Sino-Russian Entente Would Move the World a Step Closer to 1914

This piece also appears in the South China Morning Post

Artyom Lukin says the U.S. policy of containment is pushing China and Russia ever closer to forming a powerful anti-Western alliance, greatly raising the possibility of a Third World War

VLADIVOSTOCK -- Whereas the first two world wars broke out and were fought mainly in Europe, the Third World War, if it is not avoided, will most probably erupt in the Asia-Pacific region.

Quite a few scholars and political leaders have found striking similarities between what took place in Europe before the First World War and what we are now witnessing in Asia. The current security situation in the Asia-Pacific -- with competing sovereignty claims, the rise of nationalism among both major and lesser countries, and great power rivalry -- increasingly resembles Europe a century ago.

A world war is a very special kind of military conflict -- one which features a clash of two mighty coalitions led by great powers and possessing roughly comparable strategic resources, so that one side will not easily and swiftly prevail over the other. Are we going to see this sort of war breaking out in the Asia-Pacific?

China is, of course, the rising power whose growing ambitions put it straight on a collision course with the incumbent hegemon -- the United States -- much like Anglo-German antagonism set the stage for the First World War. However, even if China becomes, as widely predicted, the No 1 economy and manages to close the military gap with the U.S., this will not be nearly enough to mount a viable challenge to U.S. hegemony. For China would have to confront not the U.S. alone but the U.S.-led bloc, counting, among others, Japan, Canada, Australia, and perhaps India.

Beijing currently has just one formal ally -- North Korea, while Pakistan can be viewed as something of a de facto ally, at least vis-à-vis India. Although valuable to China, these countries can hardly be regarded as huge strategic assets. China lacks a dependable ally of a truly great power standing. The only plausible candidate is Russia. An alliance with Moscow would no doubt embolden Beijing.

With Moscow as a close friend, China could be confident about the security of its northern borders and could count on unimpeded access to Russia's natural resources. Thus, Beijing would be much less vulnerable to naval blockades that the U.S. and its maritime allies would be sure to use in case of a serious confrontation.

Should they form an entente, Moscow and Beijing could have Central Asia, as well as Mongolia, to themselves, effectively shutting out all external powers from the heart of Eurasia. An alliance with Moscow would also put Russia's military-industrial complex and its vast military infrastructure in Eurasia at Beijing's service. What might ultimately emerge is a Eurasian league, which, in controlling the continental heartland, would be reminiscent of the Central Powers alliance formed in the middle of Europe by Imperial Germany and the Habsburg empire.

There is a strong tendency in the West to underestimate the potential for a Russia-China entente. A Sino-Russian strategic partnership is often portrayed as an "axis of convenience" founded on a shaky basis. Moscow, the argument goes, will be loath to form an alliance with Beijing because it distrusts and fears a rising China. The main problem with such thinking is that the U.S.-led West is seen by Moscow as a much bigger threat than China. The consensus in the Kremlin is that, for at least the next 20 years, China will not pose a threat to Russia, Beijing's and Moscow's common foe being the U.S.

It would not be accurate to describe the Sino-Russian strategic partnership as an alliance yet, but the relationship is certainly growing stronger, evidenced by, among other things, the recent mega gas deal, Russia's willingness to sell China its most advanced arms and the expanding scale of bilateral military exercises.

The Ukraine crisis may well become a tipping point, sealing the fate of Eurasian alignments. The Western push to punish and isolate Russia is drawing Moscow closer to Beijing, which, tellingly, has taken a stance of benevolent neutrality towards the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine and its takeover of Crimea. One may suspect that, in exchange, Beijing would expect from Moscow the same kind of "benevolent neutrality" regarding its assertions in East Asia and the Western Pacific.

The personalities of the Russian and Chinese leaders, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, are going to be a major factor in deciding the Russo-Chinese alignment. They are two autocratic chief executives who have concentrated in their hands almost exclusive powers to make foreign policy decisions. Putin and Xi seem to get along quite well and share a flair for hardball realpolitik. Matched against contemporary Western leaders with underwhelming foreign policy performances, the Putin-Xi duo is going to be a formidable force.

It is significant that Putin and Xi will be here for a long time: Putin is likely to seek, and win, re-election in 2018, while Xi will not quit until 2022 and may continue to serve as paramount leader beyond then.

The international system is at a critical juncture with U.S. unipolarity waning and the contours of the new order taking shape. The crucial question is whether this emerging order will be one of multipolarity and a flexible balance of power or one divided into two hostile alliances.

It takes two to tango -- it takes two grand alliances to unleash a world war. In fact, one alliance has already been in place for over 60 years. Or, rather, the network of alliances led by Washington - NATO in the western part of Eurasia and the "hub-and-spoke" security pacts in East Asia. Whether the opposing bloc -- that of Russia and China -- ever comes into being depends to a large degree on Washington. If America continues its present policy of dual containment -- against both Russia and China -- it will be hard for them to resist the temptation of forming an anti-Western alliance.

There were many ingredients that went into the mix that finally burst into the First World War. However, that mix became truly explosive once Europe split into two opposing alliances -- the triple entente of France, Russia and Britain versus the triple alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. If, a century later, we again fall into the trap of hostile alliance politics, the consequences may be no less tragic.

A Eurasian concert of powers, borrowing some of the elements from the 19th century Concert of Europe, could be one possible way to avoid catastrophe by constructing a stable multipolar order. The accommodation among Eurasia's most potent players -- the U.S., China and Russia -- could form the initial basis for a multilateral architecture, in which other countries should also be invested and engaged. To be sure, this will be an immensely difficult task, but in trying to accomplish it, we will, at least, have the benefit of historical lessons.

Artyom Lukin is associate professor and deputy director for research at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University (Vladivostok, Russia).

This article is part of a research project by Andreas Herberg-Rothe, from the University of Applied Sciences, Fulda, about the lessons from 1914 for the rise of Asia.