China’s Road to Global Leadership: Prospects and Challenges for Russia

The latest multilateral summit of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which took place in Beijing in late April, was a significant event not only for continental but global politics as well. In his speech, President Putin clearly emphasized Russia's commitment to further strengthening pan-Eurasian cooperation and the levels of association already achieved between the Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt and Road Initiative.

This partnership’s positive results and prospects are quite obvious and include expanded economic ties, new financial mechanisms and greater political trust. Undoubtedly, all this helps to raise Greater Eurasia to a qualitatively new level of consolidation and development and opens up new opportunities both for Russian companies and our economy in general. Russia-China bilateral relations, rooted in a comprehensive strategic partnership, are also quite strong.

Meanwhile, the international response to the Beijing summit puts China’s leadership in Eurasia and the world, as well as Russia’s approach to said leadership, back in the public eye. Clearly, the partnership between Russia and China is itself an important part of China’s progress toward global leadership. Beijing is obviously well aware of this, as evidenced by the conception of Russia as China’s strategic base of support, which is fairly popular in China. We will take the stereotype about “big and little brothers” off the table for now and give an overview of Russian public opinion a little later. However, let’s keep in mind the extremely important premise that China needs Russia on its path to global leadership. Beijing understands this and so will remain friendly and constructive with regard to Moscow in the medium term.

Speaking about the challenges posed by Chinese leadership in Eurasia and the world in general, they do not represent challenges for Russia per se, but in the context of Russia's relations with other major power centers both on the continent and beyond. Occasionally, the expert communities of a number of countries already exhibit a kind of jealousy over Russia and China getting “too close.” This has led to the conclusion that since Russia is allegedly too deep in China’s orbit, it may lose its geopolitical independence in its relations with other actors. In fact, what we are witnessing here is an echo of the old zero-sum game, “either you’re with us or you’re with them.”

This kind of logic can be seen in a number of large countries of the continent and outside of it. Even in the United States, with all the negativity inherent in current Russia-US relations, one quite often hears the view expressed that since China rather than Russia is the main long-term rival of the United States, the Americans need to restore at least some dialogue with Russia solely in order to create space between Russia and China.

However, China is not unaware of these approaches, either. As a result, a number of Chinese experts started having doubts about Russia’s reliability as a true and sincere long-term partner of China. They may suspect that Russia will "betray" China at the first convenient opportunity. This, too, does not help to build trust.

Clearly, overcoming this kind of jealousy and doubt (not hypothetically, but in real actions) is a complex and delicate task. A zero-sum game in the 21st century is, of course, impossible, and partnering with one country does not necessarily mean the automatic end to partnership with another (or even enmity). Actually, one of the highest goals of the SCO (especially since its expansion) and other Eurasian projects, is precisely to overcome this mutual distrust and rivalry, and instead create a synergy of various initiatives, with the SCO leading Eurasia to a qualitatively new level of consolidation, which will be even more beneficial for each player both economically and politically.

The first outlines of a new concept, which can be tentatively referred to as the “non-aligned movement 2.0,” have showed up in this broader context. It boils down to the fact that a new bipolar world will crystallize in the medium term with the United States and China in opposition to one another. According to this logic, other large countries do not necessarily have to take one side of the barricade, but, on the contrary, would be better off if they maintain some kind of neutrality and coordinate their efforts.

This approach has its own perspectives as well. Historical experience shows that the Soviet Union had quite trust-based and constructive relations with many countries of the non-aligned movement. It is also clear that if pursued in a too radical and uncompromising way, the logic of the “new non-aligned movement” can become a challenge to the consolidation and unity of Eurasia, which is the top priority for the SCO and other projects. If, for example, Russia is confronted with a tough choice and ultimatum – either you side with China, or join the non-aligned movement – we will end up with the same old zero-sum game. And in the worst-case, radical scenario, we may spoil our relations with China and get nothing in return. Therefore, here too the diplomats of all stakeholder countries will need to be particularly delicate and pragmatic as they build new continental and global projects.

Another challenge for Russia in the context of the rise of China is related to the perception of China by Russians. Despite all the great work in the sphere of soft power to strengthen the positive image of our nations and states, a portion of the Russian public has adopted, to put it mildly, a reserved attitude to China and its residents. The echo of the notorious “Chinese threat” is tenacious. Importantly, the skepticism of China shows itself both in the liberal and conservative-patriotic segments of Russian public opinion.

This can be seen quite clearly in the media and in statements by opinion leaders. For example, during the top-rated daily political talk shows on Russian television, whenever they talk about China, the anti-Chinese horror stories come from both liberal- and patriotic-minded opinion leaders. As a result, a surprising anti-Chinese consensus takes shape before the viewer, which brings together political forces which hold diametrically opposed views on all other matters.

Such an attitude occasionally goes beyond social stereotypes and becomes part of economic decision-making. This can be seen in the sometimes cautious attitude to Chinese investment in Russia, especially local projects. Sometimes, the locals in Russia are biased towards Chinese tourists.

As a result, it is not difficult to see that in the case of a new rupture in Russia-China relations, toward which many are pushing us, quite a large part of Russian society will receive it as a quite natural and even positive development. Therefore, to avoid this scenario (to reiterate, consolidation and unity of Greater Eurasia is the key value of the SCO and the EAEU-BRI association), not only diplomatic work outside of Russia is required, as mentioned above, but also a lot of work inside the country. In this case, the work needs to be done less with elites by way of expert papers, than directly with the people in entirely different media formats (which, by the way, not all traditional experts can do).

Thus, to achieve the purported goal of consolidating Greater Eurasia, which will undoubtedly be beneficial for Russia, we have to, first, undertake the complex and delicate work of not estranging China or other large countries of the continent. Second, we will need to convince our own people that these steps are correct.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.