Much has been written and speculated over an emerging strategic alliance between Russia and China, which I gave the name ‘the Dragonbear’ in the geopolitics of the 21st century. Interpretations of the context of deepening bilateral relations range from very sceptic to very optimistic prognoses for the future. But what does the Dragonbear really aim to achieve in global affairs? First and foremost, it is about counterbalancing arising centrifugal forces in all fields – from economy, finance and trade, to diplomacy and political links, to military, defence and strategic alliances. But it also has a lot to do with the countries’ overlapping understanding that the world is in a system transformation, whose results are unpredictable and whose implications might be very dangerous for them.
Let us start with geopolitics. Even when only a few understand how to apply geopolitics, it still delivers quite plausible explanations when it comes to power and interests constellations between the big players in global affairs. In geopolitics, size, location and particular geographic areas as well as an access to scarce natural resources and significant trade routes, but also global economic shares and demographics do really matter. All these characteristics and factors shape a country’s geostrategy based on the complex constellation between them.
As I outlined in my recent piece on the emerging system’s bipolarity, the current system of international relations is moving towards a new equilibrium of two system poles. The only superpower – the USA – builds its transatlantic bloc centred on the Transatlantic community, NATO partners and the strategic links with the Gulf countries, but also with Israel, Japan and partners from South East Asia and Latin America. Furthermore, Washington is keen to preserve and expand the institutional heritage from the Cold War – from the IMF/WB to NATO to TTIP/TTP.
Concurrently, the emergence of China as a second system pole has already started shaping Beijing’s long-term geostrategy. Consequently, Russia is about to become the new free rider of the system of the IR in the 21st century, which basically means that both countries will switch roles. The Dragonbear alliance is imminent due to mutual strategic interests, common strategic objectives as well as shared risks and threats perceptions. Based on a very strong political will, it will evolve with unprecedented speed in various key fields such as energy, defence, military, trade, economy, and infrastructure, but also cooperation in regional and international organisations and structures.
As The Guardian posted recently, Russia and China are both members of significant international organizations, in which they can shape global affairs by coordinating actions and strategies. More importantly, China’s grand strategy basically aims to create alternatives to each single institution, organisation or structure of the so-called developed world in the long run, and Russia plays a central role too. The two figures below point to the network of regional and international organisations where the institutional cooperation of the Dragonbear takes place.
Obviously, the Dragonbear connection is especially strong in emerging organisations and institutions such as BRICS, SCO, NDB, AIIB, just to name a few. Last but not least, the cooperation between China and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) within the framework of the new Silk Roads initiatives called One Belt, One Road (OBOR) has strategic character. Both countries have signed an agreement on integrating the EAEU and OBOR and thus consolidate the Eurasian landmass in the long term.
In a nutshell, following geopolitical arguments point to an imminent Dragonbear alliance:
● Territory: China and Russia have settled their longstanding territorial disputes and have demarcated their common border. Thus, no territorial claims or border disputes would damage the bilateral relations. Although both countries are involved in territorial conflicts with third countries, they do not seek to interfere or mutually influence their positions or approaches (for instance, Russia’s role in the frozen conflicts and China’s role in the South China Sea are not colliding).
● Energy: Russia has already overtaken Saudi Arabia as top oil supplier to China and will also expand its gas supplying role in China, whose emerging markets and economy are and will remain hungry for energy. Several ambitious gas projects worth billions of USD are currently in the making and will certainly affect Russia’s future orientation towards Asian energy markets. Gazprom has just agreed with the Chinese to build a third gas pipeline to China.
● Strategic triangular formats: Russia plays a role as a connecting element in the India-Russia-China as well as in the Iran-Russia-China triangle. Both have huge potential for development despite existing problematics. Interesting triangles could arise from possible geopolitical constellations regarding Turkey-Russia-China or Germany-Russia-China.
● Trade routes: For China, Eurasia plays a central role in its Silk Roads geostrategy called One Belt One Road (OBOR). Thus, Russia is again the key element in China’s Eurasian strategy after signing an agreement on integrating the EAEU and OBOR with the aim of consolidating the Eurasian landmass in the long term. The maritime routes are equally of great importance. The Arctic will be one of the places, where Russia will seek to boost trade links with China through the North Sea Route, which shortens the distance between Japan and Murmansk by 56% compared to the Suez Canal respectively by 46% between Shanghai and Murmansk, and between Vancouver and Murmansk by 44% compared to the Panama Canal. The NSR is equally important for Russia as a trade route bridging Europe with China. The same routes to Rotterdam mark a shortening of the distance respectively by 34%, 22% and 23%.
● Finance: Russia and China aim to reduce the dollar’s dominance through currency swaps and other bilateral and multilateral steps. For instance, Russia seeks to eliminate the use of the dollar and the euro in the trade between CIS countries as well as within the Eurasian Economic Union. China, on its part, introduced the first pilot two currency program in a Chinese city. Both countries also signed a currency swap agreement worth almost 24 billion USD two years ago. Further measures towards promoting the national currencies are to be found at the level of operation of the BRICS bank.
● Defense and military: China has interest in a defense cooperation with Russia due to Russia’s possible transfer of advanced technologies and sophisticated weapons. As Shoigu stressed in Beijing, the military cooperation is a basis for the strategic bilateral ties. Joint military exercises have become a substantial part of it with the aim of facilitating better interoperability between the armed forces. So far, Russia and China have conducted joint naval drills in the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Japan. The mutual defence cooperation also evolves within the SCO, whose role as an emerging regional organisation is growing after India and Pakistan (Iran probably soon too) have joined it.
● Miscellaneous: Other fields such as productivity, infrastructure, aeronautical and space technologies, as well as the development in the Far East will also be on the Dragonbear agenda. Both countries have very similar industrial priorities such as ‘nuclear energy, space exploration, new information technologies, environmental protection, energy saving, production of high technology medicines and medical equipment, and some other.’
While the 20th century was named the American century due to the rise of the US as a global power, the 21st century will be definitely named the Asian century due to the imminent rise of China as a global power. Not only can China become a second system pole but it will also start challenging the existent structures of the world order by creating new alternative ones. While the Transatlantic community will seek to preserve the institutional heritage and the geopolitical as well as geoeconomic dominance inherited from the Cold War, China will clearly aim to promote alternative structures and processes in support of its geostrategy. It is obvious that the outcome of these contradicting strategies cannot be a win-win situation.
Eventually, a new bloc confrontation between the US and China might evolve in a much more interdependent and globalised world than the one during the Cold War, which might unleash centrifugal forces of bipolarity, encompassing the whole spectrum of interactions in the international relations. Consequently, all major regional actors, including Russia, will be confronted with an either/or choice.
As a result, China is preparing for the system transformation on all fronts – from finance, trade and economy to new strategic alliances to military build up and an increased defense spending. Russia, on its part, will not have the economic potential to play a key role with regard to global economy and trade. However, Moscow will still remain one of the major powers in terms of nuclear and conventional weapons as well as in space and military technologies. Hence, Russia will play a role in global affairs but it will shape them through forcing the Eurasian regional integration at any price and forming strategic alliances. As a result, Moscow is about to become the new free rider of the system of international relations relying increasingly on mutual trust, common strategic interests and goals, and the geopolitical rationale, which has created and will keep the Dragonbear alive in the next decades.
To sum it up in Putin’s words: “Russian-Chinese ties have now probably reached a peak in their entire history”. Despite current economic, financial and trade setbacks and the negative global and regional trends, it is noteworthy that they might delay but will not terminate the process of consolidating the Chinese-Russian strategic alliance. To conclude with Flroian Vidal’s relevant reference to my new geopolitical term: “It is highly symbolic, but strongly significant so beware of the Dragonbear!”
Velina Tchakarova studied Political Science and International Relations at the Ruprecht-Karls-University Heidelberg in Germany and at the University of National and World Economy in Bulgaria. She holds a Master of Arts Degree in political science and a Bachelor Degree in International Relations. Since March 2010 Velina is a Research Fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security policy (AIES) and since November 2014 – a Senior Research Fellow at AIES. Her fields of research cover the wider Black sea area and Eurasia with regard to geopolitical and security-related issues in these regions.
The statements, views, and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of EMerging Equity.