By Chan Kung
On May 24, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accepted an exclusive interview with the Russian-language newspaper Argumenty i Fakty, which mainly focused on Russia-U.S. and Russia-Ukraine relations. In his discussion on Russia-China relations, Lavrov made it clear that Russia would not form an alliance with China, and also hinted that he had no intention of joining the “U.S.-China Cold War”. This is not the first time that Lavrov has made such a statement, and there have been repeated changes of Russia’s attitude in recent time. This could very well signify that certain changes in Russia-China relations are bound to take place.
In the interview, the reporter’s primary focus is on the U.S.-Russian relationship, and mentioned the incident where Russia and the U.S. recalled the ambassadors. Lavrov acknowledge the challenges faced by the U.S.-Russia relationship, though he apparently downplaying it by describing the recall of ambassadors to be a normal diplomatic act, and said that he looks forward to the meeting of the heads of the two countries to improve the mutual relations. Compared with the more aggressive attitude of the Chinese diplomats to the U.S., sometimes touted as “wolf-warrior diplomacy”, the answers given by the Russian Foreign Minister were moderate and showed the desire to improve Russia’s ties with the U.S.
Most parts of the interview concentrate on the relations of Russia with the United States and Ukraine, and China was only mentioned at the very end. The reporter asked that both China and Russia are on the same side against the United States, hence if there is possibility for Moscow and Beijing to establish a sort of alliance, or maybe even military political union.
Lavrov immediately repeated his past attitude, calling Russia-China relations to be at the highest point in history, but also added that the existing bilateral relation model is better than the alliance formed during the Cold War. The message behind his words is rather obvious, that Russia has all to gain from its relations with China now, compares with during the period of Soviet Union that it had to spend high costs.
Lavrov made the comparison using the Cold War era as example even without the reporter mentioning it, and there are certainly some implicit meanings. For the Foreign Minister of Russia, China and the United States are actually in the Cold War status, or approximate to it. The former Soviet Union, as a participant in the previous Cold War, should have certain judgements for the current situation. By using such comparison, Lavrov subtly denied the possibility of Russia-China alliance, only recognizes that there is good bilateral with China. At the same time, he also revealed Russia’s assessment and position on U.S.-China relations, that is, Russia will not participate in the U.S.’ confrontation, or Cold War with China.
While emphasizing that Russia is satisfied with the existing form of cooperation as it allows it to resolve even the most difficult issues in bilateral dialogue, he also agrees with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement that there is no ending point for Russia-China cooperation, while reaffirms that Russia will not further moving towards forming an alliance with China.
Since Russia has repeatedly touched on this issue, it has become something that China cannot avoid. On May 25, at Chinese Foreign Ministry’s press conference, spokesman Zhao Lijian stated that the China-Russia’s new era comprehensive strategic partnership is firmly established, yet he also said that the two countries will neither form alliance nor confrontation; instead, both will adhere to multilateralism.
Russia has actually repeatedly stressed that it would not form an alliance with China, the reiteration of this point by Russian Foreign Minister this time also intentionally mentioned the “Cold War”. This apparently is directly related to the upcoming meeting of American and Russian heads. The theme of the interview published by Argumenty i Fakty is of course, U.S.-Russia relationship.
The Russian Foreign Minister first gave signals of improving relations with the United States, and it is towards the final part of the interview that he talked about the relationship with China. The implicit message is certain directed towards the U.S. government that Russia would not confront the U.S. along with China. Obviously, to Russia, its relationship with the U.S. is more important than with China, and this will also affect its relationship with Europe and other Western countries. Russia now has clearly indicated its position.
It is certainly not easy for Chinese senior officials to accept such position of Russia, yet there is nothing much that they can do, as this is related to China’s basic judgment on Russia. On May 19, China reported in a high-profile manner that Chinese leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin had participated in the opening ceremony of the China-Russia nuclear energy cooperation project. As it is difficult to see improvement in U.S.-China relations, while the EU has frozen the China-EU Investment Agreement, China has all the reasons to forge closer ties with Russia urgently to show that it is not isolated.
However, the attitude of the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has shown that Russia thought rather differently. The current situation has almost provided a clear and unmistakable proof for China’s anti-Russian factions, that as China was eager to work with Russia against the United States, yet instead it was only used by Russia as a bargaining chip in its dealing with the United States.
As it stands, China’s state-run press agency Xinhua now quotes Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian that both China and Russia have always been respecting each other’s core interests and taking care of each other’s reasonable concerns. Russia now obviously not giving what China wants, instead it concerns about its own interests without taking care of China’s “core interests” or “reasonable concerns.”
On May 25, the White House announced that Biden and Putin will meet in Geneva on June 16. The U.S. government must have understood the message of the Russian Foreign Minister promptly, hence the decision of the summit meeting between the two sides was immediately finalized. In contrast, the U.S.-China diplomatic talks in Alaska were a deadlock. With Chinese diplomats having public spats with U.S. officials, this has in fact strengthened the United States’ perception on China, pushing the summit meeting for the heads of U.S. and China into uncertainties.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has indeed, risked huge disagreements back home in the U.S. when he lifted sanctions related to the Nord Stream II pipeline. Russia in return, moves to get closer to the U.S. by adopting its current position on China. It is worth noting that the U.S.-Russia heads of state summit is now to be held earlier, this signifies that the U.S. has made a strategic choice between China and Russia. The United States and Russia have been long-term rivals, and it is unlikely that the relationship between the two sides will get too close. That said, under current circumstances the two countries will only ease the mutual relations.
After the four-party summit meeting of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, there was the U.S.-Japan summit, and then the G7+4 foreign ministers’ talks. The U.S. and South Korea leaders had also just met, and now the U.S.-Russia talks are just around the corner, while China is being left aside and marginalized. Once the United States reached this goal, it would realize the tacit understanding and aspirations of the past Presidents.
The U.S. government is now actually getting close to forge an expansive alliance against China. Even countries that are unable to join such an alliance for the time being because of their own interest will at least posit themselves to not joining China against the United States. With this, all major countries in the world will have to choose a side.
Comprehensive information tracking research indicates that the future Russia-U.S. relations will not be exactly smooth. The anti-Russian factions in the United States will not give up easily, and neither will Russia’s actual threat to the United States simply disappear. The problem is that even if the contradictions between the United States and Russia remain, this situation will not change Russia’s current basic strategy. China will still be an important strategic bargaining chip for Russia.
For Russian leaders like Putin who are adepts in geostrategy, they clearly understand that Russia’s greatest window period that allows it return to the global arena is during the peak of U.S.-China confrontation, that is, the eve of the outbreak of a nuclear war. At that time, it will be Russia and not the United States that shall become the key to stop the outbreak of a global nuclear war, which in reality will actually be a war waged between the U.S. and China.
From another perspective, China will be facing a daunting future, and it will have little chance to win a conventional war. If a war breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, the United States and Western factors will definitely intervene, using nuclear weapons as a strategic deterrent. When this happens, Russia will stop it, causing the emergence of subtle “balance of nuclear power” or “nuclear stability” structure, which is tantamount to stopping war being waged at the Taiwan Strait. If this does come to pass, then the future world, especially between the United States and Russia, will at least reach a strategic agreement on the geo-structural issue of “balance of nuclear power” or “nuclear stability”. This does not refer to the balance of nuclear confrontation between two countries, but it is about the establishment and maintenance of a new, stable global balance of power structure related to nuclear power. This is particularly meaningful for the overall situation of nuclear proliferation in the current world. Putin will certainly understand this, and in the current world, only two countries in the world have the will and ability to transcend geographical scope and consider themselves to bear the responsibility in maintaining the world; one of them is the United States, and the other is Russia.
Perhaps now it is the time for us to calmly observe if this shall be the direction the world is heading to.
Conclusion and Policy Recommendation:
1. Although there are structural problems in both the U.S. and Russia, under the current geopolitical outlook, the easing of U.S.-Russian relations has become the general trend. More importantly, both countries have maintained a certain degree of flexibility and space in this regard.
2. For Russia, China is one of the few and a valuable bargaining chip. Putin will not easily make a decision that is fatal to China if it is not absolutely necessary.
3. The complex relationship between China, the United States and Russia will continue for a period of time, but the overall trend remains rather unfavorable for China.
About the author:
Founder of Anbound Think Tank in 1993, Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis.
Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.