In a 1958 article, French historian Fernand Braudel introduced a concept that is indispensable not only for his field of study but also for the analysis of international politics and its trends: the “longue durée”, that is, the re-emergence, after decades, centuries and even millennia, of some historical phenomena suspended in the past. By exploiting this concept, it is possible to identify “geopolitical rivalries”, that is, rivalries from the past that may indeed re-emerge decades, centuries and even millennia later. The fact that they may re-emerge does not mean that they will certainly re-emerge; but an analysis that overlooks them is incomplete at best and disastrous at worst.
Today, many of the analyses predicting the possibility of an alliance between China and Russia are, at best, incomplete. And not only because they ignore the “geopolitical rivalry” between the two countries.
China and Russia are two asymmetrical realities. “No other country – wrote Henry Kissinger in his book about China – can claim so long a continuous civilization, or such an intimate link to its ancient past and classical principles of strategy and statesmanship.” From this very point of view, indeed, the Chinese reality is incommensurable to any other; throughout their history, the Chinese have always regarded with disdain and commiseration the “barbarians”, that is, the peoples who had the bad luck of not being Chinese; those sentiments therefore also apply to the Russian parvenus, which emerged “only” a few centuries ago, but with an aggravating circumstance: the phase of the greatest expansion of the Russian Empire (the nineteenth century) coincided with the phase of the crisis and disintegration of the Qing Empire; and this expansion was done to the detriment of the Chinese territory during a period that, in the schools of the People’s Republic of China, is taught as “the great national humiliation.” This reversal of power relationship between the two countries had brought about a reversal of perception: from the nineteenth century to the end of the 1970s, it was the Russians who regarded China with disdain and commiseration, worthy only of providing new territories; under Stalin, the country was treated like a Russian colony. When Mao made his ad limina visit to Moscow in December 1949 (i.e., only three months after proclaiming the birth of the P.R. of China), Khrushchev was told that a guy named Matsadoon had arrived in the city. “Who”? asked Khrushchev; “You know who, he was told, that Chinaman.” Mao was left alone at a dacha with no contact with the outside world for a few days: “Since Stalin neither visited Mao nor ordered anyone to entertain him, no one dared to go see him,” said the agent assigned to his surveillance.
Perhaps, one of the reasons why Mao was subjected to humiliation is that, according to geostrategic think tank Stratfor, “his first moves were designed to block Soviet interests in these regions,” Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, occupied by the Red Army between 1934 and 1945. In the 1950s, relations between Russia and China started deteriorating; in July 1964, Mao stated that sooner or later the Chinese would “present the bill” to Russians for the territories north of the Amur River, annexed in 1860. In 1969, the two countries even had a military conflict that lasted over six months; and, in 1972, Beijing and Washington established a “quasi-alliance” (Kissinger dixit) against the USSR. It was also thanks to this agreement that the power relations between a structurally weak Russia and a structurally strong China came back to their “natural” balance: in 1971, the Russian GDP was five times the Chinese; in 2001 China’s GDP was four times that of Russia. This disproportion alone would be enough to explain why an alliance between the two countries is very unlikely.
Of course, asymmetrical alliances have always existed throughout history; but neither China nor Russia is willing to ally with each other from a position of manifest weakness due to their contiguity and their mutual suspicions. This is particularly true for Russia, whose economic weight today is ten times lower than that of China and a military expenditure four times lower (but with an impact on the country’s GDP 2.5 times greater): if China wanted, today it would certainly have the opportunity to “present the bill”.
But there are two other reasons that make an alliance between China and Russia highly unlikely. Despite the temporary convergence on some tactical objectives – maintaining a kind of condominium on former Soviet Central Asia in order to prevent it from becoming a bone of reciprocal contention and keeping “Westerners” as far away as possible from each other’s areas of interest – the two countries’ management of foreign politics could not be more different. Russia, which has nothing to lose, can just try to “fill the voids” left by others and advances by making threats that are all the more arrogant the less its ability to carry them out. China, unlike Russia, has a lot to lose – its growing global economic and political presence – and therefore it must proceed with caution, trying to make as few enemies as possible, albeit without renouncing an often arrogant intransigence when it comes to its (actual or alleged) area of national sovereignty.
The second reason is that the current times are not conducive to alliances. Since the end of the Cold War we have been living in an era of transition in international relations, where everything is fluid and no one wants to tie their hands or foreclose on possibilities; and each new crisis – that of 2008, Trump’s four years in office, the pandemic – only increases entropy and makes the ability to move on the international scene without rigid constraints more essential than ever.
The analyses that predict a possible alliance between China and Russia, as previously said, are incomplete at best; but they can become calamitous. The idea that Russia and China are linked by a common strategy and vision of the world only pushes them towards each other, despite of what was said above. The study of international relations is far from being an exact science, but it allows us to make some hypotheses. As things currently stand, it is plausible that in the event of worsening tensions with the United States, China would try to tighten its relationship with Japan or with a hypothetical Europe-puissance rather than with weak Russia; and Moscow, in this case, would most likely join its forces with the United States (and, in all probability, with India, and possibly its friends in Europe), as it did in the two world wars. But this scenario could drastically change if China and Russia were brought together in a new “axis of evil”. And if Europe was tempted to follow this slapdash viewpoint, it would seriously risk breaking up, losing along the way the countries historically more linked to Russia and those that have recently become dependent on Chinese investments (and vaccines).
It is precisely because this slapdash viewpoint risks destabilizing the “Westerners” that Moscow has recently spread the rumor of an imminent alliance with China, to which Beijing, it must be said, has so far turned a deaf ear.
Manlio Graziano, PhD, teaches Geopolitics and Geopolitics of Religions at Sciences Po Paris, at la Sorbonne, and at the Geneva Institute of Geopolitics. He collaborates with the Corriere della Sera and with the geopolitical journals Limes and Gnosis. He published several books in the US, with Stanford UP, Columbia UP and Palgrave. His upcoming book, Fearful New World: How Fear Steers International Politics (Bocconi University Press) is scheduled for publication at the end of August 2021.