Mao Zedong once summed up his philosophy on foreign policy with the following metaphor, “a wise monkey sitting on top of the mountain to watch the two tigers fight in the valley below.” The tigers in the Great Helmsman’s formulation were, of course, Moscow and Washington, and Beijing was the wise monkey. And China was able to play the role of “wise monkey” in its foreign affairs quite successfully for a number of years, skillfully manoeuvring in the background of the global confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. It carefully and calculatingly corrected its foreign policy course depending on the emerging balance of power and the interests of the People’s Republic of China at the given moment in time.
In the 21st century, however, it would seem that Moscow has become the wise monkey. The Soviet Union is gone, and China is now punching in a new weight division. Deng Xiaoping’s words of wisdom that China’s leaders should “observe dispassionately, stay in the shadows and try not to reveal themselves” is no longer relevant for Chairman Xi Jinping, and “staying in the shadows” is not an option. The animosities between China and the United States that have been simmering for decades are now transforming into a full-fledged confrontation, complete with economic, technological, geopolitical, military and even ideological dimensions.
Not only has the coronavirus pandemic failed to slow down this growing confrontation, but it has actually served to accelerate it quite dramatically. The world is moving towards a new kind of bipolarity, albeit one that is quite different from the Soviet–American bipolarity we witnessed during the second half of the 20th century. The two tigers are more than determined, neither is prepared to back down, and no “groundbreaking deal” between Beijing and Washington is on the horizon. And while temporary “ceasefires” and tactical agreements are likely, the battle in the valley will not be over any time soon.
Why Sitting it out on the Mountain Will not Work
Will Moscow, as the wise monkey in our metaphor, be able to sit back and observe this historic and wholly unpredictable battle on top of the mountain while maintaining a careful balance in relations between Beijing and Washington?
The answer seems obvious—no, it will not. Not because Russian diplomacy lacks the necessary professionalism or experience, but because Russia’s reputation in the United States is no better than that of China. The only difference is the seriousness with which the country’s elites perceive the threats emanating from its two main adversaries. Washington sees China as a serious strategic competitor that is ready to challenge the United States’ global leadership. Russia, on the other hand, is seen as a bully that does not have the resources to compete on an equal footing with the United States, but will jump on any chance to harm U.S. interests.
Obviously, the image of a bully and saboteur (a “ruiner,” if you will) is not exactly the best starting point if your goal is to act as a balancing force between the two superpowers of the 21st century. The American tiger would happily gobble up the Russian monkey if it got the chance, and it would not think twice about it. But only to get the annoying monkey out of its hair so it can concentrate on its fight to the death with the truly dangerous China.
What is more, it is far more difficult for a wise monkey to sit atop a mountain in the 21st century. The world has become too cramped, countries depend too much on one another, and even the slightest hint of isolationism involves costs that are simply too great. Politicians, military leaders and business people are forced to choose between the United States and China on a daily basis. This is why the wise monkey, one way or another, whether it wants to or not, is forced to come down the mountain and directly or indirectly take part in the battle that is raging between the two tigers.
There is, of course, no doubt that Russia is on China’s side in this battle. Simply put, there is nothing that the White House could offer the Kremlin that could even theoretically outweigh the value of the strategic relationship between Russia and China for Moscow. What is more, there is no one in the White House or the Department of State who is prepared to work towards developing good relations with Vladimir Putin as persistently and with as much dedication as Henry Kissinger was in relation to Mao Zedong half a century ago.
Russia as the “Monkey King”
That notwithstanding, it is entirely possible that the monkey that has come down the mountain may play a role that is independent of the tigers, and one that could even affect the outcome of their altercation. We should stress here that we are not talking about a monkey in the traditional Russian understanding of the word—the “monkey prankster” from Ivan Krylov’s tale. In Russia, the monkey is seen as a weak and reckless creature, somewhat of a clown, impulsive and unpredictable behaviour with a penchant for tomfoolery and mockery.
The Chinese image of the monkey, however, is quite different, and this is the image to which Mao Zedong quite obviously appealed. In the Chinese tradition, not only does the monkey personify resourcefulness and cunning, but it is also praised for its remarkable mind and considerable strength. Take the mythological Sun Wukong (“Monkey King”), for instance, a figure that is known throughout China—while ambiguous and contradictory, the character is nevertheless more hero than villain, is rather charismatic and has his own set of ethical principles. “Monkey King” may not have the physical strength that other Chinese mythological figures have, but he fears none of them and is always ready to stand up to even the most formidable of opponents.
What advice can we give to the Russian “Monkey King,” who, as fate would have it, has been thrust into the position of a potential participant in this battle of two huge tigers, instead of remaining on the sidelines? First, don’t anger the tigers, and don’t let them provoke each other. It will only hurt Russia in the long term if the confrontation between China and the United States continues to deteriorate—even if from a tactical point of view it would elevate Moscow in Beijing’s eyes and strengthen ties between China and Russia on the whole. The strategic risks of a deterioration in U.S.–China relations are extremely grave, especially if we take the potential pitfalls arising from international stability, regional crises and nuclear non-proliferation, as well as the risks to the world economy, finance and global technological development, into account. These are extremely heavy prices to pay and, as such, they negate any tactical gains that Russia might extract for itself from a further exacerbation of the confrontation between the United States and China.
Second, we should tell Russia that a tiger cannot change its stripes, even if you are fighting alongside it. In many respects, the interests of Russia and China coincide. Yet there are areas where their interests diverge. For example, Chinese corporations and financial institutions are effectively complying with the U.S. sanctions against Russia. Beijing is not inclined to support Moscow on the “Ukrainian issue” and does not recognize Crimea as a part of Russia. Moscow, in turn, is not ready to consider the territorial disputes in the South China Sea exclusively through what we might term the “Beijing prism,” nor does it side fully with China in its disputes with India and Vietnam. The strategic partnership between Russia and China does not exclude the possibility that the two sides might disagree on certain issues, and these differences must not be ignored or minimized. Thus, strengthening cooperation between the two countries does not necessarily have to mean creating a formal military and political alliance.
Third, if the monkey truly is wise, then it will realize that the valley beneath the mountain is home to many animals, not just the two tigers. And the monkey’s interests may coincide with those of a number of these animals. The trend towards a new bipolarity is definitely gaining momentum, but this does not mean that there is already no going back. It is important that Russian politics does not focus exclusively on this emerging bipolarity and instead actively promotes trends that oppose this bipolarity in one way or another. In this regard, developing broad cooperation with the European Union is particularly important—after all, the European Union is another monkey that has been forced to come down from its mountain and step into the unknown valley of tomorrow’s world politics.
From our partner RIAC
Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China
There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.
Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.
By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.
The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.
China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.
Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.
The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.
A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.
Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question
The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.
Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.
Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.
However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.
Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.
During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.
Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.
Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.
If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.
From our partner RIAC
Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?
Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.
One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.
In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.
To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.
The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.
Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.
Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.
From our partner RIAC
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