You should be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it, so the old cliché goes. In diplomacy at the moment, it seems you should be careful of the threats you prepare for, because you may end up producing them.
There is a growing trend in the West towards treating Russia and China as some single, threatening ‘Dragonbear’ (a reference to the two countries' national animals). This underrates the very real tensions between Moscow and Beijing, but risks pushing them even closer together.
The most recent case in point was Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg’s interview in the Financial Times, in which he criticised ‘this whole idea that we either look Russia, or to China… because it goes together.’ The implication is that there is a Sino-Russian axis representing a single, coherent challenge to the West.
This is a perhaps understandable position — but also a distinctly problematic one.
There clearly is a growing rapprochement, but much of it is symbolic or transactional. China and Russia are both suspicious of the Western-led global order. They see national sovereignty as more important than international norms, and Western attempts to change them through sanctions and sanctimony have given them common grievances.
They have practical reasons to cooperate, not least because a voracious Chinese economy wants Russian energy and raw materials, as well as advanced weapons such as S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. Their economic missions are hand in hand: they are both keen to reduce the dollar’s dominance in global finance.
But the truth is that China matters to Russia much more than vice versa. What China wants from Russia it can largely buy — and the Russians need to sell. China’s share of Russia’s trade has nearly doubled since 2013.
So who really likes their creditors or their debtors? Moscow is happy to pose alongside Beijing to get the West’s attention, but it also knows that it risks becoming the ‘younger brother’. At present, China dictates the terms: it is increasingly present in Moscow's traditional sphere of influence, Central Asia, most recently in Afghanistan.
The past year or so has also seen Beijing become increasingly aggressive. While Russia has largely confined itself to quiet sympathy for Beijing’s positions on Taiwan, for example, there is also a growing concern in Moscow that it might find itself drawn into some future US-Chinese dispute. Beijing itself never recognised the annexation of Crimea: should Xi try to take Taiwan, it is unknown whether the Russians would offer support to the Chinese.
Additionally, while the Russian military bigwigs cooperate very publicly with their Chinese counterparts, their relationship is far more limited than often assumed. Behind closed doors, they still wargame potential conflicts with each other along the border.
The Russian Federal Security Service is becoming more vocal about Chinese spying, particularly cyberespionage. The conviction this year of Alexei Vorobev on charges of passing secrets to China, and his 20-year prison sentence, was a strong public statement of this exasperation.
The tendency to lump Russia and China together, and not see them as what Alexander Gabuev called ‘increasingly interlinked, but still separate challenges’ is harmful to the West. This does not mean Western powers should adopt a too-clever-by-half grand design, such as ‘driving a wedge’ between Beijing and Moscow. Moscow is not about to become the West’s pawn.
Rather, it is to recognise that Russia is not about to become a Chinese vassal — if it can avoid it. What would be most likely to generate a Russia-China axis would be heavy-handed Western measures that force the Kremlin to see Beijing as the lesser of two evils or, more likely, create the political, technological and market conditions that interconnect the two countries more and more tightly.
In those circumstances, the colossal gravitic force of China’s economy will capture Russia as an orbiting moon. And we would have helped make that happen.