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China, Russia and the formation of an ‘Eastern Entente’

China and Russia may not be able to build an institutional alliance like NATO, but by the metrics of the 20th century they have already formed an ‘entente’ against Western interests.

The prevailing wisdom in Washington and Brussels is that China and Russia are incapable of forming a permanent and lasting alliance. The obstacles are simply too many: a history of mutual animosity and border friction going back to 1680, a small shooting war in 1929, not to mention the Chinese Red Army’s wholesale looting of areas liberated from the Japanese by the Red Army in the late 1940’s as a means to help rebuild the war torn Soviet Union, and a series of border clashes in 1969 that nearly resulted in a full scale war.

{mosads}In addition to this history of conflict, many point to the inevitable competition for influence in the Central Asian states, and the prickliness of Russia, the weaker power, which would never accept being the junior partner in any formal alliance. After all, no one would have characterized the Warsaw Pact as an alliance of equals. Rather it was a collection of weaker states under a Soviet hegemon.

It is true that Russia and China may never be allies in the sense that the U.S. and the U.K. are, or the member states of NATO, but that does not preclude them from forming a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Indeed, passing the centennial of the end of WWI, it behooves us to look back at the alliance that formed the basis for what eventually became NATO. When the Great War began, the Western Alliance opposing the Central Powers was referred to as the ‘Entente’ that is defined as “a friendly understanding or informal alliance between states or factions.”

Indeed, if one weighs Russia and China’s mutual interest versus their mutual animosities, an argument begins to form that the two Eurasian powers’ conflict with the West may be enough to overcome their history of distrust.

First, and perhaps most important is that neither power poses an existential threat to the other. Russia is not looking to convert China to its government system and the same goes for China. Any competition between the two states is framed in the realist sense of great power competition over land and resources. The West meanwhile actively espouses its own democratic system as a superior form of government, and has spent the last three quarters of a century trying to spread its ideals across the world.

Secondly, there is the issue of territorial integrity. While it is true that Russia and China share a massive land border, that border sits at the far frontier of both nations. In contrast, both China and Russia have American troops within easy striking distance of their centers of power. In Europe, American tanks stationed in the Baltic States sit about 385 miles from Moscow. In the Pacific, the US 7th Fleet is based in Japan in addition to thousands of American troops deployed in Korea. These military assets are well within striking distance of China’s seaboard, the heart of its economy, and home to the majority of its population. Both Russia and China view the U.S. and its allies as attempting to constrain their respective efforts to secure regions of strategic significance for them.

China and Russia’s similarities do not end there. Both nations are former imperial powers that see themselves as the victims over extended periods of national humiliation forced on them by the Western powers. When that is taken into consideration, the two nations’ desire to cooperate begins to makes sense.

So what do Russia and China have to gain from increased cooperation? Is their ultimate goal dominion over the United States, as some alarmists would have us believe? I do not believe so. Both states are the heirs to the most brutal school of realpolitik. Their goal in cooperating is to offset the U.S. global hegemony, and carve out spheres of influence that will boost their own security and economic growth.

Neither nation will benefit from a complete U.S. retreat form the world stage, but both have much to gain if they can challenge U.S. supremacy. Indeed, there remain strong points of contention between Russia and China, especially the Central Asian states in Russia’s traditional backyard, which China has increasingly been playing in as part of its One Belt One Road initiative. However, it can be argued that in Central Asia we are seeing the most tangible result of Chinese and Russia entente. Both can benefit from the region’s development, while security and counter terrorism cooperation help to prop up friendly regimes, and keep the lid on potential jihadist threats a serious concern for both states.

There are already strong signs that China and Russia are seeing the benefits of working together. The two nations militaries frequently hold joint exercises, most notably Vostok 2018 when 3,500 Chinese troops participated in the exercises. Economic investment has lagged behind, but both China and Russia have recently signaled a desire to boost the economic heft of their shared border region. The nascent Russian-Chinese Business Advisory Committee announced in September 2018 an ambitious goal of a cumulative $100 billion joint investment and development projects.

There certainly will be tension between the two states. Vostok was marred by reports of Russian naval vessels being followed by a Chinese spy ship, and Russian state media printed several critical articles of the Chinese J-15, which is derived from Soviet technology purchased from Ukraine. These spats should not distract from the broader trend that is unfolding, both nations’ security dilemmas on their respective eastern and western flanks. Dilemmas made more pressing by U.S. sanctions and tariffs. The ability to, if not trust their neighbor, at least trust that for the moment their interests are aligned has helped the China- Russia entente build momentum.

As the U.S. and Western animosity grows toward Russia and China, it will continue to push them to closer cooperation, and make rending their partnership far more difficult. Between 1972 and 1990, U.S. grand strategy called for counterbalancing these two powers. At the time both states had more to gain through engagement with the U.S. than they did with each other. Over the last two decades, that has reversed substantially. So perhaps the question should not be if China and Russia would form an alliance, but whether or not they already have, and how strong it can grow?

Jeff Hawn is an analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm.

Tags China Russia Vostok

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