Russia, China and the Georgia dimension

Russia, China and the Georgia dimension

Bulletin article
Bobo Lo
01 October 2008

Russia’s relations with the West today are more problematic than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall. With talk of a new Cold War and of parallels with the great power rivalries that preceded the First World War, Moscow’s ‘strategic partnership’ with Beijing has been out of the spotlight.

Yet the Georgia crisis has revealed a lot about the current state of Sino-Russian relations. Recent years have seen the considerable expansion of political, economic and security ties. The two countries have resolved outstanding border problems; trade has multiplied eight-fold in the past decade; and there is impressive policy co-ordination on a range of international issues, such as Iran, missile defence, Kosovo, NATO enlargement and nuclear nonproliferation. The war in the Caucasus, however, has exposed the frailties and limitations of their relationship.

Initially, the Chinese reaction was one of quiet irritation, as the crisis diverted attention from the Beijing Oympics. A superstitious leadership had chosen August 8th 2008 as the opening day, to make the most of the lucky number eight,only for the Georgians and Russians to rain on the parade. But as events in the Caucasus unfolded, they highlighted a conundrum in contemporary Chinese foreign policy: how to balance good relations with the West and the expansion of a strategic partnership with Russia. Over the past two decades, Beijing has managed to reconcile these sometimes contradictory goals. A genuine commitment to ‘peaceful development’ and a ‘harmonious world’ has resulted in unprecedented engagement across the board – with the US, Europe and Russia.

The sharp deterioration in Moscow’s relations with the West, however, has jeopardised this delicate balance. A confrontational Russia makes for an embarrassing bedfellow, constraining rather than broadening China’s options. The worse Russia’s relations with the US and NATO, the more tenacious the argument that Moscow and Beijing are conspiring to undermine western interests and challenge America’s global leadership.

The Chinese recognise the danger of this ‘guilt by association’, and are privately dismayed by the abrasive rhetoric of Russian leaders. More concretely, they have sought to deflect blame by, among other things, resisting Moscow’s attempts to turn the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) into a geopolitical instrument. At the recent SCO summit in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, President Hu Jintao played a pivotal role in resisting Russian lobbying for the recognition of independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In doing so, he blocked Russia’s attempts to reassert itself as the hegemonic power, earned the gratitude of the Central Asians and substantially raised Chinese influence in the region.

Beijing has a vested interest in international stability as a prerequisite for domestic modernisation and China’s transformation into a global power. At the 16th Communist Party Congress in October 2002, then President JiangZemin spoke of a “20-year period of strategic opportunities” that would enable China to undertake a quantum leap in its domestic and external development. The Georgia crisis, however, threatens to close this window and drag China into a vortex of heightened international tensions.

Such concerns are long-term. But Moscow’s formal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia raised immediate alarm in China: it undermines the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference that are the very bases of Beijing’s foreign policy. It is one thing for Saakashvili’s foolhardy attack on Tskhinvali to have invited a vigorous Russian response, but quite another for the Kremlin to have unilaterally altered the post-Soviet border with Georgia. The reaction ofthe Chinese foreign ministry – a one-off expression of “concern” – was restrained, but telling. Over the past 15 years Beijing has refrained from public criticism of the Russian government, even in the face of considerable provocation. It is a measure of the extent of the Chinese displeasure that they spoke up on this occasion.

Recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia exacerbates China’s existential fears about territorial integrity. The analogy that matters is not Tibet or Xinjiang – long under de facto as well as de jure control – but Taiwan. For the best part of half a century, the Communist leadership has exerted immense efforts to delegitimise the concept of an independent Taiwan, even while it recognised that reunification remained a distant prospect. Moscow’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia establishes a dangerous precedent, whereby de facto control supported by a dominant external power can introduce new realities.

In some respects, the Georgia crisis may turn out quite well for Beijing. Recent developments have disproved the specious notion of an ‘axis of authoritarian states’. The contrast between China’s soft power, showcased at the Beijing Olympics, and Russia’s recent military and diplomatic excesses, is vivid. Although China’s growing global footprint elicits concern, the notion of a ‘China threat’ has receded against the background of a potential confrontation between Russia and the United States.

The Sino-Russian relationship, on the other hand, has taken a serious knock. Both sides have failed the acid test of strategic partnership – to back each other in testing circumstances. Moscow has simply ignored Chinese concerns over territorial integrity and separatism, while Beijing’s coolness has left Russia more friendless than at any time in the past 60 years. The partnership will survive this awkward period, but Russia and China will have to struggle to sustain a constructive relationship in an ever more disordered world.