SCSS#10, 19 July 2022: Russia and China in Central Asia

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 19 July 2022 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.

Introduction

Between 2001 and 2013 multivectorism in Central Asia was incubated by a competitive external context. After 9/11 the US expanded security partnerships, bases, security assistance and logistics agreements with the Central Asian states. At the same time, the global financial crisis facilitated China’s economic rise and Russia’s retrenchment; Russia promoted a “unite and influence” strategy that aimed to induct Central Asian states into its regional organizations and initiatives.  In 2014 a strategic reassessment took place, the trend was away from multivectorism towards a Russia-China condominium arrangement: the US gradually drew down its military presence in Afghanistan and the region; the Crimea “ripple effect” took hold; and, China advanced its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and “Community of Friendly Neighbors” narrative.

The glue that holds the Russia-China condominium together in Central Asia is the need to demonstrate public solidarity against the U.S.-led liberal world order.  This translates regionally into efforts to jointly exclude the US from Central Asian affairs. Both Russia and China seek to confront the EU and NATO from a position of geopolitical and geo-economic strength.  Russia accepts China’s asymmetric economic power and relates to BRI as if it is in Russia’s interests. Both states also support post-Western global governance through coordinating contacts among new regional bodies such as Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), BRI, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as alternative non-Western, if not wholly yet anti-Western, architecture which seeks to promote a changing international order and oppose Western values, media, education and civil society support and engagement.  Allied to anti-Westernism is the real shared fear in Moscow and Beijing of political instability or “chaos”, civil unrest or regime changes.

Can we assume that a stable condominium is a given, that Russia can act as the sheriff and China as the banker to the region?  Or do growing power disparities between the two suggest that as China’s reach increases, Russia’s diminishes?  Will Moscow in fact resist the designated “junior partner” role and seek to hedge against it?  Or does Russia’s growing anxiety and insecurity push it towards China and Chinese positions, leading to a softening of its own red lines, even as China defers to Russian talking points in public?  How might Russia start to view the region in its evolving geopolitical imagination?  What is Central Asia’s role in the ‘Russian World’? What are the views from the Central Asian states themselves and how might they maneuver in this new reality?

Multivector Shocks

Commentators such as Bobo Lo who have viewed the Russia-China partnership as an “axis of convenience” or as a pragmatic coalition have still predicted that Central Asia is an area of the world where rifts between Moscow and Beijing could be exposed.  But every time the region faces some sort of crisis or shock, Russia and China seem to support and accommodate each other’s unilateral and even destabilizing actions. Nonetheless, the belief that a Russia and China clash in Central Asia is inevitable refuses to die.

We can illustrate this contention that crises in Central Asia promote condominium consolidation rather than culmination by looking back at three regional shocks from the last year.  First, joint reactions to US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and the denial of residual basing rights to the US to facilitate this withdrawal.  If we compare Chinese and Russian priorities we see some are shared, and, perhaps more importantly, none are incompatible. China’s priorities include: pushing for other countries to lift their sanctions against the interim Taliban government and engage; pressure the Taliban to cooperate on its own border security priorities, making in the process Wakhan “Iron Wall” relocation and possible deportation of Afghanistan’s 2000+ Uyghurs; offer humanitarian aid (food and vaccines) and promises of infrastructure investment and BRI expansion to align with Beijing’s priorities (most recently post-earthquake); and, demand that the US unblocks Afghan assets. Russian priorities include: continued calls for preparedness and collective security between the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), evidenced by border drills and the provision of weaponry; Russia and CSTO member states have reaffirmed their position to not accept Afghan refugees on their territory or in transit; advocating for pragmatism with the Taliban (including the creation of as de facto Taliban embassy in Moscow) and a Russian role in regional solutions, while excluding the US.  In the absence of the US, Central Asian governments, (except Tajikistan) have adopted a pragmatic approach to the Taliban.  They have backed Russian and Chinese regional security and economic initiatives, adopted Russia and CSTO member state position to not accept Afghan refugees on their territory or in transit and denied US basing access during withdrawal. 

Second, China accommodating itself and then publicly supporting the Russian-led CSTO intervention during protests in Kazakhstan in January 2021.  This demonstrates that bothRussia and China view regional security as the defense of autocratic regimes.  The SCO supported CSTO actions taken to stabilize the situation. Indeed, President Xi Jinping on the 30th Anniversary of Relations “Joining Hands for a Shared Future” on 25 January 2022 clearly stated: “We firmly oppose attempts by external forces to foment color revolutions in Central Asia, firmly oppose interference in other countries’ internal affairs under the pretext of human rights, and firmly oppose any force that tries to disrupt the tranquil life of the people in this region.”

Third, China’s public support for Russia’s “international ordering” claims and grievances as they have been used to justify its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. This is despite a disruptive sanctions regime (which Chinese companies with a global orientation appear to be complying with) and the disruption of the land belt transportation routes that have been a key feature of China’s BRI in Eurasia. There is deep concern among post-Soviet states about both Russia’s war and subsequent western sanctions, particularly regarding compliance risk and secondary sanctions. None of the post-Soviet EAEU states have joined the sanctions, though members of the EAEU face the shock of integration disruptions.  All Central Asian states face declining remittances (20-40% of GDP) from migrant workers in Russia. Energy exporters face difficulties in accessing markets (reduction of Kazakhstani oil in Caspian Pipeline Consortium) and a halt in Trans-Eurasian Integration: over 1 million containers are diverted from Eurasian Rail (BRI land belt) to Maritime Cargo.

Russia and Central Asia: Rhetoric and Structural Realities?

Much of the current discussion of Russia-China in Central Asia suggests that (i) Russia will rapidly lose influence to China and other powers in the aftermath of Ukraine; and (ii) that as China increases its influence in Central Asia, wedges will emerge in the Russia-China relationship, testing the alignment between Beijing and Moscow. Both these conclusions are misleading. Current circumstances provide the opportunity for central Asian states to reassert their authority and by either necessity or choice engage with a range of extra-regional middle powers, including Turkey, Iran, the Gulf states, South Korea, Japan and India. The US perceives India as a potentially useful counterweight to China in South and Central Asia, but India is hampered by a lack of leverage, ongoing competition with Pakistan and a hedging policy that demands cooperative relations with Russia.  How can we challenge the notion that Russia faces overstretch and in Central Asia is in retreat, ceding influence to China?

First, talk of Russia’s imminent ‘decolonisation’ and ‘roll-back’ of Russia’s sphere of influence from Central Asia is much exaggerated. Russian influence may be reduced – but it is far from finished. The biggest hit is in Russian economic influence. Sanctions are already taking a toll on Russian investments and financial ties in Central Asia. The World Bank estimates that remittances sent home by Tajik migrant laborers from Russia might drop by around 40%.  Trade has shifted from Russia’s Trans-Siberian rail route to the ‘Middle Corridor’ through Central Asia and the Caspian (volumes are six times as big as last year). And a smaller Russian economy (at least 8% smaller by year-end) means a smaller market for Central Asian exports.

But structural realities mean that Russia will still play a key role: the axiom ‘geography is destiny’ holds true in Central Asia.  Geography dictates that traders and migrants have few choices. Migrants are used to financial and political fluctuations and have well-established coping mechanisms and will adjust to the ‘new normal’. While sanctions will create headaches for Central Asian companies and traders, they also offer opportunities. Although governments insist that they will comply with US and Western sanctions on Russia, in the grey-zone that is Central Asia, the region is still likely to play a role in sanctions evasion, providing a platform for Russia’s continued economic, financial and technological engagement with the Global South. For example, on 28 June the US Treasury designation of Uzbekistan’s Promkomplektlogistic company. The US claimed the company was actively supporting sanctioned Russian company Radioavtomatika to evade US sanctions on sourcing high-tech foreign components). One hundred thousand Russian IT specialists as individuals and as employees in companies can relocate to Tbilisi, Yerevan, Almaty and Tashkent, emergent technology hubs in post-Soviet space, stretching the meaning of sanctions evasion by utilizing hitherto dormant EUAU enabling legal legislation.

Beyond economics, Russia’s security offer for the region remains more or less intact. It is true that China’s security presence in “Greater Central Asia” has increased, particularly in Tajikistan.  China takes part in the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM), established in 2016 as a four-way Anti-Terror Coordinating Structure (with Russia and the US excluded).  According to the 2016 Summit declaration, its purpose is: “to coordinate with and support each other in a range of areas, including study and judgment of counter-terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training.” China’s influence is also boosted by the role of private security companies (PSC’s) as BRI-related companies contract with Chinese PSCs to provide security. “Security” includes both physical dimensions (personal) but also surveillance and new technologies.

If we extrapolate forward, might one implication be a growing power asymmetry with the condominium and Russia being relegated to “junior partner” status?  It is true that Russia’s military prestige has been undermined by the failures in its war in Ukraine. However, the kind of limited intervention that Russia offers to Central Asia – 2,500 troops intervened in Kazakhstan in January 2022 for example, or 7,000 men at its base in Tajikistan – remain important for Central Asian states. There is no sign that Russia is planning to draw down troops from Tajikistan or elsewhere in the region. Moreover, China’s militarization of Xinjiang spillover negatively with publics in Central Asia, if not formally with state elites. Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states are placed by China on a 26 “sensitive countries” list: China targets those spending time overseas and divided families.  The so-called reeducation camps mobilize civil society and promote transnational campaigns, social media protests, and international press scrutiny, making it increasingly difficult for the Kazakh government to balance Beijing’s demands with public opinion. China’s ‘clamp down’ in Xinjiang adds to collective fears about Chinese power and intentions.

Neither China nor any other regional power has the interest or capacity to fulfil Russia’s security role. Central Asian states have growing security ties with China, but still buy 80% of their weapons from Russia. That kind of dependence will not shift rapidly – although in a sign of where things might be heading, the Kyrgyz are buying Turkish drones, and the Tajiks Iranian ones. But on security, there is no serious competition. China supported Russia’s stabilization mission in Kazakhstan in January 2022 and Russia shows little concern about China’s security presence on the Tajik-Kazakh border. Both states have similar views on conflicts in the region. Both, for example, support crackdowns on the kind of unrest seen in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) region in May or in Karakalpakstan (Nukus) in Uzbekistan in early July 2022.

Russia’s information dominance and traction in society also remains significant. Polls show Central Asian societies polarized on the war – although sympathy for Russia remains strong. In Kazakhstan, one poll showed 39% supported Russia and 10% supported Ukraine, while 46% professed neutrality. Though support for Ukraine was much higher among Kazakh-speakers, residual support for Russia is still present across the region.  In a 2021 poll by the Central Asia Barometer Group only 4.9 % of respondents in Kazakhstan cited China as the country most able to help address ‘economic and other problems’. Even fewer in Uzbekistan (2.6%) thought China would help.  Even lower numbers pointed to the US – although the EU did get some support (5.7% in Uzbekistan and 11.1% in Kazakhstan). Russia, on the other hand, was the country perceived as most likely to provide assistance for 54.3% of respondents in Kazakhstan and 53.9% in Uzbekistan.

There is no sign that Russia is giving up on its regional dominance – although it may be willing to share with China. Geography and history dictate that Russia is unlikely to retreat willingly from Central Asia. Russia is incapable of defending its 5,000-mile border with Kazakhstan. It is – as so often in its imperial history – forced into forward positions to defend its security – and still views the Tajik-Afghan border as essential to its security. Ceding security dominance of the region to an external power – even a friendly power such as China – is not compatible with current Russian thinking on its security. This perceived threat becomes even more acute if Russian influence is replaced not by China but by Turkey and Western powers. Indeed, for Russia the major perceived security threat in the region is probably not from China, but from Turkey. In this sense, China is more of an ally for Russia, than an opponent, hence the alignments.

In reality, without Central Asia, Russia is no longer a Great Power – so it is not surprising that Putin’s first international visit after the start of the war was to Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Russia’s spatial vision of the ‘Russian World’ attracts headlines because it appears to drive much of the thinking on Ukraine. But in geopolitical terms, it is Eurasia that has been the most productive spatial imaginary for Russia. It serves as the platform for Russia’s claim to be a global power – a pole in a multipolar world. A vision of Russia at the center of Greater Eurasia allows Moscow to dream of an important geopolitical role in a swathe of geography from Northern Europe to South Asia (“from Murmansk to Mumbai”). Without a leading role in Central Asia, this idea of a Greater Eurasia – and Moscow’s role in the world – looks even more fantastical.

The biggest challenge for Russia is not economic or military but ideological. President Toqaev’s apparent on-stage trolling of President Putin at the St Petersburg Economic Forum (SPIEF) in June 2022 was widely publicized as a rift. But in reality Central Asian leaders agree with Putin on plenty. Like Putin, they run authoritarian political systems, are unforgiving towards opposition or liberal values, and see the West as a threat to stability. But they will find it very difficult to manage a Russia in which the ideology is not authoritarian modernization but imperial nationalism. Despite the fact that Putin’s regime legitimizes itself through continuous reference to the Soviet Victory in the Great Patriotic War, Putin, who was in fact a real “red” Soviet colonel in the late Soviet period, behaves as an imaginary “white” tsarist general in the Russian Civil War. His actions in Ukraine (asserting that Ukraine is not a state and Ukrainians are not a people) are not so much post-Soviet as anti-Soviet. Russian anti-Ukraine rhetoric is too Slavic, too Orthodox, too Russian imperial, belligerent to gain traction. Indeed, Russian exterminationist rhetoric repels.

Russian nationalists have reacted badly to decisions by Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan not to hold 9 May victory parades and bans on the symbols ‘Z’ and ‘V’. In April the Russian newspaper MK claimed that Kyrgyz-Russian relations were threatened by US official visits to Bishkek and claimed that Moscow was preparing ‘severe’ measures against any potential ‘stab in the back’. There is no sign – yet – that such ideological paranoia is driving Kremlin thinking on Central Asia. But a further Russian turn to violent neo-imperialist thinking might also start to imperil the peaceful coexistence of Russia and China in Central Asia.  

Conclusions:

  • Almost uniquely among Great Powers, Russia and China define Central Asia as a “common adjacent region” one in which they can coordinate and cooperate to manage disputes ultimately through Xi-Putin dialogue.  Crises in Central Asia promote the consolidation of the condominium rather than its culmination.
  • Despite Western predictions of drift, Moscow and Beijing are aligned on Central Asian crisis situations: Afghanistan; Kazakhstan’s protests; Ukraine and Western sanctions. Such alignment is more than an axis (non-aggression pact) but less than an alliance.  This alignment acknowledges that Russia remains the region’s core security provider.  
  • Central Asian states retain a strong preference for multivectorism.  While their proximity to Russia and China creates challenges, current circumstances provide them with the opportunity to reassert their authority and engage with a range of extra-regional middle powers, including Turkey, Iran, the Gulf states, South Korea, Japan and India.
  • The political West needs to articulate not only what it seeks to prevent, but what it is for in dealing with Central Asian partners.  The West should avoid forcing governments to “pick sides”.  It should acknowledge its “hidden power” which is based on human capital – education, training, professional standards, and technocratic networks and a more attractive modernization paradigm when set against Russia’s return to imperial history or the “Chinese Dream”. 

GCMC, 20 July 2022.

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Alexander Cooley, David Lewis and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

Let’s call it a temporary hiatus…

As some – many? – of you may know, yesterday the Russian government banned me from future entry. I’m sad about this, both because of how I feel about Russia – the country and people as a whole, not the current regime – and also because actually talking to people, nosing around in shops, eavesdropping on conversations in the metro, and sniffing the air in general, is an invaluable adjunct to all the other open sources. Still, it is what it is. I am determined to return some day, but I suspect only once someone else is in charge…

At a time when Russia is often being caricatured as nothing but a source of violence and evil, a veritable ‘Mordor,’ (I grouse about that here), I think it it is important to be able to experience and talk about the country as it really is, a complex and often contradictory place. This is something I’ve always tried to do, and others can judge my success, which may perhaps help explain why I was the only academic who regularly travels there who was banned. After all, in many ways it suits Putin to allow this kind of stark division between Russia and the West, this lack of nuance: it allows him to turn to the Russian people and argue that they have no choice but to back him, because the West hates them all. This ‘North Koreanisation’ of Russia is a terrible thing.

The official notification, by the way, is here. I can’t help but notice that they seem a little confused how to describe me. I am in the category of ‘journalists’ – and I certainly am not one of them, as there is a world of difference between writing the odd article or column and actually covering the news, but then again nor am I a ‘persons associated with the defence complex,’ which essentially means some MPs and defence industrialists. So I’m in the journalist camp, but described as a politolog, a political analyst/expert. Fair enough.

Still, I’ll be back.

SCSS Berlin Workshop, 24 May 2022 Summary

This is a summary of the discussion at a workshop emerging from the Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars, that was held in Berlin on 24 May 2022 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.

Session 1:     Beijing-Moscow-Kyiv: Strategic Lessons Learned and Denied?

  • Russian blunders in Ukraine are rooted in pre-existing and deep-seated strategic, military and political cultures.  These blunders result in a contradictory “fluid stalemate”, as well as exhausted and degraded Russian forces. Official “everything going according to plan” propagandist narratives do not allow for, let alone incentivize, innovative results-orientated approaches: Russia cannot learn from defeats that it does not recognize. In a “battle of resilience”, Ukraine is winning.  If the war continues for 3 more months, there is no need for US troops to reinforce Europe.
  • Russia’s leadership cannot learn any potential “lessons” identified in Donbas operations between 2014 and 2022 as engagements here were officially denied.  In Syria Russian Aerospace Forces operated in parallel with Syrian and Iranian, not Russian, ground forces and so there are no combined arms “lessons” to be learned and applied. Instead, Russia falls back on existing tactics and strategy which stress positional mass artillery barrages though Ukraine adopts a more dynamic fire and move approach. Greater Russian firepower cannot compensate for less Russian manpower.  Kinzhal is not decisive as the arsenal too limited and targeting is uncertain; Russia lacks the essential ability to integrate different strike capabilities.
  • The orderly retreat from Kyiv – days ahead of what would have been a route – highlight some adaptive ability.  Putin’s decision not to declare “special operation” as “war” on 9 May and order full mobilization also demonstrates an ability still to surprise, as does Russia’s “mellow” response to Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO.
  • From a Russian perspective, China’s footprint in its “special operation” is apparent in three respects: 1) poor equipment supplies which speak more to corruption than cooperation; 2) a degree of political trust that allows Russia to accept the risk of deploying ground troops from the Far Eastern Military District to Ukraine; and, 3) as Russia’s war in Ukraine is in part designed to causes the final collapse of the Western liberal international rules-based order so highlighting Russia’s great power – China’s withdrawal of support or the continued existence of that order challenges this foundational legitimizing Russian narrative. 
  • The 4 February 2022 “no limits friendship” joint declaration noted that the “fate of states are interconnected”. This fits into the Chinese view that there is no existence without coexistence.  It reiterated respect for statehood and non-interference in domestic affairs and stated that the liberal international order needed to be transformed, though within the UN framework and International Law.  For China the end state is a “common destiny of mankind” which places US and China as peers, affording each other mutual respect and enjoying peaceful coexistence.
  • In reality, the CCP understands Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in terms of: 1) legitimate Russian security interests; 2) Russia’s need to suppress a “Nazi” Ukrainian regime – even if Putin wrongly assessed the Ukrainians themselves would perceive this as “liberation”; and, 3) as a proxy war which validates Chinese assumptions around a confrontational US and NATO wedded to Cold War thinking. China reinforces Russia’s social media framing of the invasion as a Western neo-colonial struggle which Russia resists, and while such traction is limited in the Middle East it has purchase more generally in the Global South.
  • China believes Ukraine is in no way analogous to Taiwan – in political terms Taiwan is considered internal to China and in practical reality an amphibious operations against a sea fortress harder than ground forces crossing contiguous borders.  US increased security cooperation with Taiwan and its leverage of the AUKUS format will give rise to an arms race.  More broadly, China sees western predominance eroding and its promotion of “follow your own path” to development garners support in the Global South.  Volatility, rising energy and agricultural product prices, infrastructure connectivity and supply chain disruption are clear Chinese concerns.
  • Is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the catalyst for a fundamental shift in today’s Sino-Russian axis in which the Xi–Putin relationship is central?  Xi does not want to contemplate a post-Putin Russia. China’s current narrative is that two major powers – Russia and China – seek to change the Western dominated rules-based order.  A war of attrition which weakens Russia irrevocably is not in China’s interest as it deprives China of a functioning axis that can act as strategic counter-weight to US hegemony.  China has no interest in influencing Putin, nor is it clear if it has the means to do so should the interest arise.  China will exhibit greater caution in relations with Russia, avoiding too great a dependence on the axis. However, it is not clear which other major power replace Russia.  India’s behavior is a critical factor.

Session 2:      After Ukraine: Russia, China and Regional Order?

  • We can identify three strands of thinking in Moscow concerning regional order in the context of the special operation in Ukraine – these in part represent ideas for action but also ad hoc rationalizations of possible pathways forward:
    • Liberal Commentators – “Russia in retreat”: Russia is in the process of losing the war and as it weakens it’s FDI and technological dependence on China is strengthened.  Russia fails as a legitimate leader in post-Soviet space – it does not constitute an attractive socio-economic model. Sanctions cause a radical reshaping of Russian trade with China, but also its ability to invest in Central Asia, cutting economic growth across the region to 2.6% or less in 2022. Economic weakness and war in Ukraine diminishes Russia’s ability to be the security provider and guarantor of security in Central Asia (with spillover dangers from Afghanistan and actual instability in eastern Tajikistan) and undercuts Russian regional integrationist projects (EEU/CSTO). China becomes the dominant actor in Central Asia, Turkey in the Caucasus and the EU in the West – Russia is in retreat in post-Soviet space.
    • Pragmatists – “Russia muddles through”: Russia avoids isolation by engaging the Global South, western disunity returns, trade with China increases in some sectors (e.g. coal x2 in 2022).  Russia still has a role to play in Central Asia: China supports the existing division of labor, with China focused on the economic and developmental sectors and Russia political-security matters. Even if Russia is a weaker player after the war, China is unlikely to want to fill the role of security provider. For example, if there is destabilization on the Afghan border, China is unlikely to want to manage a crisis alone: its preference would be for Russia to be in the lead.  Central Asia can emerge as a “grey zone” for sanctions breaking and organized crime and other illicit transactions.
    • Ideological – “Ethno-nationalist revisionist Russia”: This strain of thought is revisionist, understanding Russia’s existential confrontation with Ukraine and the West a way of breaking the current international order and reshaping global order. Such “old political thinking” is based on balance of power, pluralism and a belief on the utility of military force. In that worldview, an alignment with China against the West is seen as vital. But this could be upset by the ideological strand of Russian ethno-nationalism that could be destabilizing (e.g. in relation to northern Kazakhstan).  Central Asian states are not ideological but pragmatic, preferring multi-vector balancing to choosing sides in a bipolar confrontation. 
  • China’s as “black box”: as access and contacts are cut, it becomes ever harder to distinguish rumor from conspiracy from opinion.  It is though clear that China’s approach to Central Asia is different from Russia’s, both in terms of means and ends. Its formation demonstrates how China views its global role. 
    • The SCO was the first of the China + X mechanism and the only regional organization China has created.  China’s structuring and ordering of this region indicates its understanding of its role in world regions and so its vison of its role in global order.  China’s primary focus has been on regional order and stable “neighborly relations”. An underlying Chinese assumption is apparent – Central Asia lacks internal agency, order is created on Chinese terms.
    • While the West had had a linear view of how relations with China unfold, multi-dimensional spatialization is a feature of Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping. China has a connective concept of “docking” or “linking”, including Central Asian transportation hubs linking China geographically with Europe as “end destination” but also Central Asia as the “in between space” with transnational digital payments systems, satellites and other layers of Sino-centric technology. Xi’s recent emphasis on global security, highlighting particularly the safety of global supply chains, underscores this approach – it is global, maritime and continental and digital. Currently more than 1000 container ships stand-off China’s east coast ports awaiting unloading, a zero-COVID policy and the disruption caused by Russia’s invasion, indicate that in 6-8 weeks the unpredictable knock-on impact will be felt globally.
  • Is China trapped by Russian geopolitical adventurism?  CCP leadership took two weeks to issue a statement after 24 February invasion (which was not a “lame” MFA statement but CCCP leadership).  As China reads across from Ukraine to Taiwan, an ideal outcome for China would be Russia claims victory, Ukraine remains as a neutral state, Russia controls Donbas. China reaps the strategic advantage of Russian energy at cheap prices. (Russia faces the challenge of explaining to itself Chinese control over its energy sector – investors, contractors, development).
  • Where are China-Russia red lines? What is the conflict potential between the two?  The functional axis is interest based and once those interests no longer exist then “friendship” can fast fade.  However, short of energy and unrestricted NSR access, China does not need much else from Russia.
    • China and Russia have different interests in the Northern Sea Route – the maritime dimension of BRI through Central Asia.  With regards to such sea lanes, China and the US adopt a similar understanding, one which Canada and Russia oppose.
    • Russia tries to diversify links in the Indo-Pacific, supporting Vietnam and India – both strategic opponents of China.
    • China’s attitudes to sovereignty and territorial integrity in Central Asian SCO states may be much less flexible than in Ukraine or Belarus.  Russian incursions into Kazakhstan may elicit different responses. 

Session 3:    RSS#6 – China-Russia Nexus: Transatlantic Threat Assessment(s)?”

  • Hybrid threats activities as used by Russia and China are designed to 1) undermine democracies and democratic processes, 2) impact on their decision making algorithm and 3) saturate the capacity of the target and the create cascading effects.  Such activity seeks to test and exploit vulnerabilities, can be short and long-term, are tailored to different regional contexts and very often leverage and weaponize history.

In Finland and Sweden the situational awareness of the potential hybrid threats activity from China and Russia in the context of NATO accession is high. One of the reasons for this is that with NATO accession the attitude towards the accession is clear. It is always harder to determine the actual threats to specific national interests.   NATO accession and hybrid threats can be understood in terms of three phases: 

  • 1) Pre-application: given decision making in Stockholm and Helsinki was so quick and the decision to apply so sudden, hybrid threats did  not materialize in opposition to this process – Russia and China were rendered reactive; 
  • 2) Grey zone:  the period between application and actual membership provides the greatest opportunity to challenge and discredit membership.  
    • In Finland, There are multiple ways this could be done and some things have been already detected; cyber and disinformation attacks, attempts to harness those that support the Russia agenda, threats by Russia to withdraw from bilateral projects (waterway); questioning of the Aland Island status as a demilitarized zone and the status of Finnish companies in Russia (this however is connected also to a larger context of the sanctions), and threats of unspecified military consequences on accession.  Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zakharova states that “the Russian military will decide” what those consequences may be. China has reacted negatively but so far hybrid threat activity has not been visible. Previously China has used cyber tools to spy on the Finnish Parliament (trend that seem to have occurred elsewhere as well) and usage of United People’s Front especially it networks related to universities. 
    • In Sweden the situation is a bit similar; more hybrid threat activity before then this spring; disinformation campaigns have been constant and there is also an example of infiltration into the Swedish Parliament and intelligence services by Russia.  Chinese hybrid threat activities in Sweden have been vigorous. It is a larger and more active hybrid threat actor than Russia in Sweden, practicing “wolf warrior” diplomacy, threatening journalists, parliamentarians and experts and raising questions over Chinese investments in Swedish critical national infrastructure
  • 3) Post-accession: probable normalization of hybrid threat activity akin to other NATO member states. Here Finland and Sweden will need to restart relations with Russia from scratch.
    • As long as Russia is waging a war in Ukraine its ability to do hybrid threat activity is lower. In the case of Ukraine, early conclusions can be made that Russia’s conventional military attacks from 24 February point to the lack of success of its aim to achieve strategic goals. There is also the question of whether the hybrid threat activity slowed democratization processes but strengthened Ukrainian sense of nationhood. 
    • Both autocracies and democracies have the same practice of exerting influence over adversaries, however democracies are constrained by democratic practices like rule of law and inability of the state to compel independent media to undertake information operations or private companies to work for the state or individuals to be used to inform. The democratic states have different strategic culture to design influence operations and there is often openly declared aims. Therefore, the hybrid threat activity is what autocracies do against democratic states.
  • Russian foreign policy from perhaps as early as 1993, certainly 1995, has sought to attain 3 goals: 1) Russian Great Power status; 2) maintain a sphere of influence in neighboring states; 3) protecting Russia from encroachments from the West.  These goals remain the same but Russia’s power has weakened and changed both relative to neighbors and the West.  In terms of Russian threat assessment of the West, 3 elements can be identified:
    • 1) NATO enlargement: the military dimension involved the proliferation of NATO military infrastructure; the geopolitical threat was encroachment into Russia’s sphere of influence;
    • 2) Regime change: this was first perceived as a political threat following the Rose and Orange revolutions of 2003 and 2004, but by 2014 Russian military doctrine identified color revolutions as military threats, highlighting a perception in Moscow that legitimate regimes could be changed via secret plans, external western organization and the export of destabilization/chaos designed to promote anti-Russian hostile states to limit Russian influence and ultimately weaken Russia.
    • 3) Negation of Russia’s nuclear deterrent: western missile defense and prompt global strike are designed to eliminate Russia’s nuclear deterrent and Russia discounts US promises these systems are not targeting Russia.
  • Role of China in Russian threat perception: Though historically the “China threat” is a feature of Russian strategic culture, this threat perception has dissipated as Russian Far East Military District ground troop deployment in Ukraine attests, though China’s economic threat potential to Russia has increased. Implicitly, while neither threatens the other, there is no expectation of direct mutual military support. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the assumption held that Russia could still, where interests aligned, cooperate with the West or even together build a new international order. This assumption is no longer valid. Russian efforts with China to weaken Western liberal international order and economic dominance are much harder.

Session 4:     Ukraine, Strategic Competition and Policy Implications Roundtable?

  • Catastrophic success? In an ideal Western end-state, Ukraine and Russia emerge as democratic and the global economy prospers.  However, might Ukraine and the West win the war but lose the peace?  Russian strategic military-political defeat in Ukraine may lead to regime implosion. If crisis is opportunity:
    • Ukraine may emerge, in the words of President Zelensky, as “Big Israel”, a state whose identity is defined by existential threat, whose institutions are securitized and which is thriving, democratic and resilient.
    • More generally, Russian neighbours may express their agency: Moldova advances towards EU integration; Georgia contemplates competing impulses – reintegrate South Ossetia or trade with Russia on Georgian terms; Lukashenka attempts to instrumentalise a protracted war in Ukraine to re-establish Belarus’ multi-vector credentials and so regime continuity.
    • Russia elects to fight on two fronts: 1) a 20th C war in Ukraine that it is losing; 2) a 21st C confrontation and conflict with the ‘political West’ that it currently loses.  Ukraine and the political West are in synch – but could over time diverge.
  • Putin’s Ukraine victory as a post-Putin regime change mechanism:
    • Did Putin plan on winning the war to secure an exit from formal politics: winning enables Putin to leaving presidential power as “untouchable”?  If so, then a protracted conflict locks Putin further into the increasingly uncertain political realities of Russia, demanding he now, captive in the Kremlin, build an actual “power vertical” to survive.
    • Putinism exists but are there actual Putinists?  Supporters of Putin are ruthless, opportunistic and self-interested pragmatists, loyal to the extent their interests are enabled by Putin in power. Tensions in Russia’s security services exist – Zolotov, Bortnikov, Shoigu are publicly absent. Rosgvardia members express disillusionment on vKontakte social media channels, resenting their perceived use as cannon-fodder in the “special operation”. Elite discussions acknowledge that “we are stuck”, the worrying (for Putin) step before, “unless…”.  The momentum of elite defections in 1989 and 1991 a real factor: the more fragmented the elite the greater the potential for defections. 
    • Radical nationalist Strelkov-type narratives around exterminationst actions necessary for victory are not yet expressed by Putin but this is the direction of travel. On the basis of Ukraine, the notion that what comes after Putin is much worse is unproven.
  • Sanctions and market realities: the economic damage inflicted by sanctions on Russia remains unclear: Russian GDP is expected to fall between 5-30% of GDP; trade between sanctioning states and Russia fall between 50-70%. Economic markets are spaces not actors and within these spaces companies are the actors.  The economies of both Russia and China rely on the decentralized management of economic decision-making.  Russia does not have the institutional capacity to control Russian companies and their private interests. The global economy is one common dollar denominated space that shares values and institutions.  China is integrated into this space.  It is an either/or proposition.  If Russia is not integrated it moves further from China.   Chinese – Russian trade was in decline before the war broke out and it is now the question how much trade will bounce back in light of Russia’s declining trade with the West. As a minimum, it would make it difficult for China to cooperate with Moscow when Russia is less than ever integrated in the world economy.
    • Sanctions float like a toxic cloud over Russia’s economy – acting as a clear incentive to disengage unless in sectors such as energy where the risk can be controlled. China will not take over the place of EU Europe in the Russian economy but will serve as partial replacement. Decentralized economies deal well with scarcity but are fragile in the face of uncertainty.
    • China can be opportunistic and find the appropriate risk-reward equilibrium in key sectors, but can only partially replace the West. China has a clear interest in trade and export but not in including Russia in its supply chains.  Foreign (Chinese/Western) capital will not return to Russia as the trust upon which investments are bases are burnt.

GCMC, 27 May 2022.

Disclaimer: This summary is a synthesis by Graeme P. Herd of the presentations (Pavel Baev, Mark Galeotti, Nadine Godehardt, Dmitry Gorenburg, David Lewis, Janis Kluge, Hanna Smith and Falk Tettweiler) and extensive discussions at the SCSS Berlin Workshop on 24 May 2022 and is not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments or organization. 

SCSS#9, 17 May 2022: ‘China and Russia: Legal Gamesmanship and Rules-Based Order?’

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 17 May 2022 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.

Introduction:

China and Russia profess a “no limits” friendship in which both Beijing and Moscow aim to “strengthen strategic coordination” though ideological and geopolitical alignments are presented as “non-aligned, non-confrontational, and not targeted at third parties”.  In reality, China and Russia seek to provide a strategic counterweight to US “hegemony” within the current rules-based international order through the promotion of an alternative “reformed” non-liberal order. To that end, both reach out to states in the Global South to garner support for a new global order. China echoes both Moscow’s narratives around “color revolutions” and western destabilization, amplifying Russian propaganda regarding its invasion of Ukraine on Chinese social media and so mitigating against Russian isolation.  China also encourages all developing nations to initiate their own paths to modernization, contrasting this to Western endeavors.

When we focus on legal norms promotion and suppression, to what extent are the efforts of each joint, shared or at least compatible?  Given China has committed itself to being a global power by 2049 and has its own compelling vision of the future, a developmental or modernization paradigm, while Russia appears mired in a protracted and debilitating war in Ukraine, we can expect to see differences.  Can we account for such differences through unique historical, cultural and ideological trajectories?  What are the implications of such legal gamesmanship for the current rules-based order? 

Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine

There is evidence that Russia instrumentalizes the law in medium term campaigns, not least in its long running legal preparation of the battlefield prior to the invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022.  On 28 February 2022, Russia presented its “special military operation” in Ukraine as an act of self-defense, citing Article 51 on the UN Charter and referencing “genocide” perpetrated by Ukraine against the population of the Donbas.  On 26 February, Ukraine submitted arguments to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) refuting allegations it had perpetrated genocide against the Luhansk and Donetsk so called “People’s Republics”, arguing that the Russian government planned acts of genocide in Ukraine.  On 1 March, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) addressed Russian attacks against civilians and civilian objects in Ukraine.  On 2 March a UN General Assembly resolution called for Russia to end its military operation in Ukraine and on the same day the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor opened an investigation into the situation in Ukraine. By 10 March, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that Russia no longer would participate in the Council of Europe (CoE) and, on 16 March, the CoE confirmed this.  In this period the OSCE sought evidence for war crimes and crimes against humanity. On 4 April, the ICC stated that it was trying to engage Russian war crimes investigations in Ukraine.  On 14 April, Russia’s Investigative Committee opened criminal cases against Ukrainian servicemen.    

China’s “Legal Gamesmanship”

“Legal Gamesmanship” refers to actions by a state or attributable to a state that aim to leverage or exploit the structural, normative, or instrumental functions of law to achieve national objectives in a competitive environment. These instruments can apply in contexts broader than war, including the full spectrum of peace, gray zone, and conflict, and broader than the military context, including the use of all instruments of national power.  “Legal gamesmanship” is not a pejorative, most if not all state actors engage in legal gamesmanship from time to time.  Not all legal gamesmanship constitute violations of law; not all violations of law are legal gamesmanship.

For China, “forced” and “unequal treaties” in which more powerful Western actors imposed humiliating concessions on late imperial China provided a spur for the Republic of China (post-1911) to leverage international law to undo these treaties.  After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the PRC did not have a seat in the UN Security Council until 1971.  As a result, international law (such as Law on the Sea, the Chicago Convention) had already been formulated either without the PRC’s input as it was not “present at the creation” or was negotiated when the PRC was significantly less powerful in the international system than it is today.  For these reasons, during the early years of the post-World World II international order, PRC referred to this international rule sets as “bourgeois international law”.  Today, however, a more powerful PRC does not intend on destroying the existing rules-based order, but rather seeks accommodations in those rules for its interests and games the rules for its advantage.     

In the 21st century, we can identify three phases in China’s approach to the role of international law.  The first is the pre-2003 Rhetoric Phase, where the law is referenced as a “weapon” to be used to defend national interests.  The second Doctrine Phase runs from 2003 to the present.  In this phase the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) applies the concept “legal warfare”, as evidenced the Political Works Regulation guidance given to the PLA – that is, instruction on what to focus its efforts on, as well as military textbooks on legal warfare and science of military strategy (where we can note a transition from “legal warfare” to “legal struggle”).  The third Dogma Phase was initiated by Xi’s “Thought on the Rule of Law” (2019) in which Xi exhorts the CCP and PLA to use law as a means in international “struggle” and international “competition”.  There are differences in tone/content for internal and external audiences, with the statements “take up legal weapons” in the “struggle against foreign powers” and “use the method of rule of law” directed at domestic audiences.  The Political and Legal Committee of CCP’s Central Committee held a “reading class” (a conference with senior members) in 2021 where the senior party members discussed the “competition of systems and rules” and the need to “make better use of legal tools” to protect China’s interests.

Deeds can be understood as “revealed preference”. When examining Chinese legal actions, we can identify three ways in which China leverages and exploits the function of international law: 1) its structural function (PLA proxy “maritime militia” uses in the South China Sea); 2) its normative function (norms govern actions and expectations); and 3) the instrumental function of law (both expanding its maritime zones and restricting activity therein, and creating legal pretexts for potential future actions, such as the 2005 Anti-Secession Law). 

Conclusions: Normative splits?

Russia’s way of war in Ukraine has the potential to create friction with China, but the bar for Russian actions is set high.  Russian “war crimes”, for example, have not caused a breach and China can always oppose any investigative process.  Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons would be undeniable and force China to abandon Putin as the costs of support would become too high.  Were China to aid Russia through the transfer of substantial military materiel, it is likely China would justify this in terms of stabilizing the conflict and the act of a responsible actor. In addressing its relationship with Russia in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine, China has a costs/benefits analysis to make, one that changes as the Ukrainian conflict evolves:

  • China needs the axis with Russia to provide a strategic counterweight to the US and its allies;
  • Structural geo-economic realities matter – China trade with the political West in 2021 was 7 times more than with Russia – $1.6 trillion vs $243 bn.
  • Euro-Atlantic divisions – China’s preference is for a transatlantic divorce and a non-aligned “trading” Europe seeking equidistance between the US and China, not greater Western unity;
  • China does not want to be tied to a “loser” but would want to avoid the eventuality that the collapse of the Putin regime could lead to a post-Putin democratic break-through (“color revolution”) or a weak, nuclear, nationalist and unpredictable China-dependent and difficult to manage “second DPRK”.

For these reasons, we can posit that China may seek to create an off-ramp that takes a Ukrainian protracted conflict into one that is frozen. A frozen conflict better stress-tests Western unity.  It can allow Russia to reconstitute its military strength while maintaining its strategic autonomy.  A weaker Russia may compensate by taking greater risk in the international system, becoming a useful subordinated Chinese battering ram and spoiler to existing international order, while not opposing China’s alternative vision, or being strong enough to propose its own.  Such a functionally differentiated division of labor is workable: Russia seeks to destroy, paralyze or spoil the old liberal international rules-based order (driven also by the belief that the hallmark of a Great Power is the ability to ignore “the rules”); China builds the new order in line with its global vision of future order by 2049 and its role within it.

From a Chinese perspective, the trick in Ukraine would be to provide legal support to an off-ramp for Putin in the shape of a frozen conflict codification, while ensuring such an off-ramp has no ramifications for potential future CCP and PLA actions in Taiwan.  Such an outcome would underscore a general trend: China’s use of legal gamesmanship is more systematic, planned and long-term in its conception and execution; Russia’s legal gamesmanship by comparison appears more ad hoc and sporadic.

GCMC, 18 May 2022.

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Pavel Kriz, Jonathan Odom, Rodrigo Vazquez Benitez and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of NATO, the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

The Moscow Kremlin. Russia’s fortified heart

Although it came out this spring, I realise to my chagrin that I didn’t post anything about this, my latest Osprey book. Here’s the blurb:

An illustrated study of the history of the Moscow Kremlin, a metaphor for Russia, a symbol for its government and an enduring icon of the country.

A fortified complex covering 70 acres at the heart of Moscow, behind walls up to 18m high and watched over by 20 towers, the Kremlin houses everything from Russia’s seat of political power to glittering churches. This is a fortress that has evolved over time, from the original wooden guard tower built in the 11th century to the current stone and brick complex, over the years having been built, burnt, besieged and rebuilt.

Starting with the initial building of a wooden watch tower on the banks of the Moskva river in the 11th century, this book follows the Kremlin’s tumultuous history through rises and falls and various iterations to today, supported by photographs, specially commissioned artwork and maps. In the process, it tells a story of Russia, and also unveils a range of mysteries around the fortress, from the 14th-century underground tunnels built to permit spies to enter and leave it covertly through to today’s invisible defences such as it GPS spoofing field (switch on your phone inside the walls and it may well tell you you’re at Vnukovo airport, 30km away) and drone jammers.

Very nicely illustrated by Donato Spedaliere, this was quite a fun book to write and research, and I’d hope a nice little complement to Catherine Merridale’s brilliant Red Fortress.

SCSS#8, 19 April 2022: Russia, China and Ukraine?

This is a summary of the discussion at the latest workshop of the current series of online Strategic Competition Seminar Series (SCSS) webinars held on 19 April 2022 by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The summary reflects the overall tenor of the discussion, and no specific element necessarily should be presumed to be the view of either of the participants. Please note that Mark Galeotti is only hosting these useful summaries and can claim no credit for compiling them.

Introduction:

On April 18 2022 Russia’s war in Ukraine moved to a new phase, with President Volodymyr Zelensky stating that: “Russian troops have begun the battle for Donbas”.  Russia now focuses on a single front and seeks to establish full control over the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  That same day China’s Executive Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Le Yucheng gave assurances to Moscow that “China will, as always, strengthen strategic coordination with Russia no matter how the international situation evolves” while Qin Gang, China’s Ambassador to the US, defended Beijing’s ties with Moscow, noting that such ties were “non-aligned, non-confrontational, and not targeted at third parties”. On 19 April Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong suggested that the Ukraine conflict has wider ramifications, impacting as it does Russia-China ties and so affecting US-China relations.

The war, its nature and length stress tests the Sino-Russian “no limits” axis, in which both parties seek to maximize the benefits of the relationship while minimizing the costs of their “strategic partnership”.  The war highlights the ideological and geopolitical alignments between Russia and China.  The axis needs both to function as a strategic counterweight to US and promote an alternative non-liberal international order.  The war also brings into focus the importance of structural geo-economic realities, differing national priorities and the personal ties between Putin and Xi.  It stress tests inherent tensions in the relationship, based on increasing asymmetries and dependencies and the need for China to balance different considerations, not least to ensure internal stability in China itself.  For China, although the circumstances and contexts between Taiwan and Ukraine differ greatly (e.g. amphibious vs land warfare), there are some lessons in Russian and Ukrainian conduct that China identifies and likely seeks to learn. 

Alignments:

  • Bilateral Security Arrangements: Russia and China stand back-to-back and secure each other’s strategic rear.  This has enabled Russia to strip the Eastern Military District of troops to fight in Ukraine.  The notion that the axis is not always together but never opposed proves apposite, for now. Though both view each other as useful strategic partners they are both are determined to uphold their own strategic autonomy in decision-making and military operations. 
  • Diplomatic Support: China’s abstentions in UN General Assembly votes on 2 and 24 March 2022 formally upheld China’s professed “neutrality” with regards to the war.  However, China will likely seek to support Russia by influencing other states to abstain in future votes. Russia views its diplomatic relationship with China since the start of the war through the prism of continuity with interactions before the war rather than change. Russia’s “peace negotiations” provide Chinese diplomatic cover for support.
  • Narrative Support: Before the war China echoed Russian narratives around “color revolutions” and western destabilization.  Chinese state media now supports and amplifies Russia’s discursive power, particularly on Chinese social media at state and local level: the Bucha massacres are “fake”; Biden is criticized for labelling Russia’s actions in Ukraine a “genocide”;  NATO could launch missile attacks from Kharkiv to Moscow in 7-8 minutes; NATO “expansion” to Sweden and Finland would be “destabilizing”; Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva missile cruiser sunk in stormy seas following an earlier “detonation of munitions” on board and the West’s “economic blitzkrieg” of sanctions on Russia had failed.
  • International Order: China’s interests with Russia are more aligned than with either Ukraine or the ‘political West’.  Russia can act as a self-destructive and aggressive battering ram against the rules-based international order.  China increasingly joins Russia in challenging the Western dominated liberal international order, calling for a reformed new order to replace the current and an end to US hegemony.  To that end both China and Russia reach out to states in the Global South to garner support for a new global order and avoid the perception of their isolation. China has committed itself to being a global power by 2049. China encourages all developing nations to initiate their own paths to modernization, contrasting this to Western endeavors. However, unlike China, Russia lacks its own compelling vision of the future, a developmental or modernization paradigm.

Inherent Tensions:

  • Structural economic realities are evident given Sino-Russian bilateral trade amounts to $147 billion in 2021, with a 28% ($38.2 billion) increase through the first quarter of 2022, but China’s trade with the EU and US amounts to $1.6 trillion.
  • The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) privileges its own survival and internal stability over foreign policy concerns, particularly on the eve of its 20th Party Congress (November 2022), where Xi is likely to be reelected for an unprecedented third term.  The CCP identifies the primary contradiction (in accordance with the logic of dialectical materialism) in China as inequality, imbalances and uneven development. Would greater Chinese support for Russia result in lower prices for Russian natural resources, better enabling China to address and manage this contradiction?  Or might such support come at too high a price: secondary sanctioning and the loss of US and EU markets means that China’s economy becomes less modernized (China does not itself produce semi-conductors) and China is less able to both counterbalance the US and address its primary contradiction?
  • Currently China has suspended some operations and new investments in Russia, concerned with the effects of secondary sanctions.  From a Russian perspective, a slowdown in China’s economy would reduce Russia’s oil and gas exports to China, as well as potential Chinese investments in Russia.  As it is, even under ideal circumstances, China is unable to replace Russia’s lost EU energy markets.  By 2023 if the EU stops Russian oil and gas purchases Russia must find new markets.  
  • Far from winning the war in Ukraine, Russia’s military tactical, operational and strategic incompetence are on full display. China had viewed Russia as a major conventional military power, which went some way to balancing out other asymmetries in the relationship. Russia’s military conduct gives pause for Chinese reassessments. An economically weaker Russia becomes a more dependent partner – but also a potential liability for China. 
  • Red-lines:  Although the communique released after the Xi-Putin 4th February 2022 Summit referenced the “no limits” nature of the Russian-Chinese relationship, limits do exist.  Xi will reduce support for Putin if the costs for China are too high – but this would only happen in the case of a significant escalation that makes supporting Russia too costly.
    • China’s response to “vertical escalation” in Ukraine may be ambivalent: China could find a way to overlook Russia’s use of chemical or biological weapons, but the use of tactical nuclear weapons would be too difficult to deny and result in both China and India distancing themselves from Russia. 
    • The prolongation of the war and its escalation of the war from Russia-Ukraine to Russia and NATO would be a major concern for China.  These circumstances would likely unify the West further.
    • The collapse of Putin’s regime would be a very negative outcome for China: China’s fear would be twofold: first, a post-Putin regime may democratize or more likely an economically weak, China-dependent and difficult to manage “second DPRK” emerges – nuclear, nationalist and unpredictable; second, a united West may now look to address Chinese malign strategic behavior.
    • From a Russian perspective, if China purchases less energy from Russia or does not help economically, then this would be viewed as breaking the spirit of the partnership.

Conclusions: Ukraine and Taiwan – Lessons Identified?

  • Diplomatic: Russia argues that it does not fight Ukraine but rather the US and its allies in Ukraine.  China will likely also adopt this narrative: China will fight US and its allies in the region in Taiwan. The need to control messaging and have countries echo and amplify it or at least remain neutral is paramount.  China will seek to secure regional allies in East Asia, oppose the QUAD and plans to jointly develop nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles under the AUKUS alliance as part of their perceived effort to create an “Asia-Pacific NATO” to serve US interests.  
  • Intelligence: China’s need for accurate intelligence gathering, especially regarding Taiwan’s willingness to fight and resist “liberation” is evident, given Russia’s failures in this regard.  China also adopts a new core operational concept – intelligentized warfare – which involves the use of AI to intimidate/control the enemy’s decision-makers cognition and manipulate public opinion. This requires sifting through large amounts of data to identify influential individuals.
  • Military: China needs Taiwan intact as its eastern coast allow for strategic (nuclear) submarine launches – the first island chain marks the end of continental shelf and deep water.  This suggests China may adopt an approach based on covert, cyber, and information war and an awareness of the dangers of overconfidence in technological superiority, in Command, Control and Communications (C3), and combat management systems.
  • Economic: While Russia and China may be politically aligned they are both more economically dependent on the West than with each other.  China will appreciate the need to mitigate its vulnerabilities and enhance resilience through sanctions-proofing the Chinese economy and currency. China will seek to prevent Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen adopting a political, digitally resilient and cognitive warfare strategy akin to President Zelensky and prevent the “Sea Fortress” from receiving support from abroad.

GCMC, 20 April 2022.

Disclaimer: This summary reflects the views of the authors (Helena Legarda, David Lewis and Graeme P. Herd) and are not necessarily the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other governments.

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