François Godement, Asia and China Program Director, ECFR
Witold Rodkiewicz, Analyst, Centre for Eastern Studies
ECFR Warsaw office had the pleasure to host François Godement, Asia and China Programme Director at ECFR, and Witold Rodkiewicz, an analyst at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, on a debate on Chinese and Russian relations and Eurasian integration projects. The debate was moderated by the head of ECFR Warsaw office, Piotr Buras.
Mr Godement presented Chinese views on the One Belt, One Road (OBOR, the New Silk Road), tracing the project to 1989 and post-Tiananmen fears of US-encirclement. Due to a constant surplus on the current account, China can finance infrastructure projects abroad despite its current economic problems. Though a somewhat nebulous project with different interpretations among Chinese officials, OBOR has been met with an enthusiastic response in target countries.
However, China has become more careful at spending money on infrastructure projects, often preferring to re-use old transit routes. Combined with crises in the Middle East and the cool relations between EU and Turkey, this leaves Russia as the crucial element of any path to Europe. Though China has little economic interest in what lies between it and Europe, it performs symbolic gestures towards Russia due to its political importance.
From Russian perspective, as presented by Mr Rodkiewicz and based on long-running interactions with relevant policymakers and officials, OBOR represents just a part of a wider competition with the US, in which Russia expects China to be a valuable partner. Russian political elites treat China with growing respect and perceive it as an ideologically safe ally whose hegemony is compatible – unlike that of the US – with regime survival. Therefore, Russia pursues a policy of engagement and conflict-avoidance with China. It should be noted, however, that this alliance is understood in transactional terms, lacking positive ideological content. An example of such cooperation can be found in Central Asia, where both sides have agreed to share influence, with Russian predominance in security and Chinese economic primacy.
Mr Godement agreed with this interpretation, but also stressed the disagreements between the two powers. He argued that Europe recently failed to use its leverage to prevent their alignment, noting several missed opportunities: its handling of Ukraine crisis prevented balancing behaviour on Japan’s and South Korea part, it alienated Turkey, prompting it to mend fences with Russia, and failed to prevent Russia and China from gaining organisational advantage at the UN.
However, Mr Rodkiewicz countered that Russian-Chinese alliance is not a recent development, but the conclusion of a long trend stretching back to the 1990s, whereas the diplomatic flexibility necessary to draw Russia away from China would entail concessions unacceptable to Eastern European states. The panellists concurred that Western willingness to avoid conflicts limits the ability to counter Russia and China, while Mr. Godement advocated dealing with China under the umbrella of the EU to nullify the inherent power imbalance.
As for security developments, both panellists referred to recent Chinese-Russian manoeuvres as provocative, touching disputed territories (South China Sea, Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, Kashmir) and deliberately showing disregard for international law. Adopting a wider perspective, they both argued that clashes of interests preclude the transformation of either the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or BRICS grouping into a vehicle for wider cooperation. In the latter case, India’s strategic interests are completely at odds with those of China and it perceives OBOR as a strategic threat, adding another variable to the equation.