The way forward for the west? Help China and wave the rulebook at Russia

Opinion piece (The Guardian)
08 December 2016

Russia and China are often bracketed together as the west’s most important adversaries. They have grown closer since Russia’s relations with the west soured after the annexation of Crimea. But it would be an error for the western democracies to pursue policies that force the two together unnecessarily. China is a rising power that has benefited from the existing international order; Russia is a declining power that hopes to benefit from disrupting it.

The west’s goal for Russia should be to limit the damage Moscow can do, especially in Europe, while still working with it where necessary. Any suggestion from the Donald Trump administration of a “grand bargain” offering Russia a sphere of influence in eastern Europe would be very destabilising.

The western aim in relation to China should be to create the greatest possible incentives for cooperation and the greatest obstacles to conflict, through increased economic interdependence and political engagement. A punitive approach to trade from the US administration will only exacerbate problems.

Though the political narrative in the US has often emphasised China as a threat, it is wrong to ignore evidence that shows that cooperation is possible. In the past decade, China has shown that it is ready to act as a “responsible stakeholder” in certain circumstances, such as UN peacekeeping or mitigating the global financial crisis in 2008-2009.

The west needs to look for ways in which, without compromising its own interests, it can allow China to have a role in global governance that matches the country’s growing economic weight. That may involve uncomfortable compromises on issues such as China’s claim to the South China Sea. In the 1970s, the Soviet bloc and the west navigated their way to détente through the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), often referred to as the Helsinki Process. This might be the time for countries with a stake in the Asia-Pacific region to establish a modern counterpart.

One advantage (and sometimes weakness) of that process was that commitments were only politically binding on member-states: the rules were easy to update in the light of experience, and did not need to go through lengthy ratification processes. The downside was that there is no penalty for breaching them.

In the European case, security and human rights were the main issues to be discussed then, with the west accepting the post-second world war boundaries in Europe in return for the Soviet side accepting human rights commitments. In Asia, a “Conference on Security and Cooperation in Asia” (CSCA), including Russia, China and the US, might focus on economic issues (where there are already common interests) and security (including confidence-building), at least initially. A CSCA might also be a forum in which key players could agree on a code of conduct for cyberspace (for example), while still disagreeing about the legal framework of internet governance.

The dilemma for any country putting forward such an initiative is how to tackle issues of human rights. China knows that the Soviet authorities underestimated the threat from the CSCE’s seemingly modest first set of human rights commitments. It may be that western governments will have little choice but to raise human rights concerns discreetly in Asia, rather than making them a central element of their public approach. But that will be hard if the governments of China and Russia are engaged in an unconcealed crackdown on embattled human rights and democracy activists. Public opinion in democratic countries instinctively recoils from condoning human rights violations in pursuit of geopolitical interests. At the very least, democratic governments will have to maintain dialogues with Russia and China on (potentially) less sensitive areas relevant to civil and political rights, such as judicial reform, prison reform and the rule of law.

The west cannot prevent China’s rise or Russia’s decline, but it can try to manage both in ways that minimise the international instability. At present it is more urgent for western leaders to influence disruptive Russian behaviour than to try to constrain China’s growing strength.

The west should try to show that Beijing and their own nations have a shared interest in ensuring that Moscow abides by fundamental international norms such as the inviolability of borders: at present, what Russia is doing internationally should be of concern to China as well. China and the US have spent too much time studying what Thucydides says about inevitable conflict between rising and status quo powers; they should look more closely at Germany and Russia before the first world war: great powers drawn into a disastrous war by unwise promises to erratic allies.

This piece is adapted from a CER report: “Russia and China: Partners of choice and necessity” by Ian Bond.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.

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