Like many paradigms across the globe, the pandemic and its associated economic downturn have changed the paradigm shaping debates about Gulf security that was inevitably set to gradually migrate from a unipolar US defense umbrella that shielded energy-rich monarchies against Iran to an architecture that was more multilateral. In many ways, the pandemic’s fallout has levelled the playing field and not necessarily in ways that favour current policies of Gulf states.
Saudi Arabia’s relations with the West are increasingly being called into question, with the Saudi–Russian oil price war in March potentially having broken the camel’s back. The Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stand to lose at least some of the financial clout that allowed them to punch above their weight even if they are likely to exclude arms purchases from their austerity measures.
Weakened financial clout comes at a moment when the Gulf states and Iran are gearing up towards an arms race in the wake of Iran’s recent satellite launch and unveiling of an unmanned underwater vehicle against the backdrop of the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme inching towards collapse. The unmanned underwater vehicle puts Iran in an elite club, of which the only other members capable of producing them are the United States, Britain and China. The satellite adds Iran to a group of only about a dozen countries able to do launches of their own. 
Add to this the fact that none of the regional players — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Iran, Turkey and Israel — feel secure that any of the external powers — the United States, China and Russia — are reliable security and geopolitical partners.
Gulf states have, for years going back to the era of Barak Obama if not Bill Clinton, increasingly perceived the United States as unfortunately their only option on the premise that they are not willing to change their policies, particularly towards Iran, but one that is demonstrably unreliable, unwilling to defend Gulf states at whatever cost, and at times at odds with them in terms of policy objectives.
The Gulf states’ problem is that neither Russia nor China offer real alternatives at least not on terms that all Gulf states are willing to accept. Russia is neither interested nor capable of replacing the United States. Moreover, its Gulf security plan is at odds with at least the policy of Saudi Arabia.
The plan calls for a security arrangement modelled on that of Europe under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It would be an arrangement that, unlike the US defence umbrella in the Gulf, includes Iran, not directed against it. It would have to involve some kind of regional agreement on non-aggression.
Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has made clear that it is not interested, as is evident in the pandemic where it has refrained, in contrast to other Gulf states, from reaching out to Iran with humanitarian aid even though it last year engaged in an indirect exchange with the Islamic Republic. That exchange died with the killing by the United States in January of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani.
The Elephant in the Room
China is obviously the elephant in the room.
Logically, China and the Gulf states are in the same boat as they grapple with uncertainty about current regional security arrangements. Like the Gulf states, China has long relied on the US defence umbrella to ensure the security of the flow of energy and other goods through waters surrounding the Gulf in what the United States has termed free-riding.
In anticipation of the day when China can no longer depend on security provided by the United States free of charge, China has gradually adjusted its defense strategy and built its first foreign military facility in Djibouti facing the Gulf from the Horn of Africa. With the People’s Liberation Army Navy tasked with protecting China’s sea lines of communication and safeguarding its overseas interests, strategic planners have signalled that Djibouti is a first step in the likely establishment of further bases that would allow it to project long-range capability and shorten the time needed to resupply.
But like with the Russians, Chinese strategic planners and their Gulf counterparts may part ways when it comes to what would be acceptable geopolitical parameters for a rejuvenated regional security architecture, particularly with regard to Iran. Any new architecture would break the mould of Chinese engagement in the Middle East that is designed to shield the People’s Republic from being sucked into the region’s myriad conflicts.
The assumption has long been that China could at best postpone execution, but that ultimately, it would have no choice but to engage in the politics of the region. More recently, influential Chinese analysts are suggesting that China has another option: turn its back on the region. That may seem incredulous given China’s dependence on Middle Eastern energy resources as well as its significant investments in the region.
These analysts argue, however, that China is able to diversify its energy sources and that Chinese investment in the Middle East is but a small percentage of overall Chinese overseas investment. They describe Chinese Middle Eastern economic relations as past their heyday with economies of both in decline and the prospects of the situation in the Middle East getting worse before it becomes better.
“China–Middle East countries is not a political strategic logic, it’s an economic logic. For China, the Middle East is always on the very distant backburner of China’s strategic global strategies … Covid-19, combined with the oil price crisis, will dramatically change the Middle East. (This) will change China’s investment model in the Middle East … The good times of China and the Middle East are already gone… Both China and the Middle Eastern economies have been slowing down … In the future, the pandemic, combined with the oil price problem, will make the Middle East situation worse. So, the China economic relationship with the Middle East will be affected very deeply,” said Niu Xinchun, director of Middle East studies at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), widely viewed as China’s most influential think tank.
Pessimistic forecasts of economic prospects in the Middle East bolster Niu’s prediction. Data and analytics company GlobalData predicted in an email that depressed oil markets and prices in the Middle East and North Africa would lead to a contraction in non-oil sectors, including construction. “Construction activity for the remainder of 2020 is set to see poor performance … In addition, public investment is likely to be moderate, which will translate into fewer prospects for private sector businesses to grow — especially within sectors such as infrastructure. Expected increase in taxes, selected subsidy cuts and the introduction of several public sector service charges will influence households’ purchasing power, having a knock-on effect on future commercial investments,” said GlobalData economist Yasmine Ghozzi.
Moreover, the downplaying of Chinese economic interest in the Middle East fits a pattern of reduced Chinese capital outflows. “What we may not have seen is how much China has retreated financially already for the past four years … Especially since 2016, China’s outflows have come down dramatically in both lending and investment. Foreign direct investment is now at about 30 per cent of what it was in 2016,” said Agatha Kratz, associate director of Rhodium Group, an independent research provider.
To be sure, Chinese officials and analysts have consistently maintained that the Middle East is not a Chinese priority, that any future battles with the United States will be fought in the Asia Pacific, not in the Gulf. Their assertions are backed up by the fact that China has yet to articulate a comprehensive policy towards the region and in 2016 issued its one and only white paper on policy towards the Arab world that essentially was an elaboration of its basic foreign and defense policy principles.
More likely than China seriously entertaining turning its back on the Middle East is the probability that it is sending the region a message that is not dissimilar from what Russia is saying: get your act together and find a way to dial down the tension. It is a message that appears to varying degrees to have been heard in the smaller Gulf states but has yet to resonate in Riyadh. It is also a message that has not been rejected out of hand by Iran.
Discussing a possible extension of a United Nations arms embargo against Iran, Saudi Ambassador Abdallah Al Mouallimi, arguing in favour of a prolongation, suggested that it would serve Russian and Chinese interests even though they would not agree with that assessment. “They have their views, we respect their views, but their interests would be better served and promoted with the embargo extended,” said Al Mouallimi.
A Chinese Communist Party newspaper made days later a first reference in the People’s Republic’s state-controlled media to reports of an alleged secret 25-year multi-billion-dollar co-operation agreement in Iran amid controversy in the Islamic Republic. Chinese officials and media have largely remained silent about Iranian reports of an agreement worth anywhere between US$120 billion and US$400 billion that seemingly was proposed by Iran, but has yet to be accepted by China.
Writing in the Shanghai Observer, a subsidiary of Liberation Daily, the official newspaper of the Shanghai Committee of the Communist Party of China, Middle East scholar Fan Hongda argued that the agreement, though nowhere close to implementation, highlighted “an important moment of development” at a time that US–Chinese tensions allowed Beijing to pay less heed to American policies. Fan’s suggestion that the US–Chinese divide gave China more room to develop its relations with Iran will not have gone unnoticed in Riyadh and other Gulf capitals.
An Emerging Tug of War
How all of this may shake out could be determined by the emerging tug of war in the Middle East between China and the US. Israel has already been caught up in it and has made its choice clear, even if it still attempting to maintain some wiggle room. Nonetheless, Israel, in the ultimate analysis, knows where its bread is buttered, particularly at a moment where the United States is the only backer of its annexationist policies. In contrast to Israel, the US is likely to find the going tougher when it comes to persuading Gulf states to limit their engagement with China, including with telecom giant Huawei, which already has significant operations in the region.
Like Israel, UAE officials have sought to convey to the US that they see relations with the United States as indispensable even though that has yet to be put to a test when it comes to China. Gulf officials’ stress on the importance of ties will, however, not shield them from American demands that they review and limit their relations with China, nor its warnings that involvement of Huawei could jeopardise sensitive communications, particularly given the multiple US bases in the region, including the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command, or Centcom, in Qatar.
The US Embassy in Abu Dhabi, in a shot across the Gulf’s bow, last month rejected a UAE offer to donate hundreds of coronavirus tests for screening of its staff. The snub was designed to put a dent in China’s health “Silk Road” diplomacy centered on its experience with the pandemic and ability to manufacture personal protective and medical equipment.
A US official said the tests were rejected because they were either Chinese-made or involved BGI Genomics, a Chinese company active in the Gulf, which raised concerns about patient privacy. The US softened the blow when the prestigious Ohio-based Cleveland Clinic sent 40 nurses and doctor to its Abu Dhabi subsidiary. The Abu Dhabi facility was tasked with treating the UAE’s most severe cases of coronavirus.
The problem for the US is that it is not only Trump’s policy or lack thereof towards the Middle East that undermines confidence but it is also policies that, on the surface, have nothing to do with the Middle East. The United States has been asking its partners including Gulf states to give it time to develop an alternative to Huawei’s 5G network. Yet at the same time, it is barring the kind of people entry that technology companies need to develop systems.
A Silver Lining
No matter how the tug of war in the Middle East evolves, the silver lining is that, like China, the United States despite its desire to reduce its commitment cannot afford a power void in the region. That is what may create the basis for breaking the mould.
It will require a backing away from approaches that treat conflicts as zero-sum games not only on the part of regional players but also of external players, like in the case of the US versus Iran, and it will require engagement by all regional and external players. To achieve that, players would have to recognise that in many ways, perceptions on both sides of the Gulf divide are mirror images of one another: all parties see each other as existential threats.
Failure to break the stalemate risks conflicts becoming further entrenched and threatening to spin out of control. The opportunity is that confidence-building measures and a willingness to engage open a door towards mutually acceptable regional security arrangements and conflict resolution. However, for that to happen, major powers would have to invest political will and energy at a time when they feel they have bigger fish to fry and prioritise geopolitical jockeying.
In a twist of irony, geopolitical jockeying may prove to be an icebreaker in a world, and certainly a region, where everything is interconnected. Increasingly, security in the Gulf is not just about security in the Gulf. It is not even just about security in the Middle East. It is about security in the Mediterranean, whether one looks at Libya on the sea’s southern shores, Syria in the east, or growing tension in the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. And it does not stop there with regional rivalries reaching into the Black and Caspian Seas and into Central Asia.
Finally, there are the grey and black swans built into partnerships and alliances that are either becoming more fragile like those of the United States or ones that have fragility built into their DNA like the ties between Iran, Turkey, China and Russia. Those swans could at any moment swing the pendulum one way or another.
To be sure, contrary to Western perceptions, relations between Iran, Turkey, Russia and China are not just opportunistic and driven by short-term common interests but also grounded in a degree of shared values. The fact of the matter is that men like presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei find common ground in a view of a new world order that rejects democracy and the rule of law; disregards human and minority rights; flaunts, at least for now, violations of international law; and operates on the principle of might is right.
That glue, however, is insufficient, to prevent Turkey and Russia from ending up on opposite sides of conflicts in Libya and Syria. It is also unlikely to halt the gradual erosion of a presumed division of labour in Central Asia with Russia ensuring security and China focusing on economic development. And it is doubtful it would alter the simmering rivalry between Iran and Russia in the Caspian Sea and long-standing Russian reluctance to sell Iran a desperately needed anti-missile defense system.
In short, fasten your seat belt. Gulf and broader regional security could prove to be a bumpy ride with unexpected speed bumps.
 “Iran’s UUV to add new dimension to its warfare capability: Forbes”, Tehran Times, 30 May 2020, https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/448370/Iran-s-UUV-to-add-new-dimension-to-its-warfare-capability-Forbes.
 Mike Wall, “Iran launches its 1st military satellite into orbit: reports”, Space.com, 22 April 2020, https://www.space.com/iran-launches-first-military-satellite.html.
 Theodore Karasik, “Is Russia’s ‘old’ Gulf security plan the best it can do?”, Arab News, 20 July 2019, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1533096.
 Niu Xinchun speaking on “How are China’s Relations with the Middle East Evolving During the COVID-19 Pandemic?”, Chatham House, 19 May 2019, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2721841274725780.
 Agatha Kratz speaking on “China and the Mediterranean Region in and Beyond the Pandemic, German Marshal Fund”, 3 July 2020, https://www.gmfus.org/events/china-and-mediterranean-region-and-beyond-pandemic.
 Joyce Karam, “Russian and Chinese interests ‘better served’ if Iran arms embargo is extended, says Saudi official”, The National, 2 July 2020, https://www.thenational.ae/world/the-americas/russian-and-chinese-interests-better-served-if-iran-arms-embargo-is-extended-says-saudi-official-1.1042822.
 Seth J Frantzman, “Iran media discuss 25-year deal between Iran and China”, The Jerusalem Post, 3 July 2020, https://www.jpost.com/middle-east/iran-media-discuss-25-year-deal-between-iran-and-china-633739.
 Fan Hongda, “Iran announced a 25-year comprehensive cooperation plan with China, can Sino-Iranian relations get closer?” [观察家 | 伊朗宣布与华25年全面合作计划，中伊关系能否进一步走近？], Shanghai Observer, 20 June 2020, https://www.shobserver.com/news/detail?id=264494.
Interview with the author, 8 June 2020.
Author’s note: This story first appeared as an MEI Insight
Afghanistan Will Test SCO’s Capacity
The US is withdrawing from Afghanistan. Twenty years of the US-led foreign intervention has brought neither prosperity, nor stability, to the country. With hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the seemingly endless military operations and with thousands of Americans killed, the Biden Administration faces a harsh reality: A Western type political system is not likely to take roots in Kabul anytime soon. Washington has lost the war it waged for the last two decades. The main challenge for US President Joe Biden and his team is how to make the painful US defeat less humiliating and the ongoing retreat more graceful.
This is not to say that the US will play no role in and around Afghanistan after September 11, 2021. It might continue to support the government in Kabul for some time through economic and technical assistance, through intelligence data sharing, or even through limited US airstrikes against rebellious warlords in county’s provinces. Still, the place of Afghanistan in the US—and Western—strategic designs will go down dramatically. In the end of the day, only Afghans themselves can settle the conflict in their country through a political dialogue and an inclusive peace process.
On the other hand, from now on, the future of Afghanistan should be a matter of concern not for remote overseas powers, but for regional players around this country—such as Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia, India and Central Asia countries. The ability or inability of these players to come to a common denominator on their respective approaches to Afghanistan will become the critical external factor affecting the country’s future.
Unfortunately, no consensus about Afghanistan exists between major regional players. Each of them has its own history of relations with the Afghan state and the Afghan people, sometimes quite controversial and sometimes even bitter. They have very different assessments of the current balance of powers inside the country, and often quite diverging threat perceptions. Their respective views on the military capabilities of the insurgent Taliban and on its long-term political goals are not the same. Each of the regional players has carefully developed its special lines of communication to the government in Kabul and, arguably, to various factions of the insurgent camp as well.
Still, the overall views within the neighboring countries on the desirable future of the country coincide or, at least, significantly overlap. Essentially, there are two fundamental issues at stake for all the Afghani neighbors. First, Afghanistan should not become an Islamic Emirate, which international terrorist groups like ISIS or Al-Qaeda could use to plan their malign subversive operations in the region. Second, Afghanistan should stop being the major producer and exporter of narcotics, which it has become under the Western occupation. Of course, regional players would also prefer to see Afghanistan as a politically stable, economically striving, socially inclusive, culturally diverse and religiously tolerant country. However, everybody understands that this is too high a bar to consider for in the immediate future.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) might well be an appropriate platform to try figuring out how to approach these two critical issues in a multilateral format. Afghanistan, as well as neighboring Iran, has an observer status within SCO; Turkmenistan coordinates its Afghan policies with SCO countries; all other regional players are full-fledged members to the organization. The SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group has existed since the fall of 2005 and it has already accumulated a lot of useful practical experience. Still, until recently, the contact group operated in the shadows of the Western intervention in the country. The time has come for SCO member states to bring this body out to the light and to rise up to a new, post-US Afghan challenge.
One of the SCO comparative advantages is that, given its very broad and even ambiguous mandate, it is in a position to address simultaneously security, economic and human development agendas of Afghanistan, combining support for political stability, implementation of large-scale economic projects and assistance for social capital building. It can also coordinate efforts of other international actors ranging from the specialized agencies of the United Nations to private foreign companies to small NGOs interested in specific avenues of collaboration with partners in and around Afghanistan.
Keeping in mind significant disagreements between SCO members (especially between India and Pakistan) on a number of important Afghanistan related matters, one could envisage a multilateralism a la carte approach to specific projects in this country. It implies that select SCO states could form project-based coalitions to engage in initiatives of their choice without necessarily trying to involve all of SCO member states. However, it is important to make sure that such projects would not jeopardize or question core national interests of other SCO members.
The role of Afghanistan itself should not be limited to that of an SCO economic or security assistance recipient. Without an active Afghan involvement, some of the SCO plans would be hard to implement in full. For instance, engaging Afghanistan in major railway and energy infrastructure projects is indispensable for strengthening regional connectivity between Central and South Asia and in the SCO space as a whole. The China proposed-Belt and Road Initiative would remain incomplete, if it has to bypass Afghanistan due to unaddressed security concerns. In sum, Afghanistan should become a subject, not an object of the regional multilateral cooperation.
No doubt, Afghanistan stands out as a formidable challenge for SCO, but it is also a unique opportunity for the alliance of Eurasian nations. If the organization manages to succeed whether the US and its Western allies failed in the most dramatic way, this success would be the best possible illustration of the changing nature of international relations. After having successfully tested its institutional capacity in Afghanistan, SCO could find it much easier to approach various regional crises, civil conflicts and failed states in Eurasia—and even beyond the Eurasian continent. Regretfully, there will be no shortage of such crises, conflicts and failed states in years to come.
From our partner RIAC
Foreign Troops withdrawal at a faster pace from Afghanistan
The US is withdrawing troops at a faster pace than expected. It has been reported that almost half of the remaining forces have already been evacuated. It might be a part of the US strategy. Only time will explain it well. The US is handing over some crucial posts to Afghan Government Forces like the essential Bagram Air Base. Afghan Army was created by Americans, trained by Americans, equipped by Americans, and considered loyal with American. Their task was to obey American orders, protect American interests, and counter the Taliban.
The Taliban’s offensive against the Afghan forces has witnessed a sharp increase in diverse parts of more than twenty provinces of Afghanistan. The Taliban even attacked Mihtarlam – the 16th largest city in the Laghman province – which has been a comparatively quiet and calm city in the last few years. As a result of the Taliban’s current encounters, innocent Afghans have become refugees in different parts of the country. Their next destination may be Kabul and they are capable of taking over Kabul conveniently.
As a matter of fact, the Afghan Governments of President Ashraf Ghani or Hamid Karzai were not legitimate Afghan-owned Governments; they were created by Americans and served Americans as puppet Governments. The natural pillars of the power were the Taliban. American took control from the Taliban in 2001, and they negotiated the troop’s withdrawal with the Taliban directly, without involving President Ashraf Ghani’s Government initially. American knows that Taliban are the real owners of Afghanistan and should rule their country in post withdrawl era. Americans acknowledged the potential and supremacy of the Taliban. President Ashraf Gahni or Hamid Karzai has no roots or public support in Afghanistan and will have no role in the future political setup in the post-withdrawal era.
Taliban are well-educated people, having good knowledge of Economics, Science & Technology, Industry, Agriculture, International relations and politics, and in-depth understanding of religions. They ruled the country in 1994-2001 successfully. Their era was one of the most peaceful eras in the recent history of Afghanistan.
Just like any defeating army, the US is trying to harm Afghanistan as much as possible, and destroying its weapons and war machinery at an estimated worth of US Dollars 80 Billion, and destroying ammunition depots, Infrastructures, and all-important places, before the surrender, creating a tough time for Taliban to reconstruct the war-torn country. Even the US is deliberately pushing Afghanistan towards chaos and civil war-like never-ending trobles.
Desperate, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani complained about American disloyalty in his interview with Der Spiegel on May 14, 2021. Displaying a feeling of betrayal and helplessness, President ashraf Ghani is blaming Pakistan. However, Pakistan’s positive role in bringing the Taliban to negotiating table in Doha is widely admired by the US and International community.
Similarly, in his interview with Der Spiegel on May 22, 2021, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai has also taken a tough stance on Pakistan and blamed Islamabad for its alleged link with and support to the Taliban. However, he also indirectly gave the message that the United States would not want peace in Afghanistan. At the same time, he has expressed high hopes “for the so-called Troika Plus, a diplomatic initiative launched by Russia which also includes China and the United States.” In response to the very first question about the Taliban, Karzai says that “I realized early into my tenure as president that this war is not our conflict and we Afghans are just being used against each other” by external forces.
However, it was the people of Afghanistan who suffered the four decades of prolonged war. It seems their sufferings are reaching an end. All the neighboring countries also suffered due to the Afghan war, and it is time for all neighboring countries to support Afghan reconstruction. China is already willing to assist in reconstructing Afghanistan under its mega initiative BRI. Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, and Russia may also outreach Afghanistan and play a positive role in rebuilding Afghanistan.
A stable and peaceful Afghanistan will be beneficial for all its neighbors and the whole region. Let’s hope for the best, with our best struggles.
What position would Russia take in case of an armed conflict between China and US?
China and Russia have seen increasing interactions and closer bonds as they face amid US pressure. The trilateral relations of China, Russia and the US are of great significance in the international order. Ahead of the upcoming Putin-Biden summit, Global Times reporters Xie Wenting and Bai Yunyi (GT) interviewed Russian Ambassador to China Andrey Denisov (Denisov) on a range of issues including bilateral and trilateral relations, COVID-19, and many others.
GT: Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden will meet in Geneva on June 16. What are your expectations for the meeting? How do you evaluate the possibility of improvement in Russia-US relations during Biden’s presidency?
Denisov: We are realists. We do not expect impossible outcomes. We welcome any measures that reduce tensions and competition, but we are very cautious about what we can expect from the Russian-American relations, especially in the context of the very tense relations between the two countries. The Geneva summit, the first meeting between the two leaders since Biden took office, is less likely to resolve important issues between the two countries. A better outcome, though, is that it sets the conditions for resolving problems in the future.
GT: Some analysts suggest the Biden administration may take measures to ease tensions with Russia in order to concentrate on dealing with China. Will this strategy alienate Russia from China and draw it closer to the US?
Denisov: This view is too short-sighted. It can’t happen. I think we’re smarter than what the Americans think.
GT: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited China after the China-US meeting in Anchorage, while China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi visited Moscow after a Russia-US foreign ministers’ meeting. Was the timing of these two visits deliberately arranged? What signal did this send?
Denisov: As for the timing, it was purely coincidental that the two visits followed the high-level talks between China and the US in Anchorage and between Russia and the US in Iceland. It takes time and technical preparation to arrange a visit at the level of foreign minister and above.
When Russia was preparing for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to China, it was not aware that senior diplomats from China and the US would meet in Anchorage. The same goes for Director Yang Jiechi’s visit to Russia.
But it is a good thing that these two diplomatic interactions came on the heels of Russia and China’s conversations with the US. It will give senior diplomats from both countries an opportunity to have an in-depth discussion on what has happened in previous meetings between China and the US and between Russia and the US.
GT: Do Russia and China coordinate and communicate with each other on their stance toward the US?
Denisov: A principle in international political exchanges is that the question of an absent third party should not be discussed in the exchanges. However, this principle is almost never observed. A case in point is US President Biden’s trip to the UK for the G7 summit. Although Chinese representatives will not be present at the meeting and will not be able to express their positions, the US has announced that it will discuss its policy toward China with its European Allies.
In this context, the US topic certainly occupies a place on the agenda of the meeting between senior Chinese and Russian diplomats. Although the last two visits were short and had limited agendas, the two sides discussed in great detail a range of topics, including some of the most pressing and acute issues in the current international situation. As a matter of fact, there is no content or topic that should be avoided in the political dialogue between Russia and China.
GT: Competition and confrontation between China and the US are escalating. If one day an armed conflict between China and the US happens, what position would Russia take?
Denisov: There will be no answer to this question because I am convinced that there will be no armed conflict between China and the US, just as there will be no armed conflict between Russia and the US, because such a conflict would exterminate all mankind, and then there would be no point in taking sides. However, if you are asking about the judgment of the international situation and major issues, then Russia’s position is clearly much closer to China’s.
In recent years, the US has imposed sanctions both on Russia and China. Although the areas and content of the US’ dissatisfaction towards Russia and China are different, the goal of the US is the same: to crush the competitor. We clearly cannot accept such an attitude from the US. We hope that the Russia-China-US “tripod” will keep balance.
GT: As far as you know, is President Putin scheduled to visit China this year?
Denisov: There is a possibility. Our high-level exchange plan includes President Putin’s visit to China, and both sides have the willingness. China hopes that President Putin will be the first foreign leader to visit China after the pandemic, while Russia also hopes that President Putin’s first state visit after the outbreak will be arranged in China. However, whether this arrangement can be implemented will depend on how the pandemic develops. While the two leaders have not exchanged visits in the past two years, they have spoken on the phone a number of times and the exchanges between Russia and China at the highest levels remain close.
GT: President Putin recently said that the US was wrong to think that it was “powerful enough” to get away with threatening other countries; a mistake, he said, that led to the downfall of the former Soviet Union. How do you comprehend President Putin’s words?
Denisov: Anyone who follows current US policy will not disagree with President Putin’s views. My interpretation of this statement is that President Putin is not “foreseeing” that the US will suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union, nor is he saying that he would like to see that happen. He is simply warning that the risk is real, but many American political elites have not yet fully realized it.
We cannot imagine a world without the US today. The US plays a big role in terms of economy, culture, science and technology, and we cannot deny this fact. But on the other hand, the US needs to recognize that it is not the only country in the world, and it needs to take into account and respect the realities and goals of other countries. President Putin is reminding the US not to make the mistakes of the Soviet Union.
GT: Many reports in recent years have said the US and some other countries are trying to incite a “color revolution” in China and Russia to create a “zone of geopolitical instability” around the two countries. Under the current situation, what kind of cooperation can China and Russia carry out?
Denisov: That is why I said that Russia and China are highly consistent in their judgment of the international situation. Both Russia and China follow the principle of non-interference in another country’s internal affairs, but in the past few years, we have witnessed “color revolutions” in many countries, which have led to domestic chaos. These “color revolutions” certainly have some domestic or local reasons, but they are always accompanied by the presence of external forces.
In order to prevent a third country from interfering in the internal affairs of Russia and China, we should jointly work out some “rules of the game,” especially in the field of information security so as to prevent some countries with more advanced information technology from imposing their own political agenda on other countries through IT technology.
Recently, a new phenomenon has emerged in the world: hybrid warfare (Hybrid warfare refers to a new type of warfare in the 21st century, which involves a mixture of conventional and non-conventional means. It is considered to be more varied and covert than conventional warfare.) In this field, the international community does not yet have the corresponding rules to restrict or regulate it.
On the one hand, it is the common concern of Russia and China to prevent their country from being invaded by bad information from the outside world. On the other hand, although Russia and China have sufficient capabilities and strong information networks to resist a “color revolution,” some countries and regions around us are relatively vulnerable in this regard, and external interference at the information level could easily lead to large-scale domestic turbulence [in these countries and regions]. The recent events in Belarus and what happened in Hong Kong two years ago are two examples. Therefore, to formulate common rules against “color revolutions” is also for the stability of more countries and regions.
GT: The West has been hyping up Russia and China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy,” claiming that the two countries are pursuing geopolitical interests through vaccine exports and aid. What do you think of it?
Denisov: China has so far provided at least 350 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines overseas. Russia’s vaccines exports are not as large as China’s, but it has cooperated with 66 countries. San Marino has beaten the outbreak with Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. At the same time, Russia has also taken the lead in proposing providing relevant technology and process support to help countries produce vaccines. So far, we have discussed relevant cooperation with 25 medical manufacturers from 14 countries.
We believe that the issue of mutual recognition of vaccines can best be addressed through multilateral platforms such as the WHO, as both Russian and Chinese vaccines may face difficulties in getting recognition. This is not because of the quality or protection rates of the Russian and Chinese vaccines, but because some competitors are very reluctant to allow Russian and Chinese vaccines into other countries. They will create artificial obstacles, including using political tools and unfair methods to achieve their goals.
The suggestion of “vaccine diplomacy” is one of the obstacles they create. Some countries with “vaccine nationalism” give priority to vaccinating their own population, which is fine in itself, but at the same time they are trying to discredit other countries’ vaccine aid and prevent Chinese and Russian vaccines from entering the market of third countries. This is not right. It is a typical “vaccine politicization.”
Besides, the West’s fabrication about the virus being a result of “a Chinese laboratory leak” is a classic case of politicizing the pandemic. These are very unfair political statements, which are not the right way to address this devastating human crisis.
GT: Some analysts said that there are considerable differences in terms of China and Russia’s strategic interests: Russia has little interest in maintaining the existing international order, while China, as the biggest beneficiary of the existing international order, only seeks to adjust the order. What do you think of this view?
Denisov: This is a rather black and white statement. It is also a radical view of the international situation, as if there are only two options before us: preserving the existing international order or destroying it. But that’s not the case.
Russia and China are both world powers and have their own interests at the global and regional levels. These interests cannot be identical in all cases. But on the whole, the international interests of Russia and China are the same, so our positions on most international issues are the same. The most obvious example is how we vote in the United Nations Security Council: Russia and China often cast the same vote at the Security Council.
The international order is not static. It not only evolves, but has recently accelerated its evolution. The international order needs reform to make it more responsive to today’s realities, but we cannot change it in a one-size-fits-all way.
I do not agree with the view that Russia and China have very different views on the reform of the international order. In fact, our positions on some of the most important issues are the same, and we just have different views on some specific details.
GT: This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. How do you evaluate the CPC’s performance and achievements?
Denisov: Since I was assigned to work in Beijing in the 1970s, I have witnessed firsthand China’s development over the past half century. I have seen with my own eyes the tremendous progress China has made under the leadership of the Communist Party of China, and I have seen that China’s success is the result of many important factors, such as the dedication and diligence of the Chinese people and the right decisions made by the leadership.
For the CPC, this year is very important. In the future, China will welcome another 100th anniversary: the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Perhaps I will be too old to see what China will look like when that day comes. But I can imagine it, because in the course of China’s development over the past 50 years, I have seen the support of the Chinese people for the CPC as the ruling party, and the crucial role it has played in China’s achievements. I know there is a song in China that many people sing: “Without the CPC, there would be no New China.” I also want to take this opportunity to congratulate all Chinese people.
GT: We learned that some Russian people have negative views of the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet Union. Will they equate the CPC with the Soviet Communist Party? Will this affect the current China-Russia relations?
Denisov: Russia is a big country and its people hold diverse views. I think the number of Russians who feel this way is very small.
Indeed, the Soviet era had many flaws, but people of my generation who actually experienced this era could still think of many good and positive things when they look back. Our poll shows that the negative attitude toward the Soviet Union is largely held by young Russians who were born after the collapse of the Soviet Union and did not see it firsthand. They had a different attitude towards the Communist Party, but it was more about the Soviet Union’s own policies at that time, not the Communist Party in general.
I also want to share a personal view on the Soviet Union and the Communist Party: If a figure like Deng Xiaoping had appeared in the Soviet Communist Party at that time, perhaps the course of our country’s development would have changed forever.
Recently, there have been a lot of discussions about state and different social systems. We have also found that the responses of different countries to the COVID-19 pandemic reflect the strengths and weaknesses of different social development models. Today, the Chinese economy has emerged from the crisis caused by last year’s epidemic, demonstrating the great vitality of China’s development model. This reminds me of a Chinese saying: Practice is the sole criterion for testing truth.
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