June 23. 2024. 2:05

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(Un)timely thoughts about Sino-Russian ‘friendship’

Europe has to keep track of its way in fighting autocracies and trust in its own power, writes Peter Hefele.

Dictators are never short of superlatives. “Limitless friendship”, “new world order”: Hardly any bilateral meeting in international politics in recent times had been preceded by bigger expectations and fears than the recently concluded meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

The summit’s outcomes were rather unspectacular and very much in line with previous meetings.

However, the much ado around the event, including in the West, deserves some necessary comments – and perhaps a touch of sarcasm: on political semantics and Western perceptions and anxiety and a lack of psychological resilience.

And yes, there are lessons to be learnt, but they might differ from those superficially drawn by politicians and journalists.

Why do we in the West constantly repeat and fall into the traps of ideological phrases that do not correspond to political reality? Let’s take the expression of the so-called “Global South”.

Chinese leaders, and to a minor degree Russian ones too, love to align themselves with this vague geopolitical concept, weaving both countries into the post- and anti-colonial discourse by stirring up an old Marxist discourse on development politics of the 1960s. This has created concerns among Western democracies in recent years of losing “them” – the developing countries – to an authoritarian axis.

Did that movement, or later ones, have any long-lasting geopolitical relevance beyond massaging the egos of authoritarian rulers of that time such as Sukarno, Tito or Nasser? Conversely, has the West ever had most developing countries “on its side”, only to lose them in the time since?

In a second scenario, one can be brought to tears, listening to the repeated declarations of “limitless friendship” or “upgrading relations”.

The use of those expressions in Chinese diplomacy is inflationary and without much value in analysing the true nature of bilateral ties. It is hard to believe that Russian society is truly willing to become dependent on China – after years of complaining about being second to the West.

Here it helps to look back a couple of years into the significant concerns in the Siberian regions of Russia, which have been – and are even more so now – facing a massive economic and demographic “invasion” from Northern China.

Being an equal partner in a totalitarian axis in Eurasia will never happen – or only if Russia succeeds in its imperialistic aggression west of the Ural. The same goes for China. Neither history nor current ideological concepts in China prove the assumption that the nature of Chinese foreign relations will fundamentally change. It has always been based on hierarchical relations, deeply rooted in Chinese social culture.

That said, this doesn’t mean that some ideologists in the Kremlin and Zhongnan Hai don’t believe in it. But are those offers really attractive to third parties? Can they deliver what they promise?

The challenges of those concepts and the Russia-Chinese “marriage” for the democratic world lie elsewhere. The results of the Moscow summit, correctly read, provide at least two insights:

First and with respect to the war in Ukraine, the diplomatic and military situation has not significantly changed after the summit. Therefore, there is no reason to change Western strategy towards Russia as China has, so far, no interest in a dramatically spiralling escalation, not even in a long war of attrition.

It is aware that the West will grow stronger out of this conflict in the mid-and long-term, which is detrimental to its strategic objectives. Europe is less and less willing to get “divided and ruled” and is, almost day by day, developing new instruments to become a more robust international actor

Even China is well aware of the shortcomings of this relationship. Russia will continue to play a minor factor in Chinese development policy, driven by opportunistic considerations and mercilessly recalibrated when necessary.