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Foreign Policy

Great Power Politics at Play

Apr 28, 2023
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

Interstate politics is the objective result of anarchy in the international system, as countries all try their best to protect themselves in the face of security threats. As John Mearsheimer wrote in “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” there is no night watch in the international system, so countries can never be sure that others are not hostile. Therefore, they must be prepared to deal with dangers from all sides. As such, the trend of military relations between countries is a strategic indicator of great power politics.

Recently, the high-level reception of China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu in Moscow attracted wide international attention. During his visit, Li said that China and Russia will expand military cooperation and the two militaries will further develop their ties. But as the war in Ukraine goes on, any change in China-Russia military relations touches the nerves of other great powers. A Russian scholar interviewed by RIA Novosti pointed out: “On the whole, Russia-China relations are becoming even closer and more prominent in a multi-polar world. As an organization like NATO is becoming a thing of the past, it is not surprising that the West feels threatened by their military cooperation.” 

Red lines stable for now 

Although some of the international community worries about a deepened China-Russian military relationship, that relationship is framed within the Joint Statement on Deepening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for the New Era with three built-in red lines for bilateral interaction: non-alignment, non-confrontation and not targeting any third country.

Military cooperation between China and Russia has produced many results in communication and coordination on global strategic stability — for example, joint exercises and drills at sea and in the air. During his visit, Li also went to the Military Academy of the General Staff of Russian armed forces. The school tour allowed him to make a positive assessment of the significance the Russian side attached to his visit. The academy has a long history, traceable to the reign of Peter the Great, and an important position involving access to the core secrets of Russian military activities. Since the end of World War II, it has been adapted on many occasions in response to changes in the strategic environment, but its core organizational structure and functions have remained basically stable.

The arrangement for Li to visit the academy sent an important message to the world — that is, the level of mutual trust between Russia and China in the military field is at an unprecedented high. However, military cooperation activities will not go beyond the preset red lines for now, and their future development will depend entirely on great power politics. 

“Whoever wishes for peace, let him prepare for war” 

The most important rule in great power politics is to improve one’s own security as much as possible. In this regard, ancient Roman scholar Vegetius wrote “Therefore, whoever wishes for peace, let him prepare for war” (“Epitoma rei militaris”). Although military cooperation does not necessarily increase the chance for peace, deepened military relations between China and Russia does help improve their respective ability to deal with external threats.

In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a new maritime doctrine for Russia that describes the opposition of the United States and its allies to Russia’s independent foreign and domestic policies and their pursuit of sustained hegemony in the world. It vows to make every effort to defend Russia’s national interests and adopt new mechanisms to do so in a state of military preparation and alert.

China has also proposed that its armed forces focus on readiness for war. Therefore, active war preparations in the face of external threats have become an important shared view of China and Russia in deepening their military relations. The fundamental purpose is to avoid interference by external forces in their respective internal affairs. 

Two sides of the same coin 

Great power politics does not always have just one result. For the U.S. and its allies, the growth of China-Russia military relations is indeed a challenge. But the U.S. may also benefit in the process in terms of consolidating its alliances in Europe and Asia, making its allies more and more dependent on its security protection, thus improving its offshore balancing capability and enhancing its homeland security.

Competitive or confrontational great power politics will only destabilize the global order. The recent joint statement of G7 foreign ministers issued in Nagano, Japan, was clear that the deepening China-Russia military relationship had doubled the pressure on the U.S. and its Western allies but will not make the latter give up its effort to suppress China. Nor will China change its comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination with Russia. Great power competition and confrontation has already increased the severity of global challenges, especially by distracting attention from addressing energy, food, debt and climate in developing countries.

Finally, it was inevitable that China and Russia would respond to challenges from the West with deepened military relations. A military conflict is not caused by current security considerations only but may be triggered by concerns over the changing international balance of power. Similarly, closer China-Russia military cooperation has been the result of a shared concern over ongoing great power politics to an extent greater than the direct benefits available from such cooperation.

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