The latest US-Russia.org Experts Panel discussion was about Russia’s burgeoning partnership with China. I especially recommend Mercouris’ contribution which – although unfortunately titled by VoR’s editorial staff)) – is otherwise quite brilliant. My own effort follows below:
First of all, let me preface that I’m one of the biggest China bulls around. Its economy in real terms will overtake that of the US by the mid-2010’s, if it hasn’t already. It’s already bigger in a range of industries, from traditional heavy industry (steel, coal) to consumption (car sales, e-commerce). Its manufacturing wages have caught up with Mexico’s, which is a quintessential middle-income country. If the average Chinese is now about as prosperous as the average Mexican, then the PRC’s total GDP – taking into account its vast population – is now well ahead of America’s.
Nor is it a house build on sand, as many Sino pessimists would have you believe, but on solid, steel-reinforced concrete. Its economic growth is NOT dependent on cheap exports. And fantasies about its “exploited” cheap labor force, which will become increasingly uncompetitive as it develops, belie the fact that the average Chinese now scores higher in international standardized tests than the OECD rich country average. Given the centrality of human capital to economic growth, China’s rise to the top tables of world power is all but assured.
It would be very worrying if China’s ascent was accompanied by the bellicose rhetoric and militaristic posturing adopted by other rising Powers of the past, like the Kaiser’s Germany. But “yellow peril”-type hysteria aside, this does not seem to be the case. China spends a mere 2% of its GDP on its military, i.e. about twice less in proportional terms than both Russia and the US. This is a most fortunate confluence of events, especially for Russia, as competing with China is unrealistic in the long-term – not when its economy is an order of magnitude bigger. On the other hand, deep engagement with China hold out a number of benefits.
First, China gets access to Russian energy resources, bypassing the vulnerable routes past the Strait of Malacca (either overland via Siberia, or across the top of the world via the thawing Northern Sea Route), while Russia gets access to Chinese capital and technologies – much of the latter purloined from the West, true, but so what? Second, both countries secure their frontiers, allowing them to focus on more troubling security threats: The Islamic south and possibly NATO in Russia’s case, and disputes with Vietnam, Japan, and a USA that is “pivoting” to the Pacific in China’s case. Third, resources can be pooled to invest in Central Asia and root out Islamist militants and the drug trade – an issue that will assume greater pertinence as the US withdraws from Afghanistan.
Frankly, the West is too late to the party. It had an excellent chance to draw Russia into the Western economic and security orbit in the 1990’s, but instead it chose the road of alienation by pointedly welcoming in only the so-called “captive” nations of East-Central Europe. Putin’s reward for his post-9/11 outreach to the US was a series of foreign-sponsored “colored revolutions” in his own backyard. While in rhetoric both he and Medvedev continue to affirm that Russia is a European country, in practice attitudes towards them have come to be based on practicalities, not lofty “values” that they don’t even share. So it is only natural that with time Russia came to be more interested in pursuing a relation with the BRICS (“The Rest”) in general, and China in particular.
The West’s response hasn’t been enthusiastic. The BRICS are written off as a bunch of corrupt posers with divergent geopolitical ambitions that will stymie their ability to act as a coherent bloc. Russia and China come in for special opprobrium. While there’s a nugget of truth in this, it misses the main point: The BRICS might be poorer but by the same token they are growing faster and converging with the West, or at least China and Russia are; and while they don’t see eye to eye on all things, they agree on some fundamentals like multi-polarity, a greater say for developing nations in the IMF and World Bank, and the primacy of state sovereignty.
Here is a telling anecdote from an online acquaintance of his recent experiences with the European news channel, Euronews: “A feature of this site is that there’s a world map with happy and sad smileys on it to indicate good news and bad news. And there on Moscow I spotted a sad smiley, so I focused on it, thinking there would be a report on the already day-old and forecast to last another day blizzard that is raging right now across the Ukraine and European Russia… And the “bad news” that I read? The meeting between the Russian president and his Chinese counterpart together with a report and an analysis of the increase in trade between those two states. That’s really bad news, it seems, for some folk.”
And this is not so much an isolated incident, but a metaphor for the general state of West – Russia relations: While the former expects a certain degree of respect and even submission from the latter, it doesn’t tend to make reciprocal gestures, and then acts like a jilted lover when Russia gives up and goes to someone else’s bed. But that’s the reality of a globalized world, in which the West isn’t the be all and end all, and countries have choices. It is high time that the West mustered the humility to finally accept that it has been dumped.