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Influence and narrative in the Sino-Russian strategic alliance: legitimacy and new political order

This article was originally published in Spanish by GIASP Intelligence & Strategy, on April 3, 2021. Thank you to GIASP and to the author for their kind authorization to translate and re-publish.

The cold war between the United States and China was already fixed with the Trump Administration with the presentation of the new US Security Strategy that set China as the main strategic competitive rival; Russia ceased to be the traditional enemy of the West as China became the most competitive and aggressive hegemon in the world order. China became the only major economy that grew in 2020, controlled by the pandemic, and signed the world’s largest trade agreement with 15 Asian countries and an investment agreement with the European Union in the midst of a prolonged situation of crisis and uncertainty. Russia, to its right, or rather, in its shadow, has chosen to walk alongside the great victor despite being a bridge between East and West, in the face of Western condemnation of its ambiguous policy that undermines American world leadership by strategically positioning itself in the geopolitical fractures.

A wounded Europe, hand in hand with a United States tired of shouldering international responsibilities without orienting its priorities, has allowed the strengthening of a Sino-Russian alliance, amidst a scenario of uncertainty and crisis, which, far from being peaceful and stable in the long term, has been forced to reach a consensus on its differences and protect its position from all domains, with the narrative being the legitimizing and influential basis for its identity and vision.

Narrative warfare remains the main instrument for dominating the future scenario, guiding perceptions and giving meaning to intentions and strategy game. China believes that it will not be a world power unless it has the ability to attract. Unless it has soft power. China and Russia have embraced the need to present openly, confidently, firmly and coherently their role in the world and, in the face of a broken and predictable discourse from the West, have presented themselves as a solid strategic alliance of legitimacy and new order, leaving the baton to whoever wants to present themselves as their rival with the responsibility to decide and define their narrative and position. 

DRIVERS IN THE DYNAMICS OF STRATEGIC RELATIONSHIPS AND NARRATIVE INFLUENCE

Source: GIASP Intelligence & Strategy

PILLARS IN THE SINO-RUSSIAN NARRATIVE:

  • A NEW ERA AND A NEW ORDER“, referring to the Chinese main discourse of international relations: “a community with a shared future for humanity” welcoming Russia in its distancing from the West in Asia’s legitimacy and global leadership standing up to the US-led power in the “Joint Declaration on Strengthening Global Strategic Stability in the Modern Age”.
  • COMMUNITY OF SHARED DESTINY“, stressing their role as a strategic alliance for “global security”, both leaders “contributors to stability, development and peace in the world”, with a sense of mutual support in advancing their own interests by aligning their strategies for development, security and integrity, and trade cooperation.
  • CENTURY OF HUMILIATION“, with the fall of the Soviet Union and American pressure against the possibility of Russian growth and recovery, as well as the shame felt by the Chinese people after the Opium Wars of the 19th century that left a society consumed and numb in the face of the rise of Western civilization.

Source: GIASP Intelligence & Strategy

INFLUENCE STRATEGIES IN THE SINO-RUSSIAN NARRATIVE

Source: GIASP Intelligence & Strategy

INFLUENCE AND POWER CLASH IN THE WAR OF NARRATIVES

Source: GIASP Intelligence & Strategy

THE PILLAR OF HUMAN RIGHTS FOR THE WEST

LABOR FORCE AND TRADE CLOSURE IN THE FACE OF CRITICISM OF XINJIANG’S LABOR FORCE AND THE THREATENING SITUATION OF ETHNIC MINORITIES IN THE COUNTRY.

H&M, with some 400 stores open in the country, has been one of the brands affected by this trade war in the face of the critical labor situation in China’s main cotton production area. Between 60% and 70% of H&M’s raw materials, such as fabrics, come from China (reaching a figure of about $1.4 billion in sales in China in 2019); China is its third largest market after Germany and the United States. This blockade has come in the wake of its pronouncement last year against the labor force in the cotton-producing Xinjiang area, which began with a blocking of access to searches on e-commerce platforms in the country. Users, through Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter), called for boycotting the company through the networks, especially driven from Communist Youth League of China. Afterwards, the company’s Chinese ambassadors cut their ties with H&M for its defamation.

The attacks follow Monday’s decision by 27 European Union nations, the United States, Britain and Canada to impose financial and travel sanctions on four Chinese officials accused of abuses in Xinjiang. More than 1 million people in Xinjiang, most of them from predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, have been confined to labor camps, according to researchers and foreign governments. Beijing denies mistreating them and says it is trying to promote economic development and stamp out radicalism. In the face of this, the Communist Party criticized H&M for saying in March 2020 that it would stop buying cotton from China’s northwest region because of this situation of vulnerability and human rights violations. The Swedish retailer joined other brands in expressing concern over reports of forced labor there. The party newspaper Global Times also criticized Burberry, Adidas, Nike, New Balance and Zara’s statements on Xinjiang from two years ago.

EUROPE, A BRIDGE OF DISCORD AND DIPLOMACY IN THE WAR OF INFLUENCES

CHINA, THE STRATEGIC PARTNER AND THE SYSTEMIC RIVAL

  • HUMAN RIGHTS AS AN ELEMENT OF DIFFERENTIATION AND CONFRONTATION BETWEEN CIVILIZATIONS
  • THE STRATEGIC RELATIONSHIP WITH THE UNITED STATES AND THE BALANCE OF POWER > The marked strategic agenda of the United States to confront the rise and dominance of China in the international sphere has conditioned Europe’s priorities for its commercial relationship with China, sharing the front of containment and alarm established by its ally.
  • WITHOUT A CLEAR EUROPEAN AGENDA FOR COLLABORATION WITH CHINA
  • CONVERGENCES AND DIVERGENCES WITH THE UNITED STATES IN THE RELATIONSHIP WITH CHINA:
    • SHARING THE VISION, BUT NOT THE PROCEDURES
    • COMPETITIVE EU-USA RELATIONSHIP IN INVESTMENT, INDUSTRY AND MARKET RATES
    • FOSTERING EU-US DIALOGUE ON CHINA WITH THE NEW ADMINISTRATION
    • JOINT SECURITY APPROACH TO THE INDO-PACIFIC AREA (JAPAN-SOUTH KOREA-INDIA-AUSTRALIA)
    • DESPITE A NARRATIVE OF RIVALITY, A GROWING TRADE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE EU AND CHINA – EU states saw an increase in imports (+5.6%) and exports (+2.2%) to and from China last year, despite the pandemic, while a downward trend was recorded in US-China trade, with imports falling by 14.7% and exports by 3.6%.

RUSSIA, A NEIGHBORHOOD RELATIONSHIP OF NECESSITY

Russia has declared its new position in favor of China in the face of its own economic vulnerability. Hurt by the economic sanctions of the United States and its allies, Russia has decided to put pressure on its neighbors, aware of its necessary neighborly relationship and dependent on stability and agreement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has stated that Moscow is ready to break off relations with the European Union (EU) in case the latter adopts sanctions that pose a threat to the country’s economy. Faced with a Russia in a situation of survival and clear inferiority among its competitive rivals in the East and the West, his response has been forceful and aggressive: “Yes, if we see again, as we have experienced more than once, that sanctions are imposed in areas that pose risks to our economy, including sensitive sectors, yes“. “We do not want to isolate ourselves from the world life, but we have to be prepared for it“, the Russian minister stressed, adding, “If you want peace, prepare for war.

European and Russian negotiation and diplomacy are one of the keys to maintaining the geopolitical balance between the leadership of China and the United States. Without a well-defined neighborhood policy, according to mutual interests and needs, as well as the establishment of a strategic vision of the Union in its relationship with Russia as opposed to the imposition of competitive American interests, the opportunity to establish a balance of power will be supplanted by a greater polarization between civilizations and two priority actors (Russia and the European Union) will be instruments of action and influence of the main rivals.

CULTURE, HISTORY AND ACADEMIC EXCHANGE, SOURCE OF RESTRICTIONS AND IDENTITY PROTECTION

Academic exchanges have been the fruit of cultural, diplomatic and business rapprochement, favoring the understanding of different cultures and bridging in accordance with a more authoritarian policy and society. However, in recent years, China has gone much further in obstructing independent research and constructive academic exchange.

When Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, he pointed out that the fall of the Soviet Union was because the “ideals and beliefs” among members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) were shaken, so they engaged in “historical nihilism” by rejecting Lenin, Stalin and Soviet historical achievements in general. The protection of Chinese culture, ideology and thought is, for the current president, a principle of survival and the main area of protection against foreign influences. The friendship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin lies in the mutual value of defending and prioritizing the identity of their people and protecting their historical-cultural pillars against the democratic and liberal empire of the West.

While Chinese society sees in Putin the leadership, patriotism and spirit of a nation rooted in its cultural and identity pillars, Russia praises the capacity for regeneration and adaptation of a country as complex as China. Two sovereign countries that, despite the leadership and push of the West over the centuries, have demonstrated their tireless rise and strength.

ALLIANCE AGAINST THE DOMINANCE OF WESTERN NARRATIVE AND MORALISM, A WAR OF NARRATIVES FOR THE LEGITIMACY OF MODELS OF CIVILIZATION – A REBELLION IN THE CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS

ATTACKING THE WEST’S NARRATIVE PILLAR – COHERENCE

In the words of Yang Jiechi, the foreign affairs chief of the Communist Party of China, “The United States does not have the qualification to say it wants to talk to China from a position of strength. The United States uses its military strength and financial hegemony to exercise long-arm jurisdiction and repress other countries. It abuses so-called national security notions to obstruct normal trade exchanges and incite some countries to attack China.” Lavrov also said, “We both believe that the United States has a destabilizing role. It relies on Cold War military alliances and is trying to establish new alliances to undermine the world order.

CULTURAL DIFFERENTIATION AS A SIGN OF AUTHENTICITY

Even if they think we are the same as them, we are different people. We have a different genetic, cultural and moral code. But we know how to defend our own interests.” “And we will work with them, but in those areas in which we ourselves are interested, and in those conditions that we consider beneficial to us. And they will have to deal with it. They will have to take this into account, despite all attempts to stop our development. Despite the sanctions, the insults, they will have to deal with this“, Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said of Europe’s expected new wave of economic sanctions last February: “Don’t you dare try to judge us or punish us for not meeting what you say are universal standards, because we are different from you.” The minister echoes what is known as “The Russian Way”: a perspective of 19th century Slavophile ideas that Russia should follow its own unique path of development, and the belief that liberal ideology is spreading in Russia on purpose with the aim of weakening the country and stripping it of its sovereignty; on these principles, society should stand up to it by protecting its historical, cultural and religious values.

SUPPORT IN INVESTMENT, SECURITY AND TRADE EXPANSION

One of the main strategies, defined in the last summits held between Russia and China, established the goal of expanding their trade relations and doubling trade exchange by 2024. Currently, the main economic relationship is about energy supply (70% are Russian energy exports to China), although new agreements are being strengthened in other strategic sectors, such as technology, science and research and raw materials and cooperation in security and defense based on the three Chinese pillars of security cooperation: non-alignment, non-confrontation and non-threat to a third party through early warning and containment military cooperation.

OPPORTUNITY IN THE CRISIS – MASTERING THE STRATEGIC SCENARIO

COVID-19 PANDEMIC SCENARIO

Beijing has donated millions of vaccines to developing countries in the face of pandemic-induced dependence on emergency supplies, but its generosity often comes with strings attached. China claims it will be able to produce at least 2.6 billion doses by 2021, giving the country extraordinary leverage over the global vaccine rollout. Nine of the 10 ASEAN countries (Vietnam has not received any Chinese vaccines) have indicated or have indicated that they will accept Chinese vaccines. China has also been active in Africa, where vaccine release has been slow and inconsistent.

EMERGENCY DIPLOMACY

Meeting with China in Guilin, southern China, Russia has made an urgent call for a meeting with the permanent members of the Security Council pointing out that, the source of global discord and destabilization is the United States, calling into question its identity as a mediating superpower for peace and security: “At a time of growing global political turbulence, this summit is particularly necessary to establish a direct dialogue on ways to solve the common problems of humanity in the interest of maintaining global stability“, reads the joint communiqué. The name of the United States appears in another note from Russia’s TASS news agency, which quotes Lavrov as saying that “the United States is acting destructively“. The US has not been alone in its leadership position. It has not been the only leadership position played by Russia; with the “America First” of the Trump Administration, Russia has taken advantage of the vacuum and silence of the American power in those areas hit by the crisis and conflict (Middle East, Central Asia, Africa) to appropriate the mediating role and a referent role for the stabilization and peace processes becoming a necessary and priority actor to achieve a legitimate transition and security management or process.

UNITY AND SERENITY IN THE FACE OF THE AGGRESSIVE AND DISTRUSTFUL DISCOURSE

The nationalist attitude in the West, propitiated by the situation of emergency, uncertainty and economic crisis, amplified distrust among allies by the attitude of the American power increasingly turned to its national interests, has offered the opportunity to Russia and China to appropriate the discourse of security and stability by strengthening a front of trust and strategic vision in an unperturbed alliance. The diplomatic discourse destroyed by the protagonism of the influence of social networks and the media in the mouths of leaders of great powers (the dialectic wars of the Trump Administration with its political rivals through Twitter, or Biden’s direct reference to Putin calling him “murderer” in a media publication or the aggressive pulses between France and Turkey to slam the identity of the opponent…) has undermined the credibility of the political leadership of many powers, taken advantage of by a serene and ambiguous discourse of the Russian and Chinese leaders.

REALISTIC APPROACH AS OPPOSED TO A “PAYBACK” DISCOURSE THAT IS NOT VERY CLOSE TO THE NEEDS OF THE ALLIES

The main crisis of identity and common and coherent strategic direction to entrench a narrative among European allies and the Atlantic alliance is the lack of approximation to the needs and interests of its members; the approach only of convergences of those who share alliance commitment through organizations leaves a vacuum of opportunity or crisis to the lack of exploration of divergences and priority interests, which cracks unity and fosters a more pragmatic and nationalistic approach that calls into question the meaning of such alliances. This is what has happened, for example, in the European Union itself and the allocation of resources to face regional challenges, or NATO’s approach to the Asia-Pacific scenario in the face of a southern European border with a more fragmented approach, or the imposition of the economic blockade on Russia and China with a Europe truly dependent on trade with these countries and in need of a neighborhood policy adjusted to common interests. What the narrative speaks, reality silences; and it is in this lack of coherence where those who do have a narrative strategically constructed over time and shared with their allies, in the long term, obtain the victory of legitimacy, trust and the perception of security.

TOWARDS STRATEGIC SELF-SUFFICIENCY

The pandemic situation has pushed nations to seek greater independence from supply chains and the need for economic diversification. The trade war between the United States began with the punishment of products of competitive rival origin and has worsened with the evidence of the dominance of the sanitary materials market in the hands of China, as well as its technological expansion.

From China, a front has been opened against Western political-commercial domination, promoting strategic self-sufficiency (China is betting on the lack of dependence in supply chains, national economic recovery, balancing the balance of payments and currency protection, with investment in research and innovation, as well as in favor of technological self-sufficiency, as set out in its five-year plan 2001-2015 of the National People’s Congress). Despite the impasse in the first half of 2020, China’s economy expanded by 2.3% last year, due to a significant recovery in the second half of 2020. The trade war with China and the continuity of the US Administration in blocking trade rapprochement with Beijing, has encouraged an equally blocking response to US products to undermine opportunities for US industry.

The new US administration has put the focus on the same issue of dependence on its competitive rival, taking up the characteristics of the trade war initiated by Trump (tariffs, blockades…): Joe Biden, in relation to the dependence on China in materials and products that has uncovered the coronavirus pandemic, has signed an executive order that will help address the “vulnerabilities” of supply chains in “critical sectors”, so that the United States “is prepared to withstand any crisis“. White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki announced on Wednesday that “the United States must ensure that production shortages, trade disruptions, natural disasters, or potential actions by foreign rivals and adversaries never leave the US vulnerable again.

Picture credits: GIASP Intelligence & Strategy

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