the Russian state than that of Russia’s Baltic characteristics. The problem therefore lies with a generation of men and women who grew up distrusting China on an ideological basis, misunderstanding China on a cultural basis and making matters worse, some of these individuals still see India as being a more important partner than China, even though Russia still borders China while it no longer borders India, when furthermore, New Delhi is increasingly in the palm of the United States while China remains a robustly independent superpower.
These Soviet fossils masquerading as living and breathing Russians are ready to fight yesterday’s wars until the last drop of blood and wiling to celebrate yesterday’s partnerships with all the bitter-sweet idiocy of a man on his death bed planning for an earthly future. Such people are holding back Russia’s progress and in particular are spitting in the faces of young Russians whose life depends on an economically accelerated Russia Pacific Region.
While Russia is large enough and strong enough to survive even a large scale war between China and the US (the likes of which will almost certainly not happen in the 21st century except for in its current hybrid/proxy manifestations), just “surviving” clearly isn’t enough for any nation let alone a superpower whose economy continues to lag behind both China and even the debt encumbered but still de-facto wealthy United States. If one accepts therefore that Russia needs radically new economic ideas and even radically different economic principles to do anything more than ‘just survive’, implicit in such a revelation is the utter necessity for Russia to not only value but actively and publicly cultivate its strong partnership with China.
China has increasingly offered robust statements of support for Russia at a time when Moscow is coming under frivolous attacks from Washington, London, Paris and Berlin. It is now time for Russia’s rhetoric to begin shaping the mentality of a young generation of Russians who have partly been lead dangerously astray by their Sino-sceptic forebearers who have yet to realise that the Belt and Road initiative is as important for Russia as it is for any other nation including China.
While Russia has the ability to bridge geo-political gaps between countries hostile to China including Vietnam, India and others, beyond this, Russia should not shy away from supporting China against American unilateralism. There is nothing for Russia to gain by pretending to remain apart from this fray, not least because the recent wave of sanctions on Beijing prove that Russia is very much part of this particularly large fray. Even when it is temping to use America’s words to expose America’s own hypocrisy as Maria Zakharova recently did, such capricious moments could prove detrimental to the long term goals shared by both Beijing and Moscow – even if some in Moscow have yet to realise this.