February 25, 2022
by: Rodger Baker
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China continues to publicly back Russia despite the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. But the conﬂict is exposing Beijing and Moscow’s competing visions for the future of Eurasia, which will continue to stress their relationship. China sees the continental area as a broad corridor of trade routes linking the Paciﬁc and the
Atlantic. But Russia’s assertion of its sphere of inﬂuence along its western frontier challenges this view by risking a more permanent rift between Moscow and Europe. Talk of new Cold War dynamics undercut China’s ability to create economic and political links across Eurasia through its Belt and Road infrastructure investments.
Cracks in the Foundation
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has refrained from directly criticizing Russia for invading Ukraine. Chinese media coverage has even used some of Russia’s own arguments in downplaying the military intervention. Beijing is also oﬀering Moscow a partial buﬀer against sanctions through new deals for increased energy trade, expanded agriculture
trade, and the likely use of alternatives to the SWIFT international payment system. But while not openly critical, China has refrained from providing active diplomatic support for Russia’s military actions and its recognition of the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine. Beijing has longstanding ties with Ukraine (including in the defense sector). And Chinese leaders are concerned with the precedent set by Russia of foreign support for breakaway provinces (which, in China’s case, could include places like Xinjiang, Tibet, or even Taiwan).
The mixed reaction from Beijing reﬂects a deeper unease in its broader relationship with Moscow. While there are several areas of strategic alignment between the two neighbors, including their mutual concern with the United States, there remains an underlying mistrust between them. China is a rising Eurasian power, Russia is declining. That alone creates unevenness in their relationship — one that Moscow resents and Beijing eyes with caution. In the past, China’s economic power complemented Russia’s military and historical power across Central Asia, leaving more room for cooperation than competition. But China’s growing military prowess, and its increasing political inﬂuence, challenge Russia’s traditional inﬂuence in its near abroad. Moscow may not be able to match China’s economic largess, but it continues to use historical and cultural ties, the Eurasian Economic Union, and its security relationships to try and temper Chinese inﬂuence. While Beijing tolerates this, it perpetuates a sense of mistrust.
China’s Focus on Economic Power
At its core, the fundamental diﬀerence between the two large neighbors is their diﬀering visions of the future of Eurasia. Russia continues to see itself in light of an embattled Eurasian heartland power, one that needs to build a shell around itself to ensure its strategic security. This is about distinct spheres of inﬂuence and a division between Russia and Europe. China, on the other hand, sees the future of Eurasia as a vast corridor of trade — a crisscross of land routes that ease Beijing’s current vulnerability at sea, reorient its underdeveloped interior provinces away from their wealthier coastal neighbors, and enable China to use economic heft as a tool of inﬂuence and security across Asia, Europe and even into Africa.
In many ways, China’s vision better matches British geographer Sir Halford J. Mackinder’s concern of the potential power of what he called the World Island. In the early 20th Century, Mackinder saw the potential for modern technology (the railroad) to crisscross and connect Europe, Asia and Africa into a vast supercontinent. A single Eurasian power could then harness the resources and manpower of the three continents, and then turn that combined power out to the seas. Neither Russia, Germany nor the Soviet Union — all prospective Heartland powers — ever linked Eurasia, much less the World Island. This was in part due to cost. But mostly it was because, in the 19th and much of the 20th Century, the expansion of political power was often tied to territorial aggrandizement, and no country or coalition was able to conquer and control Europe and Asia.
In the 21st century, China seeks political power through economic rather than military tools. Beijing does not have to conquer its neighbors or the more distant reaches of Eurasia; it can instead expand its inﬂuence through trade, technology, investment and infrastructure development. China, then, is a modern imperial power — one that grows its reach for the most part without needing to grow its physical territory. In the South China Sea, Beijing has used its military as a tool of coercion to back its vast territorial claims and occupy several unoccupied islets. But China has avoided direct military confrontations or the use of military force to seize territory from others in the strategic waterway.
Only in the past 20 years or so has Beijing begun revising its military for the expected future need of operations abroad. Even then, China remains rather conservative in its use of military force as a tool of foreign policy — particularly when compared with its peer great powers Russia and the United States, or even Western European countries like France. Beijing has a grand vision of power and inﬂuence, but it seeks to attain it through means shy of war for as long as possible.
Russia’s Focus on Military Power
By comparison, Russia is a holdout of the past, a country that has regularly used its military as a tool of coercion and inﬂuence in its near abroad. Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia in support of Moscow-inspired secessionist movements was repeated and expanded upon in its 2014 intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. And it has been taken to the extreme with Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, one aimed not at the minimal goals of establishing buﬀers along the Russian southern front, but of either the “Finlandization” or reassertion of Russian inﬂuence and control of Ukraine.
Modern Russia’s use of its military to reshape its near abroad mirrors the actions of the Soviet Union. Russia uses the military as a tool of coercion, to enact a fait accompli (as with its annexation of Crimea) and as a tool of brute force (as with the current invasion of Ukraine) to actively change regimes along its periphery. While China may appreciate
Russian actions keeping the United States focused on Europe instead of the Indo-Paciﬁc, Beijing is concerned that Moscow’s actions may re-strengthen Euro-Atlantic ties and fracture China’s ability to keep trade ﬂowing through former Soviet territories into Europe. China’s economic interests across Eurasia will increasingly be put at risk by Russia’s military and political actions that fragment rather than unite the supercontinent.
A Closed vs. Open Eurasia
Chinese rail and road connections to Europe rely on transit through Russia, or key countries in Russia’s near abroad. If Russian actions and Western sanctions and security dynamics lead to even a light version of the old Iron Curtain, China’s economic and political leverage falters, and Beijing will once again be dependent upon the maritime routes that remain vulnerable to U.S. maritime power. Russia may be satisﬁed as a continental power, but China sees its continental connections as a path toward global power, secure ﬁrst on land, and then expanding into the seas. The tension between these two visions will strain Beijing’s ties with Moscow as their actions run counter to their interests. China wants to open the space, Russia wants it closed. In short, China’s attempt to bridge Eurasia may be undermined by Russia’s attempt to dig a moat. And at some point, that challenge may prompt Beijing to deem the costs of its continued close cooperation with Moscow outweigh the beneﬁts.
Rodger Baker a is a senior fellow with the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed in this interview are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.