Western viewpoints

Western academic debate in the post-Cold War era

Since 1996, when China and Russia announced the establishment of a “strategic partnership”, there have been in the Western scientific and research circles at least two, possibly three, rounds of intense discussions and debates on the future of China-Russian relations. (Anderson, 1997; Garnett, 2000), (Lo, 2008; Bellacqua, 2010), (Adomanis 2014, Green 2014, Panda 2014, Beauchamp 2015, Chen 2015, Nye 2015, Rozman 2014).  

The debate is normally polarized into two extreme views:

  • others argue that the Chinese-Russian partnership is full of deep problems based on long term mistrust and ideological animosity and the so-called military alliance between China and Russia is no more than an illusion.
  • others suggest that the partnership is real and durable and that a Sino-Russian military alliance is in the making and will challenge the United States as well as the Western order sooner or later

It seems that both the pessimistic and optimistic views on a future Sino-Russian alliance reveal some elements of truth but that both Western observers have missed vitally important general and specific facts, views and trends.

Therefore, many obvious aspects and events, even trends have been left aside and ignored by Western observers having difficulties to comprehend China, Russia or their complex relationship and to formulate reasonable conclusions about the events and processes inside and around those countries, mostly due to lack of knowledge and understanding of the history, culture and “national philosophy” of those countries.

Both nations have a very long history of human civilization and national heritage of being a proud empire with their own philosophy and national ideology.

Even the philosophical time perspective in the way of pondering and considering the world around differs considerably from that of Western observers. However, all these points become necessary to comprehend, when looking at the Chinese view of the outside world and especially, when writing about the emerging Russo-Chinese alliance. The “Western glasses” are not particular useful in this context.

Typically, many Western observers view China as the senior partner in such an alliance due to her sheer size, both demographically and economically. On the surface this may not be an unreasonable assumption but on the surface only.

Generally accepted fact today in the West is that China is an emerging global great power but has China internalized “mentally” how to be a fully-fledged great power? One can say with good reason that not yet, China is now in the learning process.

On the other hand, Russia has been intimately acquainted with the peculiarities of great power status for centuries, first as a European and then as a global one. Those are not easy lessons to learn, when qualifying as a great power and they require more than just a huge economy and population.

The national heritage issue, which is elaborated in “Key drivers of political capabilities” on this website, sheds more light on this point.

Yet many Western analysts continue to base their conclusions on simplified narrative: the gross underestimation of Russia’s economy and military capability and the gross overestimation of the same for China. Objectively, the Chinese economy (PPP adjusted) is already the largest in the world (Russia being number 6) and nobody denies that. But just the size of an economy does not determine everything, it is very important but not all that defines the power of a nation.

Correlli Barnett, a famous English military historian has defined the power of the nation:

“Power of the nation-state by no means consists only in its armed forces but also

  • in its economic and technological resources
  • in the dexterity, foresight and resolution with which its foreign policy is conducted
  • in the efficiency of its social and political organization
  • in the nation itself, the people, their skills, energy, ambition, discipline, initiative; their beliefs, myths and illusions
  • in the way all these factors are related to one another

Barnett’s brilliant definition received a further expansion when Samuel Huntington published his book (The Clash Of Civilizations And The Remaking Of World Order). While describing the reasons for why West dominates global order, he gave 14 reasons for this domination, which are here: 1. Owns and operates the international banking system 2. Controls all hard currencies 3. Is the world’s principal customer 4. Provides the majority of the worlds finished goods 5. Dominates international capital markets 6. Exerts considerable moral leadership within many societies 7. Is capable of massive military intervention 8. Controls the sea lanes;

9. Conducts most advanced technical research and development;

10. Controls leading edge technical education;

11. Dominates access to space;

12. Dominates aerospace industry;

13. Dominates international communications;

14. Dominates the high-tech weapons industry.  

Those criteria are sound and present a good framework within which assessments and comparisons could be made. Most of those 14 points are related to technological development.

Only nations that can extract resources, refine them and then manufacture a finished, sometimes extremely complex, product are the ones who are real power players globally.

Coming back to Sino-Russian “alliance” question, despite spectacular progress China has made in the last two decades, China, for all her technological advancements still lags behind Russia in some of the most crucial areas that define national power.

Points 9-14 (Huntington-Barnett list above) cover nearly half of the capabilities. Yet in all those fields China is either a relative newcomer or makes not yet well. China’s achievements here are behind those of Russia, although the gap is narrowing.  The present situation is still unequal between Russia and China in some particular areas like military aviation, air defense complexes, modern battle tanks, nuclear submarines, ICBMs, cruise missiles, hypersonic missiles and some other specific hi-tech weapon systems. Even the Chinese themselves admit that China’s conversion of economic power into military is a relatively slow process.