The Meaning Behind the Russian-Chinese Geopolitical Game


Governments, politicians, and media in the “western” world seem incapable of understanding geopolitical games as played by anyone elsewhere. Their analyses of the newly proclaimed accord of Russia and China are a stunning example of this.

On May 16, Russia and China announced that they had signed a “friendship treaty” that would last “forever” but was not a military alliance. Simultaneously, they announced a gas deal, in which the two countries will build a gas pipeline to export Russian gas to China. China will lend Russia the money with which to build its share of the pipeline. It seems that Gazprom (Russia’s major gas and oil producer) made some price concessions to China, an issue that had been holding up an agreement for some time.

If one read the media on May 15, it was full of articles explaining why such an accord was unlikely. When it nonetheless occurred the next day, western governments, politicians, and media were split between those who thought it was a geopolitical victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin (and deplored this) and those who argued that it would not make much geopolitical difference.

It is quite clear from discussions and votes in the U.N. Security Council over the last few years that Russia and China share an aversion to the various proposals put forward by the United States (and often seconded by various European countries) to authorize direct involvement (opening the way ultimately to military involvement) in the civil strife in Ukraine and in the multiple conflicts in the Middle East.

The unilateral sanctions that the United States has already imposed on Russia because of its alleged behavior in Ukraine and the threat of still more sanctions has no doubt hastened Russia’s desire to find additional outlets for its gas and oil. And this has in turn led to much talk of a revived “cold war” between Russia and the United States. But is this really the main point of the new Russia-China agreement?

It seems to me that both countries are really interested in a different restructuring of interstate alliances. What Russia is really seeking is an agreement with Germany. And what China is really seeking is an agreement with the United States. And their ploy is to announce this “forever” alliance between themselves.

Germany is clearly internally divided about the prospect of including Russia within a European sphere. The advantage to Germany of such an arrangement would be to consolidate Germany’s customer base in Russia for its production, guarantee its energy needs, and incorporate Russia’s military strength in its long-term global planning. Since this would inevitably mean the creation of a post-NATO Europe, there is opposition to the idea not only within Germany but of course within Poland and the Baltic states as well. From Russia’s point of view, the object of the Russia-China friendship treaty is to strengthen the position of those in Germany favorable to working with Russia.

China, on the other hand, is fundamentally interested in taming the United States and reducing its role in east Asia. But this said, it wants to reinforce, not weaken, its links with the United States. China seeks to invest in the United States at the bargain rates it thinks are now available. It wants the United States to accept its emergence as the dominant regional power in east and southeast Asia. And it wants the United States to use its influence to keep Japan and South Korea from becoming nuclear powers.

Of course, what China wants is not consonant with the prevailing ideological language in the United States. Nonetheless, there seems to be quiet support for such an evolution of alliances within the United States, especially within major corporate structures. Just as Russia wants to use the friendship treaty to encourage certain groups in Germany to move in the direction it finds most useful, so China wishes to do the same with the United States.

Will such geopolitical games work? Possibly, but by no means certainly. Still, from the perspective of both Russia and China, they have everything to gain and very little to lose by using this ploy. The real question is how the internal debate in Germany and the United States will evolve in the near future. As for the argument that the world is returning to a cold war between the United States and Russia, think of this argument as simply the counterploy of those who understand the game that Russia and China are playing and are attempting to counter it.