Is the West playing Russian roulette?
In the wake of the recent Xi-Putin summit, Yvonne Gill reflects on the very real dangers of the US and its allies trying to take on Beijing and Moscow
China and Russia are two different beasts. The former was nurtured by the West by farming out manufacturing facilities, while the latter inherited a massive nuclear arsenal and advanced military and space technology that deterred any venture by the US and its allies to strip the country of its nuclear assets.
Science & technology was a sphere of intense competition between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War. The USSR even led in many spheres like nuclear technology, computing and cybernetics, mathematics, physics and space exploration, till they fell back in the S&T race in the 1980s and later broke up into independent republics. But a strong foundation of science and a culture of innovation built during socialist rule remains in Russia.
Conversely, China was a backward agricultural country, which went through periods of denial of science, for instance, during the Cultural Revolution or Mao’s Long Leap Forward, when intellectuals, scientists and other experts were targeted and brutalised. This led to famines and negative growth till the Nixon-Chou-en-lai rapprochement in the 1970s and 80s,which opened up the Chinese market to foreign investment, bringing with it the latest technologies and know-how. A massive industrial base was built by foreign companies to produce goods much cheaper than was possible in advanced countries. In a systemic manner, the Chinese state facilitated the generic adaptation of foreign know-how by local businesses, not giving two hoots to accusations of intellectual property theft and copyright violations.
Today, with its skilful piracy of the latest technologies, Chinese businesses – subsidised by the state and reaping the benefits of world-class infrastructure and liberally distributed loans – have become global behemoths that compete with transnational corporations, threatening to undermine the West’s economic and technological dominance. As with most autocratic regimes, China’s rulers have also become belligerent, aggressively building their military might and setting off alarm bells in Western capitals.
The Chinese began to take an aggressive stance a decade or so ago. This, interestingly, coincided with Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013. Vladimir Putin had, a few years earlier, started putting a ramshackle Russian economy back on a growth trajectory, bringing the country’s vast natural resourcesunder state control, particularly the energy sector, and building the ambitious Nord Stream pipelines to transport cheap natural gas across Europe.
An area the Russians have long been very sensitive about is their nuclear arsenal, which needed to be protected from Western powers that saw the Russian nuclear tirade as a direct threat. Even during the chaotic days following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the West failed to force Russia into dismantling its stockpile of nuclear weapons. Once Putin was able to revamp the ailing Russian economy by curbing the rapacious oligarchs, he set about modernising the military and upgrading the nuclear weapon systems. It did not take long for Russia’s powerful military-industrial complex to become the world’s second-largest exporter of military hardware.
The recent Xi-Putin summit in Moscow should be seen in the context of these developments of the past decade or so, during which the two leaders have met at least 40 times, cementing their friendship and bringing China and Russia much closer than ever before. In his March 22 address, Putin recalled that he ‘made acquaintance with Comrade Xi Jinping in March 2010 when he visited Moscow as the head of a high-level delegation’.
Notwithstanding their Communist moorings, the relations between the two neighbours have been more acrimonious than friendly. Ideological differences, border clashes and, more recently, growing Chinese influence in the former Soviet republics, which Russia considered its backyard, had marred relations. The Russians never trusted the Chinese. This was true till a few years ago.
For instance, the 2018 Vostok military exercises had a token Chinese presence,with a Chinese Dongdiao-class auxiliary general intelligence (AGI) vessel joining in. But the September 2022 Vostok exercises formally included Chinese naval ships. It was also unprecedented for all three arms of China’s People’s Liberation Army to participate in these exercises. Coinciding with the Tokyo Quad summit in May, too, the PLA and Russian forces conducted joint bomber patrols, landing their aircraft on each other’s airfields. This had never happened before in the post-Cold War era.
But Moscow has always been suspicious about the Chinese stealing their far superior military technology related to air defence systems, hypersonic missiles, and aircraft and nuclear submarine design. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). in the summer of 2020, leaked a report of a Chinese agent trying to steal secrets related to the development of ‘nuclear torpedoes’ that could evade missile defences and destroy the enemy’s coastal cities. In July last year, the FSB arrested two Russian scientists working on hypersonic missile systems for spying for China.
The situation has dramatically changed as we enter the second year of the Ukraine war. Russia was able to overcome the effects of Western sanctions because of the dramatic increase in Sino-Russian trade, which largely compensated for other losses. Between March and December 2022, China bought $50.6bn worth of crude oil from Russia, up 45 per cent from 2021. Coal imports surged by 54 per cent to $10bn, while natural gas and LNG imports rose 155 per cent to net $9.6bn for the Russians. The other big buyer of energy from Russia was India.
The Chinese were happy too. Market shares of Chinese cars in Russia went up from 10 to 38 per cent, while Chinese smartphone sales have grown from 40 to 95 per cent. The yuan’s share in the Russian foreign currency, previously just 1 per cent, was 48 per cent by November-end 2022. Russians also have arrangements with other countries to trade in their respective currencies. With curbs being placed on China by the West amid growing tensions on the issue of Taiwan, the Chinese naturally found a perfect ally in Russia, which was being unilaterally sanctioned and isolated by the US and its allies.
On the other end, the sanctions have boomeranged back on Europe, now buying expensive American and Qatari LNG to meet energy demands as the cheap Russian gas supply has dried up. Global food, fertiliser and energy prices have spiralled due to sanctions and the Ukraine war. The dollar is under stress because countries are diversifying their foreign exchange holdings and even buying gold. Oil exporting countries are also working to move out of the dollar-only regime. With the US Fed having no other option but to increase interest rates to keep the dollar afloat, it is feared a banking crisis could soon explode on the world financial markets.
All that makes the Xi-Putin summit even more significant. The carefully-worded joint communique issued at Moscow underlined ‘China-Russia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of coordination for a new era to advance the multi-polarisation of the world, economic globalisation, democratisation of international relations’. Xi and Putin also agreed to enhance cooperation at forums like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), BRICS, the UN, G20 and the World Trade Organisation. Their joint statement also mentions the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral, strengthening coordination on China-Russia-India, China-Russia-Mongolia, as well as platforms such as the East Asia Summit.
Endorsing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the statement expressed concern about the submarine deal struck by AUKUS members – the UK, US and Australia – to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia. It said the Indo-Pacific strategy ‘has a negative impact on peace and stability’ and called for an ‘open and inclusive Asia-Pacific security system’.
While Moscow reiterated its support for the one-China policy and Taiwan’s integration with the mainland, the Chinese side said it understood the Russian position on Ukraine and hoped peace will prevail. The two sides urged NATO to ‘abide by its commitment as a regional and defensive organisation, and to respect the sovereignty, security, interestsand diversity of civilisations, history, and culture of other countries, and view the peaceful development of other countries objectively and fairly’.
On Ukraine, interestingly, both maintained that the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter must be observed and international law respected. The Russian side spoke positively of China’s impartial position on the Ukraine war. The two sides, the statement said, opposed the practice by any country or group of countries to seek advantages in military, political and other areas, to the detriment of the legitimate security interests of other countries. This was an oblique reference to the US and NATO arming of Ukraine.
The collective West, led by the US, the world’s only superpower, seems to be playing Russian roulette by trying to take on China, a manufacturing powerhouse, alongside Russia, a formidable nuclear power. Together they form a daunting alliance that could be defeated only after human civilisation is decimated in what could aptly be described as a fatal nuclear conflagration. Nuclear weapons, whether carried as the warhead of a ballistic or hypersonic missile launched from an underground silo, an aircraft, ship or submarine, or carried as bombs by long-range bombers, are part of a sophisticated network of satellites and ever-ready battle stations that are governed by adangerous doctrine of total annihilation of the enemy before they can hit back. It’s a zero-sum game.
But let’s not forget that Russia is a nuclear superpower. Nuclear deterrence works so long as both sides exercise extraordinary restraint. Once a weapon has been unleashed, the response from the other side will be overwhelming – what was described in Cold War parlance as ‘MAD’, or mutually assured destruction.
Is anybody out there listening?
Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London