After elevating a misrepresented Trump-Russia narrative for nearly three years, The New York Times published an Editorial Board Opinion last July that posed the question, “What’s America’s Winning Hand if Russia Plays the China Card?” While the article’s call for President Donald Trump to ‘peel’ Russia away from its friendship with Beijing contradicts previous sentiments, it also unashamedly assumes that the American public will not notice the strange pivot in reporting.
We Remember 1999 Very Well'- The NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia and its Impacts on Sino-Russian Relations
Even worse, the newspaper presents a surface-level analysis of the developing Beijing-Moscow relationship. The warming of China-Russia relations did not begin yesterday, nor did it start when Trump began criticizing China for its trade practices. The Chinese and Russians share an international border 4,200 kilometers long, and it is in Eurasia’s interest for them to maintain positive relations irrespective of US foreign policy. While Sino-Russian relations experienced turbulence during the 20th century, they are likely to warm significantly in the coming decades. This is evident from Russia’s supply of natural gas to China through the Power of Siberia pipeline and increased Russian meat production for Chinese consumers after outbreaks of African swine fever and the impacts of the US trade war. Contemporary necessities overshadow Beijing and Moscow’s past ideological disagreements as the Eurasian powers coordinate on nearly everything – food production, future shipping lines, 5G infrastructure, and ecommerce. However, by simply existing and expanding influence, both China and Russia also inherently oppose the hyperextended limits of US geopolitical power.
A pivotal moment for the Eurasian divergence from the West occurred in 1999 when NATO forces bombed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War. Moscow recalls the bombing as a US-led NATO coalition dismissal of Yugoslav sovereignty for geopolitical interests under the guise of humanitarian intervention. Beijing remembers the three Chinese citizens killed when a NATO bomb struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
The operation illustrated imbalances within geopolitics. First, it showed to both China and Russia that the US would act unilaterally through NATO and under American exceptionalism for which international law and the rules-based system did not apply. China and Russia both vetoed the NATO proposal for military action at the United Nations Security Council. Their diplomatic voices did not matter as NATO formulated its arguments for legitimacy. Even worse, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia represented an offensive operation taken by a defensive alliance. This contradiction put NATO’s entire purpose into question. Second, the mission indicated that America’s European allies would, in a majority of circumstances, fold to US pressure regardless of the lasting implications on international norms.
If one is willing to admit that NATO acted unilaterally with a US-led coalition, the bombing of Yugoslavia is, by definition, dangerous to both China’s ascension as a world power and Russia’s reemergence as one. To diminish the importance of both Beijing and Moscow at the UN is to declare a double standard within the international system where the US is the indisputable hyper-power that other states must tolerate. For these reasons, Operation Allied Force and its bombing of Yugoslavia shocked both Beijing and Moscow when both countries were relatively weaker and more passive than today. If a US-led coalition could bomb a European capital into submission, could it exercise similar unilateralism elsewhere? The very concept of humanitarian intervention in Yugoslavia could apply to future conflicts on the doorsteps of both China and Russia, so the Kosovo conflict brought Beijing and Moscow, both wary of such exceptionalism and unilateralism, closer together on diplomacy.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Chinese Communist Party’s recent concerns in Xinjiang, Taiwan, Tibet, and Hong Kong, the geopolitical rift between East and West, which began in the late 1990s with Kosovo, continues to widen. As practitioners of geopolitics, both President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping consider the significance of America’s involvement in Kosovo when assessing separatist movements within their countries or abroad. The New York Times assertion that the US can ‘peel’ these reinforcing national interests apart to split up the China-Russia friendship is uninformed. The Soviets and Chinese began improving relations as early as the 1980s when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev advocated for improved relations out of “common sense, mutual respect, and mutual advantage.” After Tiananmen Square, Mikhail Gorbachev refused to impose sanctions alongside the West against China. Most criticism by Beijing of Moscow has been during times in which China perceived the Kremlin as being in “capitulation” and “retrogression” at home or abroad. Traditionally, the relationship between China and Russia is most robust during periods of opposition to the West – common to the current geopolitical situation.
The Russians and Chinese first worked together on the United Nations Security Council in response to the US bombing campaign of Iraq during Operation Desert Fox. The bombing of Yugoslavia occurred the following year, and nearly two decades later, a journalist asked President Putin if the decline of Russo-American relations began with Crimea or Syria. Putin responded, “You are mistaken. Think about Yugoslavia. This was when it started.” For Moscow, the forceful seizure of Kosovo from Serbia exemplifies the words of Thucydides: "the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” In a 2014 speech, Putin referenced the US strength that weak states endured: “our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law… but by the rule of the gun… This happened in Yugoslavia; we remember 1999 very well.”
Beijing’s main interests in Serbia involve investment and the creation of a hub in the Balkans for Chinese goods. Serbia is the largest benefactor of Belt and Road Initiative investment in Europe with $8.5 billion worth in projects. Even during Josip Broz Tito’s break with the USSR, China supported Yugoslavia. Today, Belgrade firmly supports a One China Policy while Beijing sides with Serbia on Kosovo.
Kosovo is the nexus from which Serbia’s geopolitical significance fragments into interests of competing global powers. Most Serbs loathe the European Union’s push for Serbia’s normalization of relations with Kosovo, and support for EU membership continues to decline. The bombing represents a ‘Western betrayal’ of Serbia. Central to Serbia’s mythology and nationalism, Kosovo symbolizes a struggle against centuries of Ottoman occupation. Serbs are also proud of their contributions during WWI, where Serbian soldiers fought alongside Allied forces on the Eastern Front. During World War II, Serbs rescued 500 American pilots shot down by the Nazis over Yugoslavia. However, in recent years, the horrors of the Yugoslav wars overshadow Serbia’s European history. Of the 161 people indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), 58 percent were Serbs. Of the 89 convicted, 69 percent were Serbs; all the while, certain largescale injustices committed toward Serbs went unpunished. Whether biased or not, the Hague Tribunal wrote history in the West, and that history blames Serbia for much of what happened in Yugoslavia. China, almost more than Russia, argued for Serbia on the premise that sovereignty is ‘the most important feature of any independent state.’ Beijing warned against infringements upon the territorial integrity by Western regime change. Both Beijing and Moscow view American involvement in the Yugoslav drama as a concern to states vulnerable to unrest or civil war. China and Russia also often question the ‘Western narrative’ of such conflicts.
Therefore, the idea that America can ‘peel’ Russia away from China with increased cooperation in space, search and rescue, and arms control is cursory at best. A formal Sino-Russian alliance would combine the world’s largest country with the most populous one. Russia’s massive natural resource base fits China’s needs in industry and manufacturing, and Beijing and Moscow could continue to combine scientific expertise for the development of next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles, hypersonic weaponry, and aircraft carriers. As Arctic ice caps melt, China and Russia will also cooperate on trade routes and security. However, while Brezhnev’s ideas of common sense, mutual respect, and advantage are crucial to Sino-Russian cooperation, their mutual agreement on sovereignty and territorial integrity makes their shared interests workable. If studied in the future, it will be clear that the convergence of Chinese and Russian foreign policy began to solidify during the Kosovo War with the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.
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- Sebastian Contin Trillo-Figueroa Geopolitics Analyst in EU-Asia Relations, AsiaGlobal Fellow at The University of Hong Kong
- Li Yan Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
- Xiao Bin Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences
- Luo Liang Assistant Research Fellow, National Institute for South China Sea Studies
- Jade Wong Senior Fellow, Gordon & Leon Institute