The following is the eighth installment of an extended report on one of the most important geopolitical developments of the 21st century: the increasingly comprehensive alliance between China and Russia and its implications for Eurasian and regional powers across the planet. To follow this series, click here.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are of the same mind in several areas. One is their shared appreciation of China’s astonishing sprint to the ranks of an economic superpower.
In Putin’s words, China “managed in the best possible way, in my opinion, to use the levers of central administration [for] the development of a market economy.… The Soviet Union did nothing like this, and the results of an ineffective economic policy impacted the political sphere.” The great importance – almost the centrality – that Putin attaches to the economic ties in the overall Sino-Russian partnership falls into perspective.
Second, despite whatever differences there might be in the respective narratives of the two countries regarding the reasons for the Soviet collapse, Putin and Xi are on the same page on the legitimizing discourse of revolutionary greatness that the Soviet Union represented. Thus the Sino-Russian identity is very much on display today in their common stance against the West’s attempts to falsify the history of World War II.
In a recent interview, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “We are witnessing an aggression against history aimed at revising the modern foundations of international law that were formed in the wake of World War II in the form of the UN and the principles of its Charter. There are attempts to undermine these very foundations.
“They are primarily using arguments that represent an attempt to equate the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany, aggressors who wanted to enslave Europe and turn the majority of the peoples on our continent into slaves with those who overcame the aggressors. We are being insulted by outright accusations that the Soviet Union is more culpable for unleashing WW2 than Nazi Germany.
“At the same time, the factual side of the matter, such as how it all began in 1938, the policy of appeasing Hitler by the Western powers, primarily France and Great Britain, is thoroughly swept under the rug.”
A model alliance of mutual support
China is also experiencing a similar trajectory of role reversal – the aggressor becoming preachy and the victim being pilloried.
A strong sense of empathy with Russia on the part of China is only natural as it too faces predicaments such as being forced to the back foot on the issue of human rights in Xinjiang or being branded as “assertive” when it began reviving in 2015 its historical claims in the South China Sea from where they were abandoned in 1935, in response to the activities of the other littoral states.
It is an open secret that Western intelligence had a big hand in stirring up the unrest in Hong Kong. In fact, the history of US interference in China’s internal affairs to destabilize the Communist government is not new. It goes back to the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert activities in Tibet in the 1950s and early 1960s (which were at least partly responsible for triggering the 1962 China-India conflict).
Today, the US is steadily backtracking on its “one-China” policy, which was the bedrock of the Sino-American normalization in the early 1970s.
Similarly, the US interference in Russian politics that began surging through the late 1980s in the Mikhail Gorbachev era became blatant and obtrusive in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The US openly engineered an outcome in favor of Boris Yeltsin in the Russian presidential election in 1996 – and has openly bragged about financing it and micro-managing it.
Putin has accused the United States of stirring up protests in Russia in 2011 and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to influence Russian elections. Putin said that then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton had encouraged “mercenary” Kremlin foes. “She set the tone for some opposition activists, gave them a signal, they heard this signal and started active work,” he alleged.
Invoking Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and the violent downfall of governments in Kyrgyzstan, Putin has said Western nations were spending heavily to foment political change in Russia.
“Pouring foreign money into electoral processes is particularly unacceptable. Hundreds of millions are being invested in this work. We need to work out forms of protection of our sovereignty, defense against interference from outside.” Putin added: “What is there to say? We are a big nuclear power and remain so. This raises certain concerns with our partners. They try to shake us up so that we don’t forget who is boss on our planet.”
The pattern of interference by the US and its close allies was much the same in Hong Kong – to destabilize China and thwart its rise as a global power. Equally, China faces today the very same pattern Russia experienced of the US creating a network of hostile states surrounding it, encircling it – Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, etc.
Recently, the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service (SVR), Sergey Naryshkin, stated that Washington had provided about US$20 million for staging anti-government demonstrations in Belarus.
Naryshkin said, “According to the available information, the United States is playing a pivotal role in the current events in Belarus. Though publicly Washington tries to keep a low profile, once the massive street demonstrations began, the Americans stepped up funding to the Belarusian anti-government forces bountifully to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.”
He specified, “The demonstrations have been well organized from the very outset and coordinated from abroad. It is noteworthy that the West had launched the groundwork for the protests long before the elections. The United States in 2019 and early 2020 used various NGOs to provide about $20 million for staging anti-government demonstrations.”
Belarus, of course, is the missing link in the arc of encirclement of Russia that the US contrived to put in place. The very same approach is today at work against China, too. The US-led Quadrilateral Alliance also comprising Japan, India and Australia serves such a purpose.
In earlier years, the Russian-Chinese entente focused exclusively on the bilateral relationship. Incrementally, it moved on to coordination at the foreign-policy level – in a limited way, at first – which has steadily intensified.
Russia and China are helping each other push back at the United States’ containment policies. Thus China has openly hailed the election victory of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. On Russia’s part too, there is much louder criticism of the US attempts to ratchet up tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.
Foreign Minister Lavrov said on September 11 in Moscow in the presence of the visiting Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi:
“We noted the destructive character of Washington’s actions that undermine global strategic stability. They are fueling tensions in various parts of the world, including along the Russian and Chinese borders. Of course, we are worried about this and object to these attempts to escalate artificial tensions.
“In this context, we stated that the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ as it was planned by the initiators, only leads to the separation of the region’s states, and is therefore fraught with serious consequences for peace, security and stability in the Asia-Pacific Region.
“We spoke in favor of the ASEAN-centric regional security architecture with a view to promoting the unifying agenda, and the preservation of the consensus style of work and consensus-based decision-making in these mechanisms.… We are seeing attempts to split the ranks of ASEAN members with the same aims: to abandon consensus-based methods of work and fuel confrontation in this region.”
Again, on September 18, in an interview with Nikkei Asian Review in Washington, Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov stated, “We believe that the US attempts to create anti-Chinese alliances around the world are counterproductive. They present a threat to international security and stability.…
“As for the US policy in Asia-Pacific … Washington promotes anti-Chinese sentiments and its relations with regional countries are based on their support to such an approach.… It is difficult to call the Indo-Pacific initiative ‘free and open.’ More likely it is quite the opposite: This project is non-transparent and non-inclusive … if we talk about the Indian Ocean countries.
“Instead of well-established norms of the international law Washington promotes there an obscure ‘rules-based order.’ What are those rules, who created them and who agreed to them – all this remains unclear.”
These statements suggest that in actual fact, a steady evolution is taking place in the Russian attitude even as the US is ratcheting up pressure on China in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times. It is the eighth article in a series. Part 9 will examine the foundations for mutual trust between China and Russia.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.