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    Greater China
     Sep 6, 2008
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China still on-side with Russia
By Yu Bin

Sino-Russian relations have been under intense scrutiny lately because of the Georgian-Russian conflict over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia. For many in the West, China's cautious "neutrality" is a departure from, if not a betrayal of, its strategic partnership with Russia.

Such a view, among others, misreads the state of the Sino-Russian relationship without an adequate understanding of its depth, breadth and complexity. As a result, the Western perception of Beijing-Moscow ties has swung from one of threat against the West prior to the South Ossetia crisis to the current premature celebration of its obituary.

Neither is right. Both look at the superficiality while ignoring the


substance. With the looming confrontation between Washington and Moscow over South Ossetia, the West itself seems to be getting lost in its tireless effort to renew the "Western civil war", which was said to have ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.

South Ossetia and China's 'strategic ambiguity'
In the early morning of August 8, 2008, when President Dmitry Medvedev was on vacation and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in Beijing attending the Summer Olympics Games, Georgia launched a military offensive to surround and capture Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia.

Putin, who was in Beijing prior to the Olympics opening ceremony, immediately informed the Chinese side in his meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao on August 8. China's reaction to Georgia's assault, according to Putin, was that "nobody needs the war", which was also US President George W Bush's reaction.

Meanwhile, China expressed serious concern over the escalated tensions and armed conflict in South Ossetia, and urged both sides to exercise restraint, cease fire immediately and resolve their dispute peacefully through dialogue. In a way, Beijing did not publicly and explicitly support Moscow.

China's "strategic ambiguity", if not neutrality, regarding the Georgia-Russian conflict has been the focus of the media and pundits. Many tend to highlight the differences and conflicts of interest between China and Russia. China's move is seen as an effort to maximize its interests while Russia is going through difficult times with the West. China's own Taiwan problem is perhaps one major reason that China cannot publicly support Russia over this issue.

Most Central Asian states are also said to have reservations regarding Russia's policy, due to the large number of ethnic Russians living in this "near abroad" area and their "cautious neutrality" also shows the growing influence of China in this traditional sphere of influence of the Russians.

These apparent differences between Russia and its Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) partners - China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - are indications of the fragility of this regional security group, and many of its members simply dream different dreams while sleeping on the same bed with Moscow. Last if not least, Georgia lost no time in thanking China for not taking sides.

These assessments, among others, may make some sense. There is, nonetheless a discernible switch in the West from exaggerating the strength, or threat, of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership to one of overplaying their differences, deliberately or not.

Both views are rooted in a misperception of the Beijing-Moscow strategic partnership, which essentially means a normal relationship. It is the result of a long and sometimes painful learning experience in the second half of the 20th century - in which relations between Moscow and Beijing oscillated between excessive dependence (particularly China on Russia) and almost zero interactions.

What is essential for today's Russian-China relationship is the absence of the ideological factors and border disputes that constantly besieged the two nations up to the early 1990s. On the operational level, it means that the two sides attach great importance to bilateral ties and share a strong willingness to commit to their enhancement. At the operational and functional level, it is largely a pragmatic approach "to conduct strategic coordination without alliance and close relationship without excessive dependence". Moreover, there is a willingness to develop the more cooperative aspects of their relationship while managing those of disagreement and competition.

It is within this context of normal relationship, not one of alliance, that China reacts to the Georgian-Russian conflict.

'West's civil war' again? Stupid
In a broader sense, China’s “harmonious world” means stability of the existing international system, despite the fact that it is dominated by the West. Indeed, China would like to see, as much as the West would, the stability and continuity of the existing international system, from which China has benefited enormously.

The Georgian-Russian conflict is in essence between Russia and the U.S. While finger pointing was hurled between Moscow, Washington, and Tbilisi regarding who made the first move, it is inconceivable that a small Georgia would dare to take on its giant neighbor without explicit support from Washington.

Indeed, Washington was not only aware of Georgian military actions before they started, it also explicitly sided with Tbilisi for the August surprise. In July 2008, two U.S. policies clearly emboldened Tibilis. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled first to Prague, where a treaty on the placement of radar was signed, and then to Tbilisi, where she precisely and unequivocally sided with Georgia in its conflicts with Russia. U.S. policies prior to the August conflict may have contributed to Saakashvili’s recklessness and miscalculation. Whether the world is heading back to the Cold War or pre-World War I setting, the ghost of “Western Civil War,” which was claimed to have come to an end with the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, is being rekindled by the Georgian/U.S.-Russian conflict.

At the time of the Georgia-Russian crisis, China’s periphery has also become quite “fluid”: Musharraf’s resignation as Pakistani president; violent demonstrations in Thailand; the sudden exit of Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda, and the prospect of Mr. Aso, now Secretary General of the governing Liberal Democratic Party and a hardliner toward China and Asia, as the next prime minister. Given this specter of a possible general instability of the international system, Beijing’s cautious approach is perhaps quite natural.

Beijing's public "neutrality" toward the Georgia-Russian conflict, however, should not be a surprise in that it has been the pattern in China's diplomacy since the 1980s. In almost all cases ranging from international crises (Korean Peninsula, Iran, Kashmir, etc) to bilateral disputes (the South China Sea with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the East China Sea with Japan, border settlements with Russia, Vietnam, India - in progress- etc), China has opted for dialogue and compromise, rather than confrontation or side-taking. The same operational principle has applied to difficult issues such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. (China negotiated with Britain for the ending of colonialism in Hong Kong in the 1980s. In contrast, India, which is a democracy, used force to take back Goa from Portugal in December 1961).

Aside from this predictable pattern of China's approach to conflict and disputes, the timing of the conflict was also an irritant for Beijing. China did not want any conflict at the historical moment of hosting the Olympics, whether Russia was part of the conflict or not. Given the complexities of the ethnic conflicts dating back to the 1920s, its evolving nature and the US looming large in the background, China's cautious reaction was expected, if not desirable for Moscow.

China back to its past, for the future
Last if not least, what China did was perhaps rational within the context of its strategic partnership relations with Russia. It is perhaps what Russia would do in a scenario of PRC-USA conflict over Taiwan. That is, Russia would more likely to remain neutral though expressing sympathy for China. This was exactly what Moscow did in 2001 when a U.S. spy plane (EP-3) collided with a Chinese jet fighter (J-8II) off China’s coast, leading to a major crisis between China and the U.S.

Even if the Russians did not get all of what they wanted from China and the SCO summit in late August, this is by no means the beginning of the end of their strategic partnership. Over the past 30 years, China’s diplomacy, particularly its relations with Russia, has become far more sophisticated, nuanced, measured and matured. Seldom does China now judge others along the friend-foe line but along a more pragmatic, independent, and case-by-case approach. Even with its allies such as North Korea, China will be critical of its neighbor’s policy if it is destabilizing.

To a large extent, China’s foreign policy has gone back to its deeper philosophical underpinnings of “unity/harmony with or without uniformity” (he er bu tong). This also one of the psychological anchors for the Sino-Russian strategic partnership relations after the two rather extreme types of relationship of “honeymoon” (1950s) and “divorce” (1960s and 1970s) between Beijing and Moscow. Western perceptions and expectations that Beijing and Moscow are heading toward some sort of “separation” is, therefore, an overstatement at best. It is also largely derived from the West’s own experience and practice, which insists on unity because of (or by, of, and for) uniformity. Hence, NATO members must be democracies and the EU must be European, Christian, and perhaps white. Applying the same “recipe” to the SCO and recent Sino-Russian relations, which have largely transcended the past practice of alliances, may lead to nowhere.

SCO sounds no SOS
During the SCO's annual regular summit on August 28, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Medvedev briefed the SCO heads of state on the Georgian-Russian conflict and Russian policies. The Dushanbe Declaration does support Moscow's six principles of settling the conflict in South Ossetia and supports Russia's "active role" in promoting peace and cooperation in the region. The wording of its call for peaceful negotiations of the conflict, however, is vague and general at best.

The reason for the SCO's "neutrality" is both complicated and simple, complicated in that all of the SCO's Central Asian states were former Soviet republics. Many, if not all, of them do not want to see any replay of the Georgian-Russian conflict in their part of the world. That concern of the Central Asian states, however, remains a distant possibility, given that the SCO provides a framework for its members to resolve disputes and to achieve common purposes of security and development.

The key to the SCO's stance, however, lies in the nature and 

Continued 1 2  

The failure of two empires (Sep 5, '08)

Russia remains a Black Sea power
(Aug 30, '08)

1. How Obama lost the election

2. The failure of two empires

3. Slave trade heads to Israel

4. Iran courts Russia and the Latin left

5. How the Taliban gave a French lesson

6. Lightening the mood with a deflator

7. Palestinians play a wild card

8. A sting in Pakistan's al-Qaeda mission

9. Silver stats to salivate over

10. A hurdle too high for China

11. For Prachanda, a tale of two cities

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Sep 4, 2008)


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