Interview with Dr. Alexander Rahr about the Valdai Club Meeting 2021: „Whether it comes to a Russia-China alliance depends on the West“
Global Review had again the honor of interviewing Prof. Alexander Rahr, expert on Russian affairs, political scientist, member of the Valdai Club, Putin advisor for Gazprom to the EU about the Valdai Club Meeting in Kazan in 2021 and its role and contents.
Alexander Rahr is an honorary professor at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations and School of Economics. He studied at the State University of Munich, worked 1980-1994 for the Research Institute for Radio Free Europe, the Federal Institute for Eastern European and International Studies. He was a consultant to the RAND Corporation, USA. From 1994 to 2012 he headed the Russian / Eurasian Center at the German Council for Foreign Relations. He then consulted Wintershall Holding and later Gazprom Brussels on European affairs. Furthermore, he was also a frequent guest of Putin as a conversation partner. Since 2012 he has been program director at the German-Russian Forum. He is a member of the Petersburg Dialogue, the Valdai Club, the Yalta European Strategy Network, author of several books on Russia.
Global Review: Dr. Rahr, at the last Valdai Club meeting2020 Putin spoke of the possibility of a Sino-Russia military alliance. In the West there are at least two perceptions of it. One faction is taking this threat serious as exemplified in an article by the Neue Züricher Zeitung:
““The Chinese dragon dances with the Russian bear: the rapprochement of the two great powers has consequences for the security of the West The rise of China is forcing the US to focus on East Asia. This leaves fewer resources for European security. A terrible scenario for the US would be a two-front war with China and Russia at the same time. Moscow and Beijing were once enemy rivals; today they are thinking about a military alliance.”
The National Interest comments that even as no formal military alliance has materialized de jure, it already would develop in an informal military alliance de facto:
“:Sino-Russian Relations Already Bear Signs of a Military Alliance
In their regional security challenges, China and Russia are facing the same major opponent, the United States.
The likelihood of a Sino-Russian alliance has lately been under intensifying speculation. Not the least because Russian president Vladimir Putin himself stated in the Valdai Club meeting last December that an alliance with China should not be ruled out. Chinese leaders have offered similarly ambivalent remarks, giving an impression that a true military alliance might be in the works.
Many scholars have argued, on the other hand, that such an alliance is only rhetorical or based on interests that are inherently incompatible. But perhaps focusing on a formal alliance is beside the point, since the existing China-Russia relations already bear important systemic effects notwithstanding any formal commitments between the two states. These effects could cause China and Russia to function akin to a de facto military alliance, and would, of course, have the greatest impact on the United States and its allies.
The United States, China, and Russia are bound together by the Eurasian continent. The United States has defense commitments at both ends of Eurasia and its long-established geopolitical imagination almost dictates that the United States must dominate the continent’s rimlands.
China and Russia, meanwhile, both face unsolved security challenges in their peripheral regions. China has its maritime territorial disputes in the South and the East-China seas, and the unfinished “reunification” with Taiwan, while Russia feels threatened by the presence of NATO in its Western regions. In their regional security challenges, China and Russia are facing the same major opponent, the United States.
The three great powers are, thus, bound to each other through Eurasian geography and through all dimensions of human action. Their cooperation, alliances, and competition form a geographically interconnected Eurasian system, and any action by one of the three players has repercussions in other domains or geographical locations.
Sometimes, the interactions between, for example, China and the United States create opportunities for Russia to pursue its interests. A military escalation with China in Asia would seriously tie down U.S. forces, but provide freedom of maneuver in the corresponding other end of the Eurasian continent for Russia. And vice versa.
Furthermore, besides exploiting opening gaps in their regions as U.S. forces are tied elsewhere, China and Russia could provide each other strategic support by increasing pressure in their own regions in various different ways. Such support could happen short of any formal alliance and could be totally unrelated to the ongoing conflict.”
On the other side other commentators think that the interests between Russia and China were too different and the threat for Russia to become a dependent junior partner of China or even the next victim of Chinese expansionism prevented the scenario of an enduring and sustainable military alliance:
“The False Promise of a Russia-China Military Alliance
Whatever Putin meant by his reference to a possible military pact with China – a signal undoubtedly aimed atNATO and the United States – it is easy to fall into the trap of exaggerating what some fear as the emerging Sino-Russian ‘axis’ in world politics. For despite the growing congruence of both countries’ interests in undermining the U.S.-led international order, Russo-Chinese relations remain at core as brittle and prone to mutual suspicion and distrust as they have in the past.
It is, after all, just over 50 years ago since the two Eurasian giants nearly stumbled into a cataclysmic nuclear war following a series of unprovoked Chinese attacks on Soviet troops garrisoned along the then-contested river boundaries in Russia’s Far East. Although Moscow stayed its hand from an all-out military assault on China, the border clashes of 1969 continue to rankle historical memories and military thinking in Russia to this day.
Such territorial jostling as the 1969 border clashes and mutual enmities, in fact, have defined Russo-Chinese relations historically, and will continue to do so in the future.
And therein lies the existential rub, especially for Russia: from a Russian strategic planner’s perspective, a China with nearly a billion-and-half people not only dwarfs Mother Russia in population, national power and economic might, but, more worryingly, has become a near military equal prone to intimidate and throw its weight against neighbouring countries at will.
Witness, for instance, Beijing’s brazen conquest of the South China Sea, the unrelenting pushing and probing into Vietnamese, Philippine and Japanese maritime spaces, and, in the west, to the currently ongoing incursions, stand-offs and aggressive territorial claims against India’s northern Himalaya regions.
None of these acts of Chinese belligerence will have escaped the notice of Russian planners who, despite the paradox of Russia’s shared strategic interests with China to counter America’s power and influence in world affairs, are nonetheless bound to view China’s rapid and inexorable rise into the front rank of global powers with acute consternation.
(…) It is not clear at this juncture how Russia and China can step back from a violent conflict in this decade. But as China appears unlikely to relinquish its expansive territorial claims against all its neighbours, including Russia, the onus for deterring China from seizing Russian territories will fall upon Putin, or his successors, in the coming years. But whether China can be deterred as its geostrategic ambitions grow unabated across Eurasia remains an open question. If the current Xi-Putin bromance fails to tamp down Chinese expansionism, expect a war between the two nuclear armed states in the 2020s. “
Which scenario do you think is more plausible? Has China territorial claims in Russia or not and if this would be the case, would it hold them back to unite with Russia against the USA in order to push back the USA in Eurasia as a first step and hten turn to Russia. Does Putin fear such a Chinese expansionism and could align with the USA or stay neutral or does he hope China will be saturated if the USA is weakened to the point that it might accept a new multipolar wolrd order?
Dr. Rahr: Whether it comes to a Russia-China alliance depends on the West. If the West continues to exert pressure on Russia and China, and contain Moscow and Beijing, these two powers will inevitably join forces against the West. Of course, Russia and China not only separate different cultures and strategic interests: in reality, the two do not need each other at all. Russia wants to remain a major European power and have a say in the European order. Asia is increasingly coming under the economic influence of China. China is the architect of the new Asiatic order; Moscow does not want to play a junior role among the Chinese in Asia any more than to play a junior role among the Americans in the West. Russia wants to lead itself. Nevertheless, if the position of the West against Russia and China is tightened, the traditional enemy images of Russia and China in the West remain – this is how Moscow and Beijing will unite against the West. Should the US president take it seriously with the establishment of an “alliance of democratic states” against authoritarian powers like Russia and China, the latter two will oppose him. What really unites Russia and China (and that is not understood in the egocentric West) is the radical rejection of the unipolar, western-led world order promoted by the West. In the medium term, Russia and China will force the USA and the EU to accept the world order as multipolar. I would like to emphasize one more important point that the narrow-minded Western think tanks ignore: Russia and China do not feel that they are militarily threatened by one another. They work together in Central Asia. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has welded Moscow and Beijing together on the fight against Islamism and on energy issues. There are no border conflicts. Meanwhile, the conflicts between NATO / EU and Russia are growing ever stronger. For years there has been a propaganda war, sanctions, cyber war, geopolitical conflicts over NATO’s eastward expansion and eastern Ukraine. Personally, I don’t think the EU countries will get closer with Russia. In my book “2054. Putin decodes “predict that Moscow and Beijing will successfully forge a Eurasian alliance by the middle of the century. The West must take this development seriously.
Global Review: The main topic of the 2021 Valdai Club meeting is Central Asia. Is this due to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East? One speaker also proposed special relations between …
… Russian elites after an intiall euphoria about BRI seem to be disillusioned according to “Russia in Global Affairs”? How have the power relations between the USA, Russia and China developed in Central Asia?
Dr. Rahr: Significant proposals were made at the meeting of the Valdai Club on Central Asia. On the one hand, it was emphasized by the international participants that Russia and China are closely coordinating each other on Central Asia and are by no means rivals there. US influence is rapidly disappearing in the region. The Central Asian states clearly see that America and NATO have lost the war in Afghanistan: the Taliban is returning to power. The pacification of Afghanistan must come from the regional neighbors, above all the countries of Central Asia. In principle, Central Asia must flourish into a bloc of cooperating countries, with Afghanistan being integrated into this bloc. The Eurasian Union, with Russia at the helm, is also toying with the integration of Afghanistan into new transit projects to India. The Valdai Klub sees the danger of Afghanistan drifting towards the Greater Middle East, which the Americans are also pulling out of. There is a risk that Islamism will spread in the Greater Middle East. A return of El Qaeda to Afghanistan would be a terrible threat to the Central Asian states, where there are strong pro-Islamist currents. Moscow then fears that Central Asia will be torn out of the Eurasian Union and migrate to the Gulf States, Pakistan and Iran. Biden really wants to talk to Putin about Afghanistan; this point will become even more important than Ukraine at the US-Russia summit this summer. The US wants to see Russia rather than Iran or China as a force in order after the NATO withdrawal in the region. The EU should take a close look at this development, at least not ignore it again.
Global Review: US president Biden is speaking of a transatlantic Silkroad in Eurasia and Africa. Does Russia and China take this serious and do Central Asian states hope that besides economic relations with the USA, tzhe EU and some NATO Partnership in Peace programs the West could reengage in this region?
Dr. Rahr: For Russia, the countries of Central Asia and China, the USA and the EU are not unwelcome trading partners in the region. An American Silk Road initiative is to be welcomed if it focuses on economic cooperation and not on new geopolitical conflicts. If the West only wants to promote the transfer of democracy to Central Asia through its initiative, without giving the neighboring countries economic advantages, it will fail, just as it had fallen on the nose with the transfer of democracy there 20-30 years ago. Basically, Biden is late with his initiative. He can no longer put a stop to the Chinese Silk Road policy. The Europeans have no money to spend on their Central Asia strategy. The West has missed its influence on the strategically important region because it relied one-sidedly on a global, liberal, value-oriented foreign policy that felt good in a unipolar world order, but can no longer achieve anything in today’s multipolar world. The young generation in the Central Asian elite no longer wants to copy the West, as it did in the 1990s, but is looking for pragmatism in everything. The Central Asians never want to go back to a Russian empire. NATO bases?Only if good business can be derived from it.
Global Review: If you summarize the Valdai Club meeting 2021: Which were the most important speakers, ideas, statements and contents and what did Putin say in his annual speech?Did he mention anything about a possible Putin-Biden meeting or the Sino-American confict, not only in relation with Central Asia?
Dr. Rahr: The actual annual meeting of the Valdai Club is still pending. It takes place in October. Of course, Putin, as patron of the Valdai Club, will come to us in Sochi. There he will report on the meeting with Biden. The May meeting of the club in Kazan was all about Central Asia and Afghanistan. It was interesting that colleagues from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan wanted to debate the European Green Deal with us development partners in so much detail. On the one hand, there was terrible abuse at the western address. Europe would have relocated its dirty industry to China and Asia in order to enjoy better environmental protection itself. China and Central Asia would now be asked to implement climate and environmental policies based on European standards. But in the region they do not want a new western colonialism in environmental guise. I have to say that, as Europeans, we were very well beaten at the Valdai Club. I suggested inviting Greta Thunberg to the annual meeting with Putin. Let’s see if she’s interested. It is by no means the case that the Eurasian states did not want the Green Deal with the West.
Global Review: The SCO originally was a Shanghai 5 at the core Russia, China and the 5 Central Asian States. China and Pakistan are now also members. Which potential member extist for the future? Which place has Central Asia within the SCO and which development perspective do you see for the SCO and Central Asia? Will the SCO become an Eurasian anti-NATO? And which connection has Cetral Asia with the Eurasian Econonmic Union and the CSTO?
Dr. Rahr: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is the strategic link between Russia / Central Asia and the great powers of Asia. Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi and Islamabad are now working closely together there. This institution is not directed against the West, but claims a leading role in the security policy of Asia. I think countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey will soon become even more involved there. The SCO defines itself as an organ of power for the new Eurasia as well. It is exciting to see how completely new pillars, institutions and multilateralism are emerging in Asia and Eurasia, which is geared towards strengthening the multipolar world order. The CSTO (Organization of the Collective Contract for Security), which today consists of six former Soviet republics, does not have such a strong function in the Eurasian region. Militarily, the China-Russia alliance will play first fiddle if it emerges.
Global Review: Which role will Russia, China and India play in Afghanistan and Central Asia after the withdrawal of NATO in Afghanistan? Do you think that the Taliban will seize power, the country will be the Muslim parts of the Russian Federation, India and China? Is an anti-Islamist coalition likely within and beyond the SCO, despite Sino-Pakistan rivalery with India? Would an US engagement also be welcomed?
Dr. Rahr: At its meeting, the Valdai Club devoted itself to the topic of Afghanistan. I have already summarized the results of the session in the interview above. What we are seeing right now is a shift in the famous Teutonic plates of the world order. It’s a shame that a man like Zbig Brzezinski can no longer describe this dramatic historical upheaval. We are seeing Asia take over leadership instead of Europe in the world. We are witnessing the weakening of America and the rise of China. We are witnessing the emergence of a new order of values that is so frightening to the liberal West. We are experiencing a demographic revolution in the world that strengthens the south against the north. We are experiencing a new power constellation between China / Russia and the Orient. We experience oh so much more that today still seems utopian to conventional western think tanks. Is the world going crazy? Somehow yes. I was whispered at the Valdai meeting that Biden and Putin would be discussing the new UFO report that the Pentagon will present to the US Congress in June. Ex-President Barack Obama said the other day that the US was deeply alarmed by the phenomena spotted last year with unidentifiable objects in flight over US military objects. In Russia, it was always assumed that so-called UFOs came from top-secret American military laboratories and that the US was now making the issue public in order to receive money from Congress for the militarization of the cosmos. But the matter seems to be much more complicated, because the Americans now want to know from Putin whether the strange sightings over the US airspace with flight maneuvers, which are normally unimaginable on earth, perhaps came from the new hypersonic weapons of Russia with which Putin more often in public.