Wednesday, May 24, 2017

I'm Not Sure Why This is a Mystery

I don't understand why Russia-Chinese cooperation is so puzzling:

Bobo Lo's new Lowy Institute Paper on Russo-Chinese relations dazzles with the brilliance, clarity of thought, precision, and vigour we have come to expect from his work. This essay should be required reading for those who would seek to plumb the depths of this critical relationship and of Russian and Chinese foreign policies.

Lo is certainly right to say that the most dynamic factor in this relationship is the growing imbalance in aggregated power between Russia and China, whereby China is outstripping Russia in most if not all indices of power and capability. He argues that this dynamism and the consequences that ensue from it are placing the relationship under ever-increasing stress. Thus he sees it as a tactical rather than principled relationship or partnership, and dismisses, as do most writers, the idea of an actual alliance appearing anytime soon.

However, despite the many virtues and scintillating insights, the essay fails to answer why, if there is a power asymmetry (and most assuredly there is), the relationship has been a durable feature of world affairs for the last 25 years. Neither does his assessment explain why leaders like China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeatedly state that bilateral relations between them have reached 'a historic maximum', are stronger than they ever have been and are based on mutual interests and not external factors like a shared antipathy to the US. Certainly those statements are not just pro forma utterances or words spoken purely for purposes of politeness or domestic consumption. If the irritants and divergences in this relationship are as strong and widespread as Lo suggests, then its continuation is a mystery, as it would appear to be of decreasing utility or benefit to both states. [emphasis added]

I think the explanation for the enduring Russia-Chinese cooperation is pretty easy to explain by the power disparity.

Russia is desperate to avoid provoking Chinese anger to restore Chinese control of lost territories in the Far East. In many ways, Russian arms sales to China serve best Chinese air and naval power best used against America rather than land power that threatens Russia. Indeed, Russia's pointless and puzzling aggression against NATO serves to disguise what is effectively Russian appeasement of China.

China for its part still needs Russian weapons technology and would like a quiet, subservient, and cooperative Russia to facilitate overland trade routes to Europe to keep the economic growth that Chinese Communist Party monopoly of power requires to maintain legitimacy.

And a Russia worrying America in Europe and mucking up the Middle East distracts America from fully pivoting to the Asia-Pacific region.

I just don't see the mystery of why Russian-Chinese cooperation continues after 25 years despite potential friction points that have been suppressed so far.

When China either settles its military technology and economy or when Russia restores its Far Eastern military capabilities (or if American power and alliances decline dramatically for some reason), we will see the Russian-Chinese cooperation suffer under the friction of basic territorial, Central Asian dominance, and trade disputes.

Still, Blank is good. I'll have to ponder whether shared interests make more sense than a convergence of separate interests to explain the Russia-China relationship. I'll certainly read the Lo paper.