An alliance of necessity

Hany Ghoraba
Tuesday 18 Jun 2019

US sanctions against China and Russia have led to growing Sino-Russian cooperation and the formation of an alliance that may eventually eclipse the West

It has become apparent that the United States will fight the rise of China over the next decade using economic warfare and sanctions, and as a result the resourceful Chinese have been taking steps to fight back in this war by allying themselves with US rival Russia.

The latest visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Russia in May and his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin represents a major step forward in the two countries’ relations.

These two leaders are a far cry from their predecessors during the Soviet era in Russia or during the rule of former Communist Party leader Mao Zedong in China when bilateral relations slumped as a result of ideological disagreements.

This feud led to what was labelled as the Sino-Soviet Split after former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced his predecessor Stalin and Stalinism in 1956, beginning a phase of de-Stalinisation and rapprochement with the West.

This led in turn to the severing of diplomatic ties between the two countries, with China adopting a rival Communist doctrine that favoured confrontation.

The current Russian and Chinese leaderships have much greater political prowess compared to their predecessors, which were made up of ideologues who did not always act in their own countries’ best interests.

During the recent visit, on the other hand, Jinping described Putin as a “best friend” of China, while Putin described the current level of cooperation between the two countries as “unprecedented”.

Since 2013, the two leaders have met some 30 times, a figure which marks the significance of the growing bonds between them and their countries. They share nearly the same views on issues including relations with the United States, Europe and the Middle East, and there are benefits that both countries can share at a time of uncertainty in their relations with the West.

The growing tensions between Russia on the one hand and Europe and the US on other have incentivised Putin to act more vehemently in forging an alliance with China.

Similarly, the recent economic sanctions imposed by the United States on China, along with the military tensions in the Pacific, have led to Jinping believing that Putin is the best available ally for China at this stage.

There is plenty of potential in this cooperation on almost all levels. For China, it may create opportunities to restore some of the losses incurred as a result of US economic sanctions.

At the same time, it also provides unprecedented access to Russia’s unparalleled wealth of oil, gas and minerals along with access to Eastern European markets and the Caucasus.

For Russia, the growing cooperation between the two countries means major benefits in terms of an influx of investment that will help to stimulate economic growth.

Aside from Russian oil deals amounting to $400 billion over 30 years signed in 2014, the visit also saw the agreement of $20 billion of Chinese investments in 30 different projects in Russia.

Such investment could not have come at a better time for the Russians, and for the Chinese it has also been very valuable, perhaps particularly because the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei will now be able to launch its new 5G network technology in Russia after being blocked from the US market by the US government and banned by US telecommunications giant Google from using its android systems on Huawei mobile phones.

These steps and others have led the Chinese to forge deals with other worldwide networks to export 5G technology. Huawei has signed a deal with Russia’s largest telecoms operator MTS to develop 5G technology in the country and launch a fifth-generation mobile network.

The growing Sino-Russian alliance on the economic and military levels cannot be underestimated, and it may prove that this has come as a result of a major blunder by US President Donald Trump.

Alienating the Russian and Chinese leaderships with a series of economic and diplomatic sanctions and restrictions has forced the latter to combine their forces against his country, producing a combined force that is one to be reckoned with.

The Russians have also been aggressively renovating their military capacities to levels not witnessed since the end of the Cold War, with new traditional and non-traditional weapons joining their arsenal every year. Russian nuclear capabilities already outmatch those of the United States, and newly developed fighter jets, ballistic missiles, tanks, and other items have found their way into the Russian army’s inventory.

Moreover, the Russians have been gaining a greater slice of the world arms market by providing armaments to many countries around the world including NATO members such as Turkey to the dismay of the Americans. China has also recently received the first deliveries of the new state-of-the-art Russian fighter jets the Sukhoi 35 (Su35).

It is reported that the Russians sold $15 billion of weapons to the Chinese in 2017, and further sales are expected in the coming years with reports that the Russians are offering their next-generation SU57 stealth fighter to China in a deal that could be a true game-changer.

China, which could soon unseat the United States as the world’s biggest economy, is not planning to sit around and watch its plans collapse into ashes. Instead, it is relying on the Russians to provide it with the necessary weaponry, raw materials, and investment environment in order for it to grow and withstand any future American or western sanctions.

The Russians are also mulling the purchase of Chinese yuan bonds in order to break their dependence on the dollar and seek closer ties with the Chinese.

Putin’s statements that Russia and China are not looking to create a new military alliance, but are instead forging a “strategic” one, leaves a lot to be considered in the foreseeable future, especially if the two countries’ relations with the West and the United States continue to plummet.

A military alliance between the two countries would represent a formidable military force, and it would hold out the possibility of other countries joining it.

It would therefore be unwise for Trump to push his adversaries even further, causing them to bond and forge an even stronger alliance, especially since US relations with NATO have seen better days.

It would be wise for Trump to backtrack on some of the economic sanctions against the Chinese and the Russians because the longer the current tensions linger the stronger the bonds between the latter will tighten at the expense of the United States.

The Russian and Chinese leaders will continue to take steps to fight the policies of the present US administration and create red lines that cannot be crossed when it comes to either countries’ security interests.

Something similar was seen in the crisis over Ukraine earlier this decade, and it is now being seen again in the disputed South China Sea Islands that China considers to be part of its territory and has used to establish military bases.

The current relations between China and Russia may well shape the future of the planet this century, especially since major economic projects such as the Chinese One Belt One Road Initiative that is designed to revive the old Silk Roads trade routes from China across Asia and the Middle East to Europe are moving the world’s centre of economic gravity ever further to the east.

The current alliance of necessity between Russia and China may be a turning point that could remap the geopolitics of the 21st century. Trump’s policies have been a catalyst for this growing alliance as he has apparently neglected the old saying that it is best to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”.

*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: An alliance of necessity

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