Moscow learns the art of war

President Xi Jin Ping went to Moscow for his first state visit. In March 2014, the Chinese president sent the world a clear message: despite membership in the G2, Russia remained a favored interlocutor, a valid partner not only to balance the ambivalent relationship with the United States. Proud of this choice, Vladimir Putin did not spare any blandishments: “in their long, centuries-old history, Sino-Russian relations have never been so good.” The two presidents are the same age, little more than 60 years, and they certainly remember being young communists and mobilizing for the Sino-Soviet Border Conflict.  Heavy Soviet tanks traveled across the frozen waters of the Ussuri River that divides the two countries, running between Siberia and Manchuria, in an unexpected war with unpredictable consequences. The anti-US ideology that cemented the two countries together had not yet eliminated the friction between the two unwieldy, expanding neighboring powers. A nationalistic virus took the upper hand, even though a large-scale war was sacrificed to negotiations in the end. Today, the contagion has found fertile soil in Asia. Among the infected countries we find Narendra Modi’s India, Shinzo Abe’s Japan, and Southeast Asia. In this framework, the pacified boundary between Moscow and Beijing lubricates the wheels of trade and cooperation. Trade has doubled in the last 5 years; China is now far and away Russia’s premier trading partner. Investments are also growing, especially in gas and oil pipeline construction heading toward the Middle Kingdom. In fact, the endowments are complimentary: Russia exports raw materials it has in abundance (energy, minerals, timber) while China compensates with manufactured goods (consumer goods, food products, and pharmaceuticals). In any case, there is a commonality of interests that goes beyond a purely economic aspect. It regards political conveniences derived from differences between the two countries with respect to Western values. The differences remain instrumental to the retention of power, but they need to strengthen their alliances. If China and Russia are attacked by several parties—independently of any judgment that could be given—they have no other solution but to work together despite their historical, cultural, and structural differences. The recent crisis in Ukraine is only the most recent example. Sanctions are weakening Russia, whose GDP growth is hovering around zero. The guided collapse in oil prices has brought the country’s revenue to its knees, which have long been dependent on energy. The ruble’s value has fallen. Given the circumstances, Putin has only two choices: accentuate internal nationalism or look for new external alliances. The punishments inflicted by Washington and Brussels put Moscow in a timeout, pushing it into a corner. Sun Tzu, the unsurpassed master of the art of war, taught that if the opponent is forced, he will find refuge in desperation; if he doesn’t have a way out, he will react with force. Russia still has room to maneuver, but the sanctions are restricting. For this reason it finds support from Beijing on the most important topics of the global crisis, from Iran and Syria to North Korea and Venezuela. An anti-ideological but purely political axis is forming, where ideals vanish in the face of convenience. China holds a position of strength and can negotiate better. For Russia, it may be a desperate move, made inevitable in the face of international solitude. A stronger rearrangement emerges, based on perhaps bizarre alliances, but not for this reason insidious. It’s one of the Ukrainian Crisis’ collateral effects, which was perhaps managed hurriedly resulting in an easy shortcut for people accustomed to bygone standards. The vacillating relationship is a historical lesson. Proximity can be valuable, but in the past it was more controversial. Russia’s expansion toward the Pacific infringed on Chinese interests south of Vladivostok. The Russo-Japanese war for raw materials in 1905 effectively took place on Chinese territory. Even today, Harbin, the most important city in Northeast China, is imbued with Russian architecture from the past century. During World War II, Russia was too occupied on its western front to intervene on China’s behalf. Only after Japan’s defeat was a friendship between Moscow and Beijing welded. The only foreign visits Mao ever made were to visit Stalin in Moscow. In any case, nationalism soon prevailed on both sides. During the reconciliation with the US, Russia was China’s primary enemy.