International rivalry has become the norm in international relations. Many believe that the central process at work in the world is Washington’s struggle against “the revisionist powers of China and Russia,” to quote the latest US National Security Strategy, which has proclaimed the return of great-power competition and rivalries.
But rivalry is not limited to Russia, China and the United States. Other great powers want to have their say in the world, including Germany, France, Japan, India, Brazil, Turkey and Iran. Although there are no reasons for a war and all these powers want peace, tensions are mounting. Nobody wants to be second best.
If it is true that rivalry is the new norm, how should Russia proceed? It must lay out strategic foreign policy priorities. How will the world look in 2050? What place will Russia hold in it?
Russia will not fade into oblivion, even in isolation. It has considerable structural potential for economic and demographic growth, which has not been fully tapped. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Russia will remain 6th in the world’s top 10 economies in 2050. Stability is the best evidence of competency. Given this economic and demographic capacity, Russia will be able to maintain a modernized army and play a leading role in global politics far into the future.
But Russia needs more allies apart from the army and the navy. Moscow is investing heavily in neighborly relations with the CIS and EAEU countries. The main focus in Eurasia in the next decades will be the alignment of the EAEU and China’s Belt and Road initiative. The first steps towards this goal were taken back in the mid-1990s, and it is now paying its first dividends. In 1997, Russia and China formulated the basis for bilateral relations in the Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order, in which they pledged to forge “a new type of long-term interstate relations that are not directed against third countries.” Viewing these relations as unique, Russia and China proposed building a new world order on the basis of such bilateral relations, which would gradually grow into a sprawling network of equal states whose relations are based on equality, trust and non-use of force in foreign policy.
The benefits of Russian-Chinese rapprochement are most clear in Central Asia. By demilitarizing their shared border and providing security guarantees to the small Central Asian states and Mongolia located between them, Russia and China have prevented the border from becoming a security divide like the one that runs between Russia and NATO in the small East European countries.
Russian-Chinese relations seem to be only one step away from a formal union. The combined potential of Russia, the EAEU countries and China constitutes a formidable force. Iran, Pakistan, and possibly Turkey, Indonesia and Vietnam may join this alliance. But Russia’s long-term political goal is to ensure that the world’s top 10 economies comprise more constructive Eurasian forces, which include Russia, rather than the offshore nations, primarily the United States, by 2050.
India represents both the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge. The choice India makes can strengthen Eurasian stability by creating a security belt on the continent that will include Russia and China, or India may choose to become a US ally, to the detriment of Eurasian integration and security.
India positions itself as an ocean power based on the Indian Ocean trade network, while on land it has to deal with a chronic conflict with Pakistan and tensions with China. While US actions are driving Russia and China into each other’s arms, Washington is doing its best to prevent India from joining the Russian-Chinese partnership.
With the election of Narendra Modi, India has increasingly positioned itself as an Indian and Pacific Ocean power with special relations with the United States and its marine allies, such as Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia. India harbors deep suspicions of China’s intentions and goals in South Asia and views China’s support for Pakistan as unfriendly. The recent China-India border standoff on the Doklam Plateau is evidence of this.
Russia clearly fears that Indian-Chinese tensions may have negative consequences for stability in Eurasia. But normalization is only possible if it involves China’s old partner, Pakistan. The settlement formula must also include Afghanistan, because it is a major focus for Pakistan, and because the security of Russia and China depend on stability in Afghanistan. Therefore, peace on the continent depends on stabilization in Afghanistan, which is one of the most difficult goals in the world.
India and Pakistan joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at Russia’s initiative in 2017, which may gradually help normalize the situation and foster trust between India and China. However, Moscow must act very carefully so that Beijing will not think it is trying to act as balancer. China must be convinced that Russia’s goals are exclusively constructive and are focused on peace and neighborly relations on the continent.
According to PwC, the top 10 economies by 2050 will comprise China, India, the US, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, Japan, Germany, and the UK. The choice India and China make will be earthshattering. The aim of Russian policy must be to create a situation where relations between Russia, India and China are better than their individual relations with the United States. Russian-Chinese “long-term interstate relations that are not directed against third countries” should be expanded to include India.
This is an attainable goal. Russia and India have maintained a durable partnership for decades, and India is a major buyer of Russian weapons. They also share a long history, and their relations are based on goodwill and friendship. Russia must use these assets to ease tensions and normalize relations in the China-India-Pakistan triangle. Ultimately, stability in Eurasia until 2050 will depend on it.