Archive for category China

Ukraine: the view from China

With every new major international crisis – be it the Arab Spring, the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, recurrent emergencies in Africa, or the current Ukrainian-Russian tensions – it does not take long for diplomats and observers to start wondering ‘what does China think’. It is increasingly frequent during such crises for China to be put in the spotlight and expected to have a position on events and regions on which, until recently, Chinese opinions were barely worth a footnote. This is also true for the Crimean crisis. A few days into the crisis, the Russian foreign ministry announced that the Chinese and Russians shared “broadly coinciding points of view” on the situation.

Looking at China for comfort is driven by many factors. The rise of Chinese power is just one. In international public opinion China is often seen as a sort of ‘swing’ power, capable of tipping the political balance between entrenched political warriors whose preferences are already well known. On a crisis like the one in Crimea – which elicits completely different narratives from Russia, on the one hand, and the EU and US on the other – the Chinese are seen by some as a potentially less subjective or biased source of opinions. In this sense, China can offer surprises. After the 2008 Russia-Georgian war the Chinese maintained public politeness towards Russia but, in private, were clearly against the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – thereby helping Central Asian countries resist alleged Russian pressures to recognise the independence of those entities.

Hence the rush by Russia to claim Chinese support for its actions in Ukraine – as an effort to claim greater legitimacy for its military invasion of a post-Soviet state. However, the claim that China is on Russia’s side is spurious. Read the rest of this entry »

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Russia in Reverse

Project Syndicate, 7 May 2012: Vladimir Putin has just been inaugurated for a third term as President of the Russian Federation. But the event’s pageantry could not mask that his return to the presidency, after a four-year stint as Prime Minister, is far from triumphant. On the contrary, Putin, who has been in power since 2000, represents the specter of stagnation that haunts Russia – a specter that wants at least another two six-year terms as President.

The contrast between the transition at the Kremlin and China’s upcoming – and strictly choreographed – power transfer could hardly be starker. This autumn, all nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including the country’s president, Hu Jintao, and premier, Wen Jiabao, will step down, and at least 14 members of the 24-member Politburo will retire, making way for a new generation of leaders.

So, although China has the more authoritarian system, it is moving forward. The same cannot be said for Putin’s Russia.

Unlike China, a one-party state, where real power is insulated from direct voting by layers of Communist Party structures, Russia has a multi-party political system, with regular elections at most levels of government. To be sure, not all parties or candidates are allowed to run, and elections can be manipulated. Still, there is more room in Russia than in China for opposition voices to express themselves.

Indeed, Russian civil society and protest movements are more assertive and politicized, while protests in China are crushed without remorse. The Russian media, particularly newspapers and radio, have more freedom as well, and openly disparage Putin, whereas Chinese journalists can take on issues like corruption, but may not criticize the Party. Likewise, the Internet is not censored in Russia as it is in China.

Given that China is significantly more authoritarian than Russia, it seems counter-intuitive that China’s political system manages to produce some rotation of leaders, however imperfect and even tense, whereas Russia does not. In this way, China takes advantage of one of democracy’s key benefits – leadership turnover – without the risk of popular accountability.

Read the continuation of this commentary on Project Syndicate

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Dealing with a post-BRIC Russia

I just co-authored a new ECFR report on Dealing with a post-BRIC Russia, some kind of a follow-up to the 2007 Power Audit of EU-Russia Relations. This new report deals with the impact of the economic crisis on Russian foreign policy and Moscow’s relations with China, US, the post-Soviet space and the EU. Among many other things the report argues that the EU is more united on Russia than it was a few years ago, less vulnerable to potential energy pressures, but that the EU is still underachieving in relations with Russia. The EU should stop treating Russia like a ‘small China’ and aim at more than trade-related objectives. The EU member states should better coordinate their bilateral Partnerships for Modernisation, and should also move as quickly as possible towards a visa-free regime with Russia (and EaP states), but even before, the EU that can drastically improve travel conditions through the adoption of an electronic visa system that would allow travellers who have already had a Schengen visa to get print-at-home visas.

The report has been endorsed by several foreign policy personalities in Europe. Here are some of the endorsements:

“This report is an important analysis of where Russia stands today and what opportunities this brings for the EU. It will open a much-needed and interesting debate.”

Javier Solana, former EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy; former Secretary General of NATO

“This report is extremely insightful both for its great analysis as well as policy recommendations proposed which touch upon both foreign, economic and energy policies. The report is indeed a real working agenda for the European Union.”
Massimo D’Alema, President, Italianieuropei Foundation; President, Foundation for European Progressive Studies; former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister

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How China sees Russia

On a recent trip to China, I asked Chinese thinkers and researchers how do they see Europe, Russia, the Putin-Medvedev dynamic and the post-Soviet space. Virtually all were very positive about Russia. Despite a lack of trust between Beijing and Moscow, the relationship seems to be  better than almost any time in modern history – economic exchanges are booming (increased by 43% in 2010 reaching USD 55 bn), and China’s border with Russia is one of China’s most stable. But scratching a bit deeper beyond the surface the picture is unsurprisingly more mixed. And not necessarily reassuring for Russia. As a Chinese put it, the relationship is good because ‘we know that when two tigers fight, both are likely to be wounded, and we want to avoid it’. This is hardly a positive way to start a partnership.

China and the break-up of USSR

A colleague of mine and I asked the Chinese how do they see the break-up of USSR. Here is the answer we got:

‘We had a big debate about whether this is good or bad for China. Some ideological people were saying this is bad because it undermines the attractiveness of Communism. But the pragmatists were saying this is good for China. And it is true, after the break-up of USSR we have very good relations with Russia. Better than ever before.’

The untold part of the answer is of course the fact these ‘better than ever’ relations are build on a very different balance of power and a Russia that is much weaker than USSR. As I wrote previously, Chinese views on the post-Soviet space do not differ much from those in Europe or the US. They differ in style (China is more deferential to Russia), but not in substance. Read the rest of this entry »

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Germany’s new Ostpolitik (again)?

(with updates)… I have just returned from Germany from a joint ECFR-Bertelsman event on the “Eastern partnership or Partnership with Russia”. Of course, the answer is with both. No need to spend time on this. But I got a certain sense that the German debate on Russia and the Eastern neighbourhood might be changing. Of course this is only a snapshot and such trends are far from consolidated. And they have yet to trickle down through the German foreign policy machinery, not least in the Brussels committees. But here are some of the interesting nuances I have heard in my convesrsations with a few experts as well as FDP and CDU (the new coalition partners) voices.

On Ukraine

There might be an increasing sense that Ukraine, Moldova, and perhaps Belarus will “of course” join the EU. Though with two caveats:  1) in the long run (defined as 20-30 years), and 2) “this should happen at our own pace, not due to geopolitical considerations”. The language is still more positive than I ever heard in Germany.

Much has been made about the fact that FDP’s election manifesto mentions an EU accession perspective for Ukraine. The Ukrainian foreign minister Poroshenko even says the new German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle (and FDP leader) gave him such a manifesto with the word “Ukraine” underlined and Westerwelle’s signature next to it. I tended not to overdo the importance of this point in the manfesto. But my FDP interlocutor stressed that the Ukraine point in the manifesto was thought through, discussed and “voted twice in an electoral year by the party convention, and this is not a backdoor policy paper, but a key document”. Read the rest of this entry »

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Russia’s Chinese neighbourhood

I recently spoke at the Sino-European forum co-organised by ECFR/Centre Asie and CICIR about the EU-Russia-China triangle. While thinking about the non-existent triangle I ran into the proceedings of another ‘strategic dialogue’ – between Russia and China. And the following exchange of views on Russia’s desire for a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space caught my eye.  One of the Russian participants (Alexey Arbatov) asked the following question (page 19):
“A certain part of Russian political elite thinks that our central objective should be the re-establishment of the Soviet Union in this or that form, the establishment of uncontested Russian domination in the post-Soviet space. This is not what the leadership thinks, but in political circles, the media, in political parties, and the parliament such a desire is very strong… My question is what is [your country’s] attitude to such a policy line? Would your attitude towards such a foreign policy direction be positive of negative?

The reply: “We understand that Russia has special interests in this space, and that Russia tries to preserve its influence, but only if this takes the form of a civilisational community, because these states are still independent states… Russia should treat these states as independent states from a legal point of view, and from the point of view of international norms.” Read the rest of this entry »

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