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BY EMERITUS PROF PAUL DIBB AM
The final communique on Sunday of the Group of Seven summit expressed serious concerns about China’s and Russia’s destabilising behaviour and said the world’s most powerful democracies would defend a free and open Pacific based on the rule of law.
The situations across the Taiwan Strait and the East and South China seas were singled out for concern. But in my view, for European members of NATO, Russia will remain their priority concern – not least because of Moscow’s display of overwhelming military force along Ukraine’s borders recently.
The growing challenge from China tends to crowd out attention to other enduring threats, including those coming from the military alignment of Moscow and Beijing. We need to address both challenges simultaneously.
In 1997 Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser to president Jimmy Carter, said the most dangerous scenario to the US would be a grand coalition of China and Russia, an “anti-hegemonic” coalition united not by ideology but by complementary grievances. He argued it was imperative that no challenger emerged capable of dominating Eurasia and thus of challenging the US for global dominance.
We face a rapidly growing geopolitical partnership between China and Russia. This does not mean a formal NATO-type alliance between these two authoritarian continental powers. Many commentators see this relationship as one merely of convenience driven by their hatred of the West. When it is inconvenient, it will fray because of entrenched racial and long-standing territorial differences.
That is the optimistic longer-term view. In the meantime, we need to focus on the friendship between the strong authoritarian leaders of these two countries and their mutual disdain for what they see as a rapidly declining West.
Brzezinski warned that the US would not be the sole superpower forever. Russia is seeking to regain its global prestige as China aims to be the hegemonic power of Asia. The conjoining of the strategic ambitions of Beijing and Moscow highlights the competi¬tion for power and increases the potential for miscalculation and conflict in the world.
Brzezinski’s view was that Russia was too important to be ignored and the US must work to draw Russia into what he termed “a larger West”.
But those words were written in 2016 and the world of today sees a Moscow turning away from Europe and giving priority attention to the East and China.
For the foreseeable future, it is not possible to see a lessening of Washington’s tensions with Moscow and – therefore – there is little prospect of inveigling Russia to ditch its relationship with China in the cause of improving its relations with the US. That, however, must remain the aim of the US as the makeup of the geopolitical chessboard shifts with the realities of changing power. Russia will remain in charge of the largest piece of real estate but it faces an uncertain future. Entrenched fears in Russia’s long history of resource-rich and sparsely populated Siberia becoming a target for Chinese expansionism cannot be ignored.
Neither can self-fulfilling prophecies of intensified American-Chinese hostility. Before he died in 2017, Brzezinski believed the US, as the world’s premier power, faced a narrow window of historical opportunity and that the present moment of relative global peace might be short-lived.
What is the prospect of China and Russia collaborating to challenge US power? Both authoritarian states see a West that they believe is preoccupied with debilitating challenges at home. Vladimir Putin has contempt for what he sees as a Europe that is weak and divided. Xi Jinping believes China is well on its way to becoming the predominant power, possessing a successful model of political and economic development superior to that of the West and which he wants to use to proselytise China’s ideological advantage in the developing world. In January, Xi boasted that “time and momentum are on our side”.
Thus, China and Russia have commonly perceived threats regarding the West and are sharing an increasingly close strategic relationship. If their military partnership continues its upward trend, that will affect the international security order, including by undermining the system of US-centred alliances in the Asia-Pacific and Europe.
So, what are the chances of Beijing and Moscow concluding now is the time to challenge the West and take advantage of what they consider to be weaknesses?
They are well aware of the military power of the US, but they know it no longer enjoys uncontested military superiority everywhere. It may be the time has come when Beijing and Moscow test Washington’s mettle and see whether they can successfully challenge the US in the European (for example, Ukraine) and Asian (for example, Taiwan) theatres. They recently have used incremental territorial claims in their neighbourhood to their advantage without any direct challenge from the West.
Russia and China increasingly are joining forces in the international arena to balance against the US, and their militaries are becoming much closer. Recently, the partnership has deepened to provide for advanced Russian military equipment sales to China – including jet fighters and quiet conventional submarines, as well as advanced air defence systems and the construction of a large ballistic missile detection radar. There have been joint military exercises in the Baltic and East China seas and the rendezvousing of nuclear-capable strategic bombers in the East China Sea.
China and Russia are allied in a quest to refashion a world order that is safe for their respective authoritarian systems. Both leaders have reason to be gratified by global trends and the fact they are out-gaming the West. The rapid development of China’s military capability, together with serious reforms in Russia’s military forces, is occurring when the US cannot fight two major regional conflicts simultaneously.
US preoccupation with looking inward under president Donald Trump and “making America great again” opened geopolitical opportunities for China and Russia. None of this is to argue that China and Russia are creating a formal security alliance at this stage – although in November last year Putin said he was “not going to rule out” such a possibility. Instead, what we are seeing is a great power coalition that reflects the deepening geopolitical prospects now available to Beijing and Moscow.
The implications of all this for Australia relate to the dangers of armed conflict involving China and Russia against the West and the fact some such conflicts might involve us directly (as in Taiwan).
Russia’s supply of advanced weapons to China threatens to undermine the Australian Defence Force’s traditional technological advantage in our region. Moreover, the growing presence of China and Russia in our region of primary strategic interest – which includes the eastern Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, as well as Antarctica – must be a matter for serious concern.
Paul Dibb is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.
_This article originally appeared here in The Australian.