Russia Considers China an Ally in the New Cold War against the West; China Does Not Reciprocate

Maxim Trudolyubov talks about the Kremlin’s “turn to the East” and the books that help us understand its problematic aspects.

Russia and the West like using Cold War rhetoric when analyzing the modern state of international relations (and blaming each other for their deterioration). However, neither side wants to acknowledge that for the majority of the world population, the most crucial event of the last century was the emergence of independent states on the ruins of former Asian and European empires, not the events connected with the world wars or the battle between capitalism and communism. If a new cold war has indeed started, it is not about the conflict between liberalism and authoritarianism, but about the one between former colonizers and their ex-colonies. Maxim Trudolyubov, the editor of the ideas column, explains that the dramatic part of Russia’s modern state lies in the fact that it used to be a colonizer, whereas its main contemporary ally, China, is one of the countries that suffered immensely from imperialism.

Russian ideologists and propagandists talk about the West “imposing its values and norms alien to the Russian society,” condemn the opposition, accusing it of being the West’s “puppet,” and use TV to spread fear that the West is preparing to go to war with Russia. The U.S., British and observers from other Western countries accuse the Russian government of purposefully trying to undermine Western institutions and waging an information war against the West.

We could ignore all this noise. Yet, if we start paying attention to it, it’s easy to notice that in these discussions, the actual content plays a much smaller role than the reflected desire of politicians and publicists to stay within their comfort zone. All this preaching about “West’s puppets” and “hybrid warfare” is permeated with the feeling of nostalgia about the bipolar world, when Russia — the Soviet Union to be exact — had a clear and crucial role. Western politicians and commentators in turn are missing the times when the West was the victor of the main global conflict of the 20th century.

Russia and the West Are Preparing for the Past and a Relatively Unimportant War

The Cold War, often commented on by critics on both sides, was not only a frozen conflict between two great powers that manifested itself in regional clashes, but a clear (especially if we look at it from either Washington’s or Moscow’s perspective) configuration of international relations. Countries that found it beneficial (or were simply forced to do so) rallied around the Soviet or American flag to become closer either to the capitalist West or the socialist East.

From the Western point of view, the whole 20th century was about the lethal conflict between fascism and communism, later between the political and economic systems of capitalism and communism. All these teachings and worldviews were formulated in Europe more than 100 years ago. From this perspective, Vladimir Putin, who tirelessly recalls the outcomes of World War II and the subsequent world divide, holds a quite Western viewpoint. He sides with the West here, even though he is not satisfied.

Yet, under the cover of the capitalism versus communism fight, other conflicts were brewing. According to Odd Arne Westad, a historian from Yale University, the author of one of the best books on Cold War history, the clash between the United States and the Soviet Union mercilessly sucked additional countries into it, suppressing their aspirations to become decolonized and choose their own paths for national development and building their own political systems.

From the non-Western (or, to be exact, from multiple non-Western) perspectives, the main global development of the 20th century was the emergence of independent states on the ruins of former European and Asian empires. People in Egypt, India, China, Pakistan and Thailand can, of course, imagine what is important for Americans and Europeans (thanks to the worldwide proliferation of the English language, it is not that difficult), yet from their point of view, the world looks different. If we look at things not from either Washington’s or Moscow’s position, the conflicts in the West are less important than the relations between former colonies (or countries under the rule of empires) and their former colonizers.

Human Rights and Democracy as Neocolonialism

In this long and painful conflict with the West, which is much older than the Cold War, Russia has a unique and double-edged position, both geographically and historically speaking. Most recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi signed a “Joint Statement on Certain Issues of Global Governance” which stated that human rights should be protected “in accordance with the specific national context.”

China and the West have been arguing about the significance of human rights for a while. Phil Ma, a researcher from Duke University, noted that China “chooses to first prioritize economic and social rights, as opposed to the Western focus on civil and political rights. These rights emphasize collective values and rights that encourage economic growth, not just democracy promotion.” More importantly, for Chinese politicians, allegations of human rights violations in Tibet and Xinjiang are not associated with the Cold War, which has recently ended. Instead, they look at these allegations through the lens of the “century of humiliations,” the period that lasted until 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established.

In a wider context, the Chinese government is acting like the representatives of one of the world’s great powers who are trying to overcome colonial heritage. That is why, from China’s point of view, human rights and democracy promotion are nothing less than Western attempts to teach Oriental “barbarians” how to be civilized. Makau W. Mutua, a professor from Kenya at the SUNY Buffalo School of Law, uses the “savages, victims, and saviors” metaphor to describe this approach. Mutua argues that these ideas are dangerously close to the old imperialist worldview that Western civilizers have to come and save Eastern barbarians from themselves.

The Communist Party of China explains its legitimacy not necessarily through ideology (an approach that became obsolete after the end of the Cold War), but rather through its role as a nationalist power. This power put the end to the era of territorial and economic losses caused by the actions of great powers — Great Britain, France, the United States and China.

Celebrating the Victory over Russia

Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra starts his book “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” with an account of how the world beyond the West reacted to Japan’s defeat of the Russian fleet in the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905. The Japanese were not the only ones who celebrated the outcome of the battle. Newspapers in Egypt, China, Persia and Turkey were filled with ecstatic comments. For the first time in modern history, a non-European country defeated a European power in a full-scale military conflict.

The intellectuals and reformers of the non-Western world remembered that day as an important turning point. Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) wrote that at that time, he became convinced that using the Japanese example of modernization could transform the country. Jawaharlal Nehru, future first prime minister of independent India, stated that the news about Tsushima inspired him and invigorated his hopes for liberating Asia from Europe. One of the intellectual leaders of the Pan-Africanist movement, William Du Bois, wrote about the worldwide wave of “color pride.”

Historically speaking, Russia is one of the colonizers. At the dawn of the modern era, Russia was a part of the West, acted like a Western empire and was perceived by the East accordingly. China’s long-term grievances concerned with Russia directly refer to Russia’s colonizing behavior in the past. When in 1989, Deng Xiaoping and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Beijing, the Soviet leader was stunned by the number of “old” issues that Xiaoping raised. The Chinese leader reminded Gorbachev of the foreign policies of Russian tsars and other humiliating actions from the past, including losing the territories according to the treaties of Aigun and Beijing. Gorbachev, who had come to China to improve mutual relations, was stunned.

Just like other Russian political leaders preoccupied with the Western policy agenda, Gorbachev did not know what to say. In his recent interview, sinologist Andrey Vinogradov argued that, “According to the protocol, Gorbachev was supposed to outline the Soviet Union’s position on the matter, but he did not do that because he was not prepared for this kind of a conversation. So, he did not say anything and it seemed as if he agreed with Xiaoping’s position.” In China, the Damansky island incident of 1969 is defined as a “pushback against Northern aggressors.” Not long ago, China celebrated the anniversary of the conflict; all the remaining participants of these events received awards.

A Different Historical Perspective

The European Union remains Russia’s main trade partner. Yet, seven years ago, the trade volume between the EU and Russia was five times larger than between the EU and China. Now, it is only twice as large. China has already overtaken Germany as Russia’s largest supplier of industrial equipment. Now, comparatively small volumes of Russian gas coming to China are growing. If we look at the number of joint exercises conducted between the two countries, we can see that military cooperation is expanding. The prospect of Russia being deeply integrated into China’s technological sphere of influence is becoming more real, including the possibility of building 5G networks.

In his research dedicated to the prospects of Russia’s integration into Pax Sinica (the Chinese geopolitical and economic sphere), Alexander Gabuev notes that so far, China has mostly used its economic advantages to gain more favorable trade conditions and discounts on oil and gas. However, when Russia gets more dependent on China, the Chinese government can start pressuring Russia in other spheres. For example, it could make Russia roll back its military cooperation with China’s rivals, or convince its neighbors in Central Asia to let the Chinese military companies into their territories to guard the “Belt and Road” infrastructure. Short-term gains can turn out to be long-term losses.

Now, it is advantageous for the Kremlin to act like devoted fighters against the West. The problem is that Russia’s non-Western partners have a much better memory than their counterparts. The Kremlin’s logic is clear, yet it is based on Cold War-era beliefs. For Russians, the planning time frame is within a few decades, while China is looking hundreds of years ahead. That is why even if Russia has close ties with China and they both fight against their mutual Western foe, for China, Russia will always remain part of the West and the object of countless claims.

To Learn More about the Issue

Mishra P. From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2012.

Former colonies and countries that developed in the shadow of the West get inspired by those who have fought against the West’s expansion in the last 200 years. Indian publicist Pankaj Mishra put together the works of the ideologists of non-Western national independence — the ones by Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, Liang Qichao, Rabindranath Tagore. It talks about the struggles and mistakes on the way to finding national essence rather than revenge against the West for its oppressive actions.

Odd Arne Westad. Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750.

In his book, the Norwegian historian analyzes the history of Chinese foreign policy in the last 250 years. The author’s goal as he saw it was to show how international conflicts affected the views of Chinese politicians on foreign policy.

Loeffler J. Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century

Among the ideologists and authors of the international legal documents of the 1940s, apart from the leaders of the Roman Catholic church and secular intellectuals of different kinds, there were a lot of lawyers and activists of Jewish descent. Hersch Lauterpacht was a lawyer and one of the authors of the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights who coined the term “a crime against humanity,” while Raphael Lemkin is known for coining the term “genocide” and initiating the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. James Loeffler fills in the forgotten gaps in the history of human rights by presenting the biographies of five Jewish intellectuals who directly contributed to the cause.

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