Wednesday, Nov 26, 2014, 11:37 PM CST – China

International

Xi in Sochi

FRIENDS OR ALLIES?

Is China quietly changing its official foreign policy of non-alignment? If so, will Russia prove to be the friend, and more importantly, even the ally, China needs?

President Xi Jinping waves to his country’s delegation during the opening ceremony of the 22nd Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, February 7, 2014

Xi Jinping gives an interview to Russian TV in Sochi, Feburary 7, 2014 Photo by Xinhua

Xi Jinping talks with members of the Chinese Winter Olympic delegation in Sochi, Russia, February 7, 2014 Photo by Xinhua

Hearing Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin refer to each other as “friend” in their recent meeting during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi was not out of the ordinary. This is a regular feature of meetings between world leaders, regardless of the politics underlying the camaraderie.

However, Xi’s specific timing seems to have caught the attention of those looking to read the tea leaves when it comes to the direction of the new president’s inscrutable foreign policy.

Smiles and Frowns

Xi’s Sochi appearance marked the first time that a Chinese head of state has ever attended a major international sports event overseas. As in 2012, Russia remains Xi’s first choice of overseas destination, indeed, his only choice so far this year. In an exclusive interview with a Russian TV channel, Xi praised the “top-notch preparation and organization” of the Games. Meanwhile, Xi’s international counterparts, under pressure from mounting condemnation of Putin’s various domestic policies, conspicuously gave Sochi a wide berth. The leaders of the US, UK, France and Germany all sent underlings to the opening ceremonies.

Global media outlets ran reports ranging from investigations into the recent Russian crackdown on LGBT rights to the perceived poor condition of the Olympic site and its press facilities. Security concerns, the arrest and detention of LGBT and environmental activists, and above all the sheer cost of the Games – a cost, many allege, increased tenfold by rampant corruption – were all a feature of international coverage.

China’s State media, by contrast, were all smiles, delivering endless glowing reports of Sochi’s “exemplary” organization, and slamming the “Western media bias” which sought to “undermine” the Games for political reasons.

The “relentless disparagement” of Sochi, ran a commentary by the English service of China’s State-run Xinhua News Agency, is “all too familiar.” “[Beijing] faced identical political finger-pointing” six years ago, during the Beijing Olympics, it continued.

As Russia’s Prime Minister, Putin attended the Beijing 2008 Olympics opening ceremony despite his country being on the eve of a war with Georgia. As on that occasion, Xi’s presence in Sochi was not a goodwill mission. Rather it was designed to show solidarity with another world power which is politically isolated in the international community, and to court Russian support in potential future conflicts.

It seems that after a decade of playing the good guy, China has dropped the pretense of being “everyone’s friend,” and is instead distinguishing between allies, friends and, potentially, enemies.

Chinese experts have long warned that China is in desperate need of allies. The US secured a virtual monopoly on political support after World War II, and has since deepened its influence with developed nations who preferred American support over the alternative – the Soviet Union.

Now, with both Chinese and international media muttering about a new East-West political divide, China may be explicitly delineating friends and enemies after the fashion of its biggest rival – the US. Xi’s rhetoric in Sochi suggests that Russia is a key player in determining a new status quo.

Déjà vu

The Winter Olympics, despite attempts by Russia to tone down the underlying politics, has proven a symbolic battleground between competing ideologies, at least in terms of the associated media coverage. 

The theme of the opening ceremonies – “Dreams about Russia” – was designed, as Putin explained at a reception held February 7, to “give people the opportunity to take a new look at Russia, its achievements, distinctiveness and traditions.” A similar note was struck during the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, framing what would later become Xi Jinping’s China Dream ideology in the context of China’s oft-repeated desire to throw off imperialist oppression and return, triumphant, to its rightful place at the center of the world.

“Mutual support is an important element in the Sino-Russian strategic partnership of cooperation, and evidence of the close friendship between the leaders of the two countries,” said Li Jianmin, a research fellow at the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

While the world’s athletes competed in Sochi, Chinese and Russian warships were on a joint UN mission escorting a shipment of Syrian chemical weapons through the Mediterranean Sea to a US base where they were destroyed. In video addresses alongside their respective naval commanders, Xi and Putin reiterated their commitment to a “political settlement of the Syria crisis.”

China’s State media saw this as a triumph for the Sino-Russian stance on the Syria conflict, favoring diplomacy over military intervention. An editorial in the People’s Daily on February 8 crowed that, had both nations not stood opposed to military intervention, this international cooperation on destroying Syrian chemical weapons “would not have been possible.”

Japan is also a factor that unites China and Russia. Remarking that “history cannot be forgotten,” Xi and Putin agreed to hold joint activities in 2015 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Chinese victory over Japan and the end of World War II.

The Soviet Union never signed a peace treaty with Japan after the war, and today’s Russian Federation has its own territorial disputes with Japan in the Pacific, while China’s increasingly acrimonious standoff over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands continues to foment.

Professor Jin Canrong, a well-known international relations scholar at the Renmin University of China, thinks that working with Russia to contain Japan’s right-wing Abe administration was definitely “on Xi’s agenda” during his Sochi visit. Though Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also exchanged warm words with Putin in Sochi, Jin believes that “shared experiences” in World War II and its resulting treaties (or lack of them, in the case of Russia and Japan) have given China and Russia more incentives to work together to contain suspected Japanese rearmament.

“Of the countries which have the potential to become China’s allies, Russia is the largest,” said Professor Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations with Tsinghua University. 

Refresh or Restart?

China’s foreign policy discourse has not talked in terms of “allies and enemies” since the country implemented an official non-aligned stance in 1982 to avoid becoming further embroiled in the Cold War. Many Chinese experts think this defensive approach, suitable for weaker countries wishing to appear neutral, has harmed China’s global standing, and left the world No. 2 economy lagging far behind smaller countries in terms of diplomatic clout.

China’s rise has not helped Beijing’s international isolation. Even experts who continue to support the principle of non-alignment agree that at least a more flexible practice is needed to prepare for a day when China may find itself on one side or another of a major international incident or conflict. Yan argues that the number and quality of its allies is an important factor underlying the US victory in the Cold War and securing virtual global hegemony. Despite a number of recessions, including the Great Recession of 2008-09, the US weathers economic storms by shoring up its international network of friends and committed allies. China, meanwhile, has no explicit alliances, and its closest “friends” remain even more politically isolated nations like North Korea, Cuba and, until recently, Myanmar.

“In the context of nuclear weapons and globalization, there is no other way available for the peaceful rise of a big nation with fewer drawbacks than forming alliances,” Yan told our reporter.

In Yan’s “spectrum” of major power relations with China, by descending order in terms of how friendly they are, Russia stands the highest, followed by a raft of “ordinary relations” with major European countries, specifically France, Germany and the UK. After these comes India, and then “competitive relations with global implications” with the US. Bringing up the rear are “confrontational relations” with Japan. “China should take responsibility for protecting allies, winning over the neutrals and punishing opponents,” he stressed.

The possibility of an alliance has been discussed more frequently by Chinese and Russian experts since 2010, when both countries chafed at the Obama administration’s proposed “pivot to Asia.” Despite this, many have pointed out the ideological and cultural differences which could be a sticking point in deepening cooperation. A history of both armed and diplomatic conflict between China and Russia, stretching back into the days of the Qing Empire, the present-day growth gap and the use of mutual antipathy to the US as a basis for friendship have all been seen as problematic. Many observers point out that neither nation trusts the other enough to consider an alliance. Jitters have also surfaced over a potential Cold War II, splitting the world into East and West, and further isolating an ascendant China still dependent on its US trade relations for economic supremacy. Pragmatists also fear that, if China chose an overt alignment with Russia, it would be backing the weaker power.

Yan insists that, unlike in a friendship, shared interests, particularly in terms of security, are a better bond than mutual trust when it comes to political alliances. In his words, “alignment is a rule in the human history of diplomacy,” not a “Cold War contingency.” Yan’s advice is for China to sign a treaty with Russia “guaranteeing strategic commitment,” while offering Moscow preferential regional development conditions to balance the economic gap between the two.

“If neighbors get economic benefits and, more importantly, security protection, from China, then [Beijing] could have about twenty strategic allies by 2023,” he added.

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