Andrey Baykov (Photo: Global Times)
Global political dynamics is undergoing dramatic changes given that the US treats China and Russia as rivals and has soured relations with both. Is a new cold war looming? How will China and Russia respond to US pressure? What are the prospects for China and Russia deepening cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? Global Times (GT) reporters Yu Jincui and Yan Yunming talked to Andrey Baykov (Baykov), vice director of Moscow State University of International Relations, on these issues at the sideline of Area Studies Towards the 21st Century: Global Experiences and China Paradigms, held by Institute of Area Studies, Peking University, recently in Beijing.
GT: Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend the second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, while President Xi Jinping is planning to pay a state visit to Russia this year, what's your expectation from the frequent meetings between the two sides?
Baykov: Many experts, when China announced its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), were quite wary and cautious about how this would fit into our own plans for integration in Central Asia. But now most of these fears, concerns and caution have practically disappeared. Because we see that there are practical ways of coordinating and harmonizing that what China is trying to achieve in Central Asia and what we are trying to achieve in Central Asia. It is in our mutual interest to stabilize the region, to make it a platform for growth of both countries, because it serves China's strategy for recreating this new Silk Road that would logistically connect Europe and China by land route. Whereas for us, it is a very good way to reinvigorate Central Asian republics with the help of Chinese investors and the technology that Chinese bring in.
It is one of those rare situations in international politics that two big powers that have had some historical frictions can now rebuild very fruitful and promising cooperation on a very pragmatic basis. On the basis of cooperation, the countries that are in between - the Central Asian countries - also win out. They win out because of the increased cooperation of both China and Russia. So we expect even more enhanced bilateral collaboration, because it is economically driven.
GT: This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Russia. How would you evaluate China-Russia relations in the last 70 years? How could the two sides deepen cooperation in the future?
Baykov: Over the course of the 70 years, there have been ups and downs. Sometimes we hit the low point in our relations. I wouldn't like to go back to that because both our peoples have been quite successful in putting this behind us.
When looking into the future, we are guided by the principle that in order to succeed in the world in which inter-state and inter-civilization conflicts constantly rise, we should stay side by side very close to each other. That is how I interpret the formula of our strategic partnership. Geography pushes us toward each other, because we share so many geopolitical risks, both along the border in Central Asia and also in East Asia. So we should stand together in withstanding those risks and challenges.
I think for Russia in the 1990s, the dilemma was with whom to side - the West or the East? Culturally, the Russian people have always identified themselves as part of the West, because our culture is mostly Western. And our political life was mostly involved, especially in the imperial times, with Western Europe; and during the Soviet Union, with the United States of America. We were two major pillars of the world.
The year 2014 was the turning point when we realized that our hopes for better relations with the West were just a futile dream and nothing would come out of it.
At least since 1996 when Yevgeny Primakov became first the foreign minister and then the prime minister, we started to pivot toward the East, and China became our primary goal. We set several ambitious targets for the trade turnover, university contacts, investment plans and infrastructural projects.
Of course it is not as robust as we would have hoped for. In Russia sometimes, you can read in the press, people are disappointed that the investments from China in Russia are not as huge as people would have hoped for. But there are objective reasons for that. We are sure that the goal, which has been set pragmatically, serves both countries' interests.
Seventy years is such a small period of time historically. And it includes not just one Russia, but several Russian states. The Soviet Union was completely a different country. Now the new Russia is only less than 30 years old. We are learning to navigate in the international arena where our interests have shifted significantly. Geographically we managed to retain the same chunk of territory in the west, but we have shrunk in the east. So we have to coordinate our China policy without Central Asian countries. They have very different interests toward Russia, Iran, Turkey and China, which complicates China-Russia relations. They make it more nuanced and difficult. No rush decisions can be made. And with the inauguration of the Eurasian Economic Union, it has become even more complicated. But it's nevertheless for the better.
Because that means we, as a bloc, Russia and the Central Asian countries, can come up with positions which balance out differences and interests of all the countries involved, and we can have a more unified and goal-set position toward China that makes Central Asian countries more confident, and makes the general geopolitical atmosphere more peaceful and stable.
So I think the best is still in the future, it's still ahead. And I hope that events like we had in the past will never repeat themselves, because we now act on the platform of pragmatism and a platform of having our mutual interests in mind.
GT: There is a view in China that economic cooperation between the two countries lags their political collaboration. Is it the case? How can we develop more balanced bilateral ties?
Baykov: First of all, even though Russian disappointment toward Chinese investment I mentioned above exists, it does not fully reflect the entire picture. Since 2014 when the pivot to Asia officially began, the amount of Chinese investments in Russia's economy has increased dramatically. Maybe the rate is not as high as we had hoped, but it has increased dramatically.
Second, politics can never drive investments. It has to be mutual. Chinese partners have to find relevant Russian partners. It is sometimes difficult because we have different business cultures, different bureaucracies, different tariffs, and regulatory barriers that objectively make it more difficult for us to cooperate. Russia has to be more innovative to attract and interest China's investments.
So I don't think it is fair to shift the responsibility just on China. It's not just China's responsibility, it's also Russia's responsibility. Russia needs to make itself more attractive for investors.
GT: Some Russian and Chinese scholars argue that we are experiencing a new cold war. Given the current international situation, do you think a cold war is already on or is looming?
Baykov: I do not believe in the characterization of the current situation as a new cold war, because the Cold War was a very specific historical moment when what defined the animosity was not an armed confrontation, but the intolerance of each other's ideologies. The ideologies of Russia and the US were not compatible.
In fact, Russia is now largely a capitalist country with most people enjoying the freedom, liberty and rights that are now available to them thanks to the revolution of 1991 when the Soviet Union was disbanded at the decision of the leaders of those republics: the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, and later on other countries.
They consciously decided to put an end to the Soviet Union because they had embraced the ideology of the West. And nothing in this regard has changed in Russia. What changed was the disappointment that we wanted solidarity based on the commonality of interests. But this solidarity didn't give us anything. It didn't bring any benefits in terms of economic cooperation and geostrategic cooperation. We are still kept away out of all the major Western institutions like NATO and the EU. Russia has on several occasions appealed to our Western partners in terms of bringing Russia closer to NATO and the EU. But time and time again, those appeals were rejected.
Why is that? Russia's role in international affairs has diminished because its overall capacity has diminished. And world politics is the hierarchy of capabilities. If a country has diminished capability, the countries with more power just tend to overlook that country, to ignore its interests.
But there is a big mistake. Because Russia had quite a few responsibilities which didn't give it the luxury of just becoming a normal country like many in the West had hoped. It can't become a normal country because of its largest border it has to protect, because of all those threats it has in the south in Central Asia, because of its huge nuclear arsenals it has to keep safe and well-managed. So Russia never agreed to this role that had been assigned to it. And this is what caused irritation in the West. They expected Russia to slowly get marginalized and go to the scrap heap of history as they liked to say. It was just not an option for Russia. Russia couldn't have done it even though the Russian people had indeed embraced Western ideology. Since the Cold War was based on conflict of ideologies, there is none.
China is a different matter. I think China might emerge as a peer competitor of the US, because China wants to feel secure and protected in its neighborhood, which is East Asia. And the US is very much present in East Asia, and doesn't want to weaken its presence in East Asia. And this is where this line of conflict can potentially emerge.
China has a thorough ideology which insists on noninterference, and that's why we side with China. China's ideology gives the people a chance to figure out the political system that they want for themselves. Because the Chinese people believe, as do the Russians, that every country should lead a way of life it wants to lead. No one should try to interfere. That is the whole concept of self-determination, which is one of the founding principles of the United Nation's charter, which is the basis for the global peace and security system.
GT: Russia-US relations have been on a prolonged downward spiral. Where will US relations head in the future? Will it bring some change after the Trump administration?
Baykov: With Trump, we see that no significant improvement has occurred. On the contrary, harsher sanctions have been put in place. And in fact, all the previous relations have been ruined.
Since most of the sanctions that were initially at the level of presidential executive orders have now become law when passed by the US Congress, I think we are in for decades of sanctions imposed by the US on Russia. So in this regard, nothing will improve. Something really extraordinary must happen for the general dynamic to change.
Some people say that it is the US-China competition that may become an extraordinary factor that will again push the US toward Russia. But I believe that Russia is a very trustworthy friend. It will not betray China just because the US all of a sudden decides to become a friend again with Russia. Because these past 30 years have shown that we should be careful in trusting our US colleagues.
GT: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has arrived in Russia for a summit with President Putin. After the failure of the second Trump-Kim summit, how do you see the prospect of the North Korea nuclear issue and the role of Moscow in it?
Baykov: Russia is interested in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, but it also takes into account that its interest is not sole and the most important one. North Korea is our neighbor; it is also the neighbor of China. And there is also a larger issue at stake — North and South reunification.
Russia knows that China pays a lot of attention to North Korean policy, and Russia doesn't want to do something in contradiction and in contravention of what China does toward North Korea.
I think Russia and China will coordinate on North Korea policy. And whatever happens, it will be going on in this Russia-China-North Korea triangle. As long as our Western colleagues realize that in order to resolve the North Korean issue, they should not just engage in a bilateral ［Trump-Kim］dialogue, which has very few prospects. It has to be a multilateral dialogue including Russia and China.
GT: Given the dramatic changes of global political dynamics, what do you think a new international order should be like? What role should China and Russia play in building such a new international order?
Baykov: Some people in the West hold this idea of the current liberal international order crumbling. They are wringing their hands and saying it is the end of the world. I think it is an exaggeration. I think the liberal international order never existed. What has existed was the American-led liberal international order.
China is rising peacefully and not claiming global ambitions. And Russia is still quite weakened by the events of the 1990s. But right now what we see is three independent poles of strategic autonomy - Russia, China and the US. Only one of those countries is liberal - the US. So we need to come up with some new formulas of the international order. It cannot be a liberal order, because both Russia and China are not 100 percent liberal. Of course they are liberal countries in the sense that they value the freedom of people, but the political regimes in the countries are not liberal democracies. They are democracies, but of their own nationally specific types. This should be taken into account.
So the new global order should reinforce the idea of noninterference and self-determination. We don't need to invent anything; everything is already in place. It's the UN charter and the basic principles of international law that we all subscribe to. I think we should refer to the UN-based international order for as long as possible.