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29.01.2019

Yaroslav Shevchenko "What lessons from China should Europe take in its engagement with Russia in the shared neighborhood?"

Yaroslav Shevchenko
4th year undergraduate student
International RelationsFar
Eastern Federal University,
Vladivostok 

This presentation was prepared for the session “Is common neighborhood a battlefield or a bridge between EU and Russia?” during the workshop “The Future of the European Security System”  which was held on 24-25 January 2019 in Berlin with participation of Russian and German students. 

What lessons from China should Europe take 
in its engagement with Russia in the shared neighborhood?
 

I would probably sound a bit pessimistic, but with a great hope that things will work out fine in the end. I do believe that the EU and Russia have failed to create cooperative security agenda in their shared neighborhood, which is, indeed, not a bridge today, but a battlefield.

Russia and Europe entered 21st century with very dangerous dynamic. Unlike nowadays President Putin strongly advocated against Russian isolation from Europe and was even positive about joining NATO, should Russian Federation be accepted as a fully equal partner. Back in these days, it was very sincere, in my view. However, the European Union in that time seemed either not interested in genuine cooperation with Russia or not able to understand erstwhile superpower, longing for a status of “Western-like” great power. On the contrary, Europe was very enthusiastic in engagement with former Soviet states and allies. The initiatives as European Neighborhood Policy, Eastern Partnership or EU enlargement itself, coupled with neglect of Moscow, made Kremlin read these moves of integrating the shared neighborhood as an attempt of weaponizing territories, most of which are considered by Moscow as a strategic backyard. Then in 2014 Ukraine aspirations towards EU membership with potential NATO joining – largely a result of West’s public diplomacy engagement -  apparently supported Moscow’s belief that Europe doesn’t want to recognize it as a normal great power, but strives for containment or even regime change. The Euromaidan Revolution was perceived as nothing else but organized by the West, so Kremlin responded with its hybrid offensive in Ukraine and reincorporation of Crimea, precious for Russia both from identity and strategic perspective.

To cut a long story, fundamental misperception of geopolitical implications in the shared neighborhood have turned relations of Europe and Russia into a conflictual paradigm. Indeed, the principles of international law go that sovereign equality of states entitle them to determine their foreign policy in whatever direction. But with due respect to the sovereign right of states to choose international structures to join, Russia’s military-political potential makes neglecting its core strategic concerns absolutely counterproductive and provocative. I wonder how would policymakers in Brussels or Washington react on Russia or some non-Western state tried integrate countries of Europe into their structures – my guess that response would be very harsh.

However, common neighborhood between dissimilar great power entities is not doomed to be an obstacle for cooperation. Living in the city of Vladivostok – Russian bridge to the East –, and feeling much greater affinity to Asia on everyday level I believe that should the model of Moscow relations with China, for instance, be applied on the relations with Europe – then the things would go much better. Thus, unlike Russia-EU relations, back at post soviet times Moscow interaction with China was not charged with inflated expectations towards each other. Problems inherited from Soviet-Chinese relations, such as border issues, induced them to awareness of necessity to maintain rational interaction, though analysts predicted them to kill each other in a war. Antagonism would have cost too much. Similar to EU, since the midst of the 2000s China have started active economic penetration of another region that Moscow considers as area of its strategic interests – Central Asia. In 2013 Chinese President Xi Jinping challenged Russian leadership in the region with launching 1B1R project, which could have easily provoked a conflict if Beijing paid less attention to Moscow’s sensitivity towards the region. China skillfully welcomed linking Russia economic initiatives with 1B1R, and at the same time accepted Moscow as remaining security guarantor. And that helped them to save trust.

The second important factor was Chinese elites fully appreciated the role of personal relations between leaders and particularly the need of making no criticism on domestic issues. Unlike today’s Western leaders, perceiving political contacts with Kremlin as a reward, Chinese officials spent a lot of efforts to demonstrate Russian President their attention and respect. Thus, since 2013 Chinese President met with Putin about 30 times. For the sake of justice, it is also true of other Asian countries, namely Japan, whose prime minister doesn’t seem to take meetings with Putin as something toxic and tries to make the most of them for resolving problems with Moscow.

Moving back to China-Russia interaction, that is not to say these factors fully neutralized competitive logic in the bilateral relations. Still, attention of the Chinese towards Russia’s strategic concerns regarding shared neighborhood and personal respect seems to result in reaping the benefits from positive cooperation. As I can notice, people in Far East do not have fears towards China, at least in short-term perspective. The neighborhood with the rising superpower is mostly seen not as a threat, but as an opportunity. However, more than 60% of population sees the EU and NATO as a peril, including the Kremlin, that after the Arab Spring began to fear the risk of West-orchestrated regime change.

Well, I’m fully aware that Europe can not totally behave like China towards Russia. The state of alliance with Washington and the values will always do their job. Nevertheless, some lessons are surely better be taken. In order to make of shared neighborhood a bridge, the relations should be switched into a pragmatic and rational choice mode.

         

 

 

 

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