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Russia and China Headed for an Inevitable Geopolitical Clash

Paper No. 5628                                           Dated 02-Jan-2013

By Dr Subhash Kapila

Introductory Observations

Russia’s “Great Power Aspirations” and China’s “Chinese Dream” (euphemism for China’s bid for global power status on par with United States) inherently carry the seed of an inevitable geopolitical clash of interests.

The so-called Russia-China strategic nexus amounts to nothing more than strategic expediency which could dissolve anytime with China’s propensity for strategic swings.

Russia and China have seemingly stood glued loosely together only because United States foreign policy formulations towards both Russia and China have been strategically naïve.

Russia’s strategic pivot to Asia Pacific has set the cat amongst the pigeons in so far as China and the United States are concerned.

United States and China have seemingly been forced into a reactive foreign policy mode in face of the pro-active foreign policy initiatives of Russia’s strategic pivot to Asia Pacific.

Reverting to the main theme of the inevitability of a Russia-China geopolitical clash is the singular fact that in Chinese strategic calculations as it proceeds with its “Chinese Dream”, it envisages a new bipolar global power structure comprising United States and China. China has ruled out Russia from emerging as a “Great Power”

This in itself and by itself adds to the inevitability of a geopolitical clash of interests between Russia and China,

Russia and China Clash of Geopolitical Interests in North East Asia

Both during the Cold War and more in focus now is the strategic reality that North East Asia was a region of intense geopolitical rivalry. It is in this region that the strategic interests of the United States, Russia and China intersect significantly.

In recent times North East Asia has been witness to a number of significant strategic developments. China has sharpened its adversarial postures against Japan bordering on military brinkmanship. Both United States and Russia have strategically pivoted to Asia Pacific in which Japan emerges as the lynch-pin of both their strategic initiatives. Japan prodded by China’s intransigence and military brinkmanship has embarked on enhancement of its military profile.

Russia’s strategic opening to Japan in 2013 and holding of the Russia-Japan 2+2 Talks promises to be a strategic game changer for North East Asia.

Russia’s political and strategic reach-out to Japan is significant in that Russian initiative comes at a time when China is engaged in adversarial games of coercion against Japan. Surely, this significance would not have been lost on China.

 Contextually therefore in light of the above we are witnessing a geopolitical clash between Russia and China at China’s doorstep and in a region which China had started viewing as its own sphere of influence.

Russia and China Clash Geopolitically in South East Asia.

South East Asia is China’s strategic underbelly and China in the last two decades has indulged in wide-ranging ‘soft power’ diplomacy in the region.

However China dented its political and strategic gains in South East Asia by its unwarranted military aggressive moves in the South China Sea region and its unremitting military coercion of Vietnam and the Philippines. Further China’s attempts to create divisions within ASEAN unity on South China Sea disputes has not gone down well.

Russia without much political flamboyance has established a significant political profile in South East Asia besides military supplies linkages.

In its drive to give substantive shape to its strategic pivot to Asia Pacific, the strategic Russian focus has been on Vietnam as the lynch-pin of its South East Asia policy initiatives.

Vietnam, it needs to be remembered has stood upto China on Chinese aggression against Vietnam in the South China Sea. This tough Vietnamese stance emerges, it needs to be remembered, and despite the absence of Vietnam being a member of any military alliance with the United States like the Philippines and Japan.

So here too contextually Russia appears in a geopolitical clash with China unmindful of China’s strategic sensitivities.

Russia and China the Inevitable Geopolitical Clash: The Overall Context

The potential of the inevitable geopolitical clash of interests between Russia and China in the two vital strategic regions of Asia Pacific stands sketched above. But overarching the above is the overall geopolitical clash of interests between Russia and China.

In 2014 Russia stands tall after its resurgence of the last decade to reclaim its rightful place as an independent power centre. Russia is no longer the junior partner of the Russia-China strategic nexus as China was mistakenly led to believe in the post-Cold War decade.

China has no strategic natural allies in Asia or worldwide other than Pakistan and North Korea. Russia on the other hand can reclaim and reinforce many of its special strategic relationships from the Mediterranean to the Pacific as it proceeds to reclaim its “Great Power “status.

So when it comes to unfolding of geopolitical clash of interests between Russia and China, it is Russia which holds many stronger cards than China.

China may be an economic superpower but Russia has been a superpower though temporarily eclipsed by the disintegration of the Former USSR. Significantly, Russia with its vast energy resources and the dependencies energy security considerations generate, notably China too, gives tremendous political and strategic leverages.

Therefore in any future clash of geopolitical clash of interests between Russia and China, Russia is in a stronger strategic position.

Adding to this is Russia’s far greater international acceptability as a responsible stakeholder in global security and stability than China.

Alluded above is that the “Chinese Dream” incorporates a future bi-polar world in which only the United States and China would be the ‘two poles’. Chinese strategic calculations do not view Russia as a “Great Power” in its future calculations.

It is this significant omission in its Chinese strategic calculations which promises to emerge as the focal point of the impending geopolitical clash between Russia and China.

Concluding Observations

Russia’s “Great Power Aspirations” is a natural corollary of its erstwhile superpower status in a bipolar world. Operating much against United States subtle and not so subtle attempts to forestall Russia’s resurgence, Russia definitely stands squarely on achieving its “Great Power Aspirations”.

China’s “Chinese Dream” is tinged with imperial pretensions of an Asian power which not only has to contend with United States and Russia to emerge as a “Great Power” but also seriously contend with two other per Asian rising powers like India and Japan.

In the pursuit of their respective strategic dreams Russia and China are headed for an evitable geological clash simply because for Russia the lynch-pins of its unfolding strategic moves are the very military targets of China as its flexes its military muscles to give shape to the “Chinese Dream”. Add to this the overall clash of strategic interests.