Russian Scholar Karaganov Articulated Russia’s Balancing Act With China
6 AUGUST 2021
Influential Russian Scholar Sergey Karaganov’s recent interview about the strategic dynamics of the New Cold War dedicates a lot of attention to articulating Russia’s balancing act with China and is therefore a must-read for all those who are interested in learning more about the Kremlin’s calculations in this respect.
Few would contest the claim that the world is in the midst of a New Cold War, but even fewer are able to articulate its strategic dynamics, let alone from a position of authority. Influential Russian scholar Sergey Karaganov, who recently gave an interview about this subject to the Argumenty I Fakty newspaper, is one of those experts whose assessments carry a lot of weight and are worthy of reviewing. RT‘s summary of his insight informed their non-Russian audience about his esteemed credentials: “Karaganov has been one of Russia’s top foreign-policy theorists for decades, and has also advised President Vladimir Putin in the past. He is currently the head of the World Economy and International Affairs faculty at the Higher School of Economics (HSE), a prestigious university in Moscow.” Due to its scope, however, it didn’t focus much on what he said about China.
The present piece therefore aims to raise greater awareness of Mr. Karaganov’s interpretation of Russian-Chinese relations, which he implies are actually characterized by a very sensitive balancing act. This aligns with what I’ve previously written on the subject, the following five pieces of which are my most prominent:
* 3 June 2020: “Pakistan’s Role In Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership”
* 17 February 2021: “Why Structural Realists Are Wrong To Predict That Russia Will Help The US Against China”
* 11 June 2021: “Towards Increasingly Complex Multipolarity: Scenarios For The Future”
My arguments, observations, and conclusions contradict the prevailing narrative that Russian-Chinese relations are either characterized by an eternal alliance or an inevitable clash. Since Mr. Karaganov’s insight closely aligns with my own, however, his professional authority might inspire some folks to reconsider their views about this.
Per Google Translate, these are the points that he made about China in the order that they were shared:
* “If we fought the last Cold War on two fronts, now China is on our side, it is our gigantic strategic resource. It draws on itself most of the military and political power of the West.”
* “If China, the main player in this cold war, wins, and it starts to feel dizzy with success, then we will not balance in its direction. If, on the contrary, China starts to lose, then we will have to go for a much closer alliance with it in order to prevent the West from gaining.”
* “Today’s relations between Russia and the PRC are an outstanding achievement of our and Chinese policy. And one of the biggest geostrategic failures of the West, which not only allowed us to get closer, but also reduced us to the state of a real semi-union.”
* “With a careful analysis of China’s policy and its military preparations, you come to the conclusion: in the foreseeable future, the Chinese are not going to threaten us. Otherwise, why would they so powerfully rebuild their military strategy and military construction from land to sea, investing most of their resources in space, in the navy, but not in ground forces? They are not going to fight for the expansion of territories, they are going to defend their southeastern and eastern borders. But what will happen in 10-15 years, we do not know. I admit that the Chinese elite will make a strategic mistake and follow one of the traditional Chinese paths – the construction of the Middle Empire surrounded by vassal states. Then China will have gigantic problems, and not only with Russia. Neither India, nor Iran, nor Turkey, not to mention Japan – all the great powers of Eurasia will not tolerate this. But if the Chinese act wisely, the prospects for our relationship will be simply wonderful.”
* “Having a friendly superpower is a tremendous boon. And I hope that we will not repeat the mistakes of the Europeans, who hid behind the back of the United States and sold them their sovereignty, and are now paying dearly for it. Knowing Russian history, the psychology of our people and the political class, I think that we will not sell our sovereignty to anyone. I also hope for the wisdom of the Chinese political class. If I were Chinese, I would never have done anything directed against Russia. And so far they have been doing so.”
The strategic pertinence of his points can be summarized as follows in the order that they were shared above:
* The indefinite perpetuation of American-Chinese tensions in the New Cold War serves the Kremlin’s grand strategic interests by comparatively reducing its chief rival’s comprehensive pressure campaign against Russia.
* Russia should actively recalibrate its balancing act between China and the US in order to prevent either of them from coming out on top and placing Russia in position of disproportionate strategic dependence on them.
* The comprehensive improvement of Russian-Chinese relations in recent years is mutually beneficial because it enables both Great Powers to pool their potential in jointly pushing back against Western hegemony.
* Russia has nothing to fear from China in the next 10-15 years, but if it emerges victorious in the New Cold War, then Russia and all relevant Eurasian Great Powers will unite to contain China if it becomes hegemonic.
* In the run-up to the scenario of a Chinese victory and especially afterwards, the Russian elite mustn’t sell out their state’s sovereignty and submit to Chinese hegemony, nor should China accept this even if it’s offered.
With this insight in mind, Mr. Karagonov’s vision for Russian-Chinese relations becomes much clearer. He’s in support of Russia retaining strategic ties with China but also pragmatically recalibrating them as needed in order to retain the balance of power between America and the People’s Republic. The ultimate goal is to indefinitely perpetuate the New Cold War so that no one emerges victorious and risks placing Russia in a position of disproportionate strategic dependence. He hints that China might win though, in which case he warns against it behaving hegemonically by treating other countries as “vassal states” lest it risk provoking Russia into assembling a Eurasian-wide Great Power coalition to contain it. He’s also worried that the Russian elite might sell their country out to China though assesses the chances of that scenario as being very low.
The key takeaway from the Chinese dimension of Mr. Karaganov’s interview is that bilateral relations with Russia are unprecedentedly excellent but the Kremlin mustn’t be oblivious to the unlikely but nevertheless still possible scenario that the People’s Republic might behave hegemonically in the event that it wins its New Cold War with the US. The most effective way to avert that dark scenario is for Russia to continue actively balancing between those two superpowers and thus indefinitely perpetuating their rivalry. At all costs, an American victory must be prevented while a Chinese one is comparatively much more manageable, though only if Russia makes it clear that it won’t tolerate any hegemonic intentions from its neighbor. This insight from such a well-respected and highly influential Russian foreign policy expert is intriguing and deserves to be reflected upon.
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