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Thinking the unthinkable about Russia and China

By Simon Louie - posted Wednesday, 10 June 2015

At the start of the 20th century it seemed unthinkable that in less than half a century the world would plunge itself not once, but twice into wars of unprecedented barbarity. After all, Europe had not seen major interstate war since the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Academic opinion too felt, that the high degree of global economic integration would render a great war impossible. This theme was propounded by Norman Angell in his 1909 book The Great Illusion, which argued that the high degree of economic integration between the great powers would render war futile-- and yet it happened nonetheless.

The world is far, far more globally integrated than the years preceding the First World War, yet emerging countries such as Russia and China are taking steps to challenge the territorial status quo in their respective regions.

Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea has challenged the sovereignty of Ukraine. What makes this even more troubling is that Russia was a signatory to the 'Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.' This memorandum, which was also signed by the United States and Great Britain included security assurances against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity of the Ukraine. In exchange, the Ukraine completed the hand over of its nuclear weapons to Russia in May 1996. The breaking of international agreements is disruptive to the global order whilst Putin himself has said that the break-up of the former USSR was 'a geopolitical disaster.' At the same time, Russian military aircraft incursions into the airspace of Western countries have increased dramatically. For example, in April the RAF had to send two Typhoon fighters to escort two Russian bombers which had flown very close to British airspace.


At the other end of Eurasia, China's irredentist claims over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the majority of the South China Sea are serious challenges to Asia's territorial status quo and present large risks. China's claims to the South China Sea are what world affairs columnist Mohan Malik calls 'historical fiction,' as the Chinese themselves have historically never exercised sovereignty over those waters. Currently China is building an airstrip on a reef in the Spratly Islands, actions which have led President Obama to voice concern at China using 'its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.' In response to China's moves, other countries in the region such as Vietnam and the Philippines are increasing their military capabilities whilst the Philippines has announced its support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's bid to change Japan's pacifist constitution. It is also worth noting that Vietnam and the Philippines are likely to enter into a strategic partnership to counter China.

Up to 50% of the world's commercial shipping passes through the South China Sea, and whilst conflict in the area is not in the interest of China, China's land reclamation and creation of islands around the Spratly Islands is increasing the chances of a confrontation with the United States. The US has asserted its right to go through this area, and this was recently demonstrated with its ignoring calls from the Chinese military to halt its spy flights over these islands. As regards the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Chinese incursions into the waters surrounding these islands have increased dramatically over the last two years, with only nine incursions into Japanese territorial waters from December 2008 to July 2012, to 329 in the period from September 2012 to October 2014. These incursions increase the risk of military confrontation through miscalculation.

On one level it seems counter-intuitive that both countries are taking actions that challenge aspects of the global territorial status quo, particularly as the prosperity of both has been built on principles such as freedom of navigation of the seas. For example a conflict which interfered with Russia's ability to export commodities would inflict even more pain on the resource dependent Russian economy-already being hit hard by Western sanctions. China too has benefited enormously from the global territorial status quo with the huge amount of trade flowing through the South China Sea. China's manoeuvres in this region are potentially self-defeating as its economy is now starting to feel the ill effects of what former Fitch analyst Charlene Chu calls the 'greatest credit bubble in history'.

It must be noted that both Russia and China are ruled by regimes that are neither liberal in character nor predisposition, and whose rulers resort to force and intrigue to bolster their rule. Vladimir Putin's previous shady history in the KGB and the story of his rise to power is one of political assassinations and intrigue whilst Xi Jinping himself is currently cracking down on freedoms. Russia's inability to honour its treaty obligations and China's claims over an international body of water is evidence that both seek to overturn aspects of the global territorial status quo.

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About the Author

Simon Louie is a freelance defence writer.

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