NATO member states at last week’s summit mustered a superficial show of unity regarding “aggressive and coercive” behaviour around the world by China and Russia, but there was precious little unity of purpose on specific policies and goals that could compel Moscow and Beijing to evolve into more constructive global powers.
America broadly views Beijing as the primary long-term threat, but the Europeans are keen to embrace China as a trade partner. While many leaders seek a more aggressive approach toward Moscow, countries such as Germany are engaged in projects that will increase dependence on Russia.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken very reasonably stated that the US wouldn’t “force our allies into an ‘us or them’ choice with China.” However, the resulting policy divergences may weaken the West’s ability to wield influence. Putin and Xi are experts at running rings around Western disunity.
We are at a pivotal moment for superpower relations. Over the past half decade the Chinese-Russian autocratic model has been expanding around the globe, while Western values and institutions undergo a prolonged existential crisis.
While Western leaders dithered and bickered, Russia and China wasted no time in aggressively projecting power outside their borders, and ruthlessly cracking down inside their borders. As President Biden characterizes it: “This is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century, and autocracies … we’ve got to prove democracy works.”
A decade ago Russia and China were politically irrelevant in the Middle East. Now Russia is exploiting its presence in Syria and Libya to project influence more widely, while China has massively ramped up its diplomatic activities and investments through the Belt and Road initiative. While Blinken and Biden have yet to visit the Middle East, the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers have both staged high-profile regional tours.
Leading Gulf states are hardly likely to jump into the Russia or China camp. However, with Western states talking about “pivoting away” from the Arab world towards Asia, matters may gain momentum of their own. In 2020 China supplanted the EU as the GCC’s principal trading partner.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi has proposed an ambitious-sounding “five-point initiative” for Middle East security and discussed the long-touted China-GCC free-trade deal.
However, China and Iran agreed in 2016 to boost bilateral trade by more than 10 times to $600 billion over a decade; in 2020 they reached a deal for $400 billion of Chinese investment in Iran, and on Saturday they signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement. As primary Asian powers, Russia and China have a fundamental decision to make about whether to continue providing cover for Iran’s nuclear program and regional paramilitarism, or cooperate with Western nations in curbing these threats, particularly as Iran’s militancy, terrorism and arms proliferation pose a strategic challenge to their long-term Central Asian interests.
China and Russia aspire to be global powers, but if they don’t want the regions under their influence to be perpetual hellholes of anarchy and warfare, they will ultimately have to resort to multilateral institutions and international law mechanisms.
Moscow in Syria continues to be culpable for the slaughter of civilians. In what has been described as a “siege-and-starve strategy,” Russia, with Chinese support, has used its Security Council veto to gradually shut off all Syrian humanitarian routes. In northeastern Syria about 2.5 million civilians lost all access to UN-mandated humanitarian aid during 2020. For 4.5 million civilians in northwestern Syria, three out of four humanitarian routes have been severed, with the final Bab Al-Hawa Turkish crossing likely to be cut in the coming months — with the goal of starving these regions into acceptance of Assad regime supremacy.
The irony in Syria is that in order for Russia to consolidate its influence, it finds itself doing the dirty work for a regime that it privately loathes, alongside Assad’s fundamentalist Iranian and Hezbollah allies. Likewise in Afghanistan, Russia secretly offered bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops.
The problem with always backing the bad guys is that Russia ultimately requires stability in these regions where it has labored to gain influence, in order to consolidate its gains. Islamist extremism in the Caucasus and Central Asia have long constituted an existential threat for Russia and China. They can ill afford to be cultivating Tehran’s ayatollahs and Taliban terrorists.
Throughout Africa and Asia both China and Russia also have a troubling record of backing terrible regimes for short-term gain. It is a lucrative route to acquiring influence when they buy off a corrupt elite in order to be allowed to pillage natural resources and monopolize port facilities. In the long term they may simply discover that they have acquired precarious real estate in eternal hotbeds of instability. Putin and Xi may believe that by bankrolling bloodthirsty dictators around the world they are cultivating a like-minded model of governance, but can they really expect loyalty and respect from kleptocrats and murderers?
Throughout the Middle East, the Caucasus, sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia, Moscow may thus increasingly be compelled to rely on the Security Council and Western goodwill to put out the fires it ignited.
The West’s problem has been a failure of leadership and strategy. NATO’s 30 states are often divided by conflicting objectives and ideologies, with a risk-averse political culture, while China and Russia’s patriarchal systems can mobilize rapidly and single-mindedly toward specific goals. Yet China and Russia are not the all-powerful monsters we often make them out to be. The combined GDP of NATO members is about $40 trillion, dwarfing Russia’s $1.7 trillion. Likewise, the collective defense spending of NATO states exceeds $1 trillion, compared with China’s official defense budget of about $180 billion and Russia’s $65 billion.
China and Russia aspire to be global powers, but if they don’t want the regions under their influence to be perpetual hellholes of anarchy and warfare, they will ultimately have to resort to multilateral institutions and international law mechanisms. As long as they spite the West by enabling rogue states such as Iran, Syria and North Korea, they will eventually reap the consequences.
The goal is thus not to neutralize or contain Russia and China, but to persuade them to become constructive global players who aren’t trying to subvert the rules of the global system, but instead play a role in enforcing them not from a desire to be altruistic and law-abiding, but out of self-interest. When you always back the bad guys, you shouldn’t be surprised when they burn down your home and steal your possessions.