Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin during a meeting. PHOTO: REUTERS

Why structural realists are wrong to predict that Russia will help the US against China

Russia will indeed seek to “balance” China in the future and arguably already is

Andrew Korybko February 17, 2021

Globally renowned structural realism theorist Professor John Mearsheimer shared his predictions about what he believes is an inevitable New Cold War between China and the US in an hour-long interview earlier this week with Pakistani journalist Ejaz Haider. I responded to what I regard as his perspective’s greatest shortcomings in my recent analysis for CGTN titled “A Respectful Rebuttal To Professor Mearsheimer’s China Predictions” that should before this piece for the proper background arguments. In a nutshell, I argue that structural realism has its limitations because it importantly doesn’t account for the Chinese leadership’s neoliberal-influenced official outlook on International Relations, nor for why many Asia-Pacific states jointed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) instead of a US-led “balancing coalition” against China, among other examples.

I also rebutted his prediction that Russia will “switch sides” and “ally” with the US “against China”, pointing out that these two Great Powers’ close economic, military, and institutional (BRICS/SCO) cooperation contradicts his assessment that China is supposedly a greater threat to Russia than the US is. Since the Russian-Chinese Strategic Partnership is one of the primary axes of contemporary geopolitics, I felt it worthwhile to expand a bit more on why I disagree with his prediction. My purpose in doing so is to present an alternative outlook on the long-term prospects of their relations in order to generate a wider discussion about them. I hope that Pakistani and other academics, experts, media representatives, and civil society members will therefore be able to have a more comprehensive view of this topic in order to more confidently arrive at their own conclusions.

The relevant part of Professor Mearsheimer’s interview can be listened to at the 51:20 mark of the hyperlinked video in the first paragraph. One of the bases for his prediction is that Russians have told him in private that they’re very nervous about the influence of China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) in Central Asia. He then goes on to discuss why he feels that the US’ current policy towards Russia is so unnecessary and counterproductive because it pushed Moscow closer to Beijing. Professor Mearsheimer doesn’t expect this to change under Biden either, but if it eventually does over time, then he believes that his prediction of Russia “switching sides” to help the US “balance against China” will play out. Should that scenario transpire, then it would be truly be a game-changing development that would fundamentally alter the trajectory of the New Cold War.

I personally believe that Professor Mearsheimer’s prediction is inherently flawed. While it’s true that there are growing power asymmetries between China and Russia that would at least superficially add credence to his structural realist prediction of an inevitable split between the two, this overlooks the influence of the constructivist theory of International Relations. This school of thought basically concerns the influence of occasionally changing perceptions (whether naturally occurring and/or due to foreign factors such as information warfare operations) on determining states’ threat assessments of one another. It’s imperfect, just like the realist and liberal schools of International Relations, but it nevertheless helps explain why pairs of states with growing power asymmetries such as China and Russia continue to cooperate and even enhance their ties.

At the present moment, structural realists and constructivists could interestingly argue that the US is both an objectively and subjectively determined threat respectively by those two Great Powers, the first being due to its incomparable military advantage and the second related to its publicly stated intent to leverage its capabilities towards containing them. Where the structural realist and constructivist interpretations diverge, however, is over the long-term prospects of what some in both camps regard as the current Russian-Chinese “marriage of convenience”. Structural realists are confident that these growing power asymmetries in favor of China, coupled with a potential diplomatic breakthrough between Russia and the US, will inevitably lead to a Russian-Chinese split. Constructivists, however, aren’t so confident since it remains to be seen how they’ll perceive one another.

Although some Russians have privately shared their anxieties with Professor Mearsheimer about BRI’s impact on Central Asia, that doesn’t mean that they regard China as a traditional threat in the same way that structural realists generally define this term. After all, President Putin continues to call for increased cooperation with China, including as recently as earlier this month while commemorating Diplomatic Workers’ Day in Russia. He said that “Much credit goes to the Foreign Ministry for its active and consistent efforts to achieve stabilisation in several hot spots and ensure constructive cooperation with the majority of our foreign partners, primarily the member states of the EAEU, CSTO, CIS, SCO and BRICS.” Putin also declared that “The deepening of Eurasian integration and its interface with other regional integration associations remain a priority goal.”

Remembering that China is a key member of BRICS and the SCO, it’s clear that Russia has no publicly stated intent of gradually disengaging from China contrary to Professor Mearsheimer’s prediction. That said, this doesn’t mean that Russia also isn’t creatively “balancing” China either, though in as “friendly” of a manner as Moscow realistically can in order to avoid triggering a security dilemma with Beijing. I’ve written a lot about this over the past year in the following pieces of pertinence: “Is Russia ‘Abandoning’ Or ‘Recalibrating’ Its ‘Balancing’ Act Between China & India?”; “Russian-Chinese Ties Improved Due To India But Aren’t Aimed Against It”; and “Why The Indian Foreign Secretary Will Seek To Bring Russia Into The Indo-Pacific”. Basically, India is Russia’s preferred partner for “balancing” China due to their shared BRICS and SCO memberships.

Russian-Indian relations became unexpectedly complicated late last year after Indians overreacted to Foreign Minister Lavrov’s condemnation of creeping American anti-Chinese influence over New Delhi, but the resulting scandal has since died down and everything seems to be back on track. Russia’s concerns about US-Indian relations relate to Moscow’s grand strategic goal of “balancing” Beijing in a “friendly” way through their joint institutional partner in New Delhi. The more that US-Indian ties take on a distinctly anti-Chinese nature (arguably driven to a large degree of shared threat assessments inspired by the structural realist school), the less that Russia can rely on its own relations with India to this “balancing” end without risking the scenario that Chinese suspicions are provoked (per the constructivst school of changing perceptions).

I elaborated more on Russia’s envisioned means to this end in the academic article that I co-authored last year which was published by the official journal of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO, run by the Russian Foreign Ministry). Titled “The Prospects Of Russia And India Jointly Leading A New Non-Aligned Movement”, it explained why this is the most reasonable grand strategic goal for Russia and outlined the ways that it could promote it in the coming future. Regrettably, last year’s Chinese-Indian clashes along the vast Line of Actual Control (LAC) between them made it politically impossible for Russia to make progress on this front, though the latest synchronised disengagement agreement between those two Asian Great Powers’ forces together with the Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit to Moscow gave fresh impetus to this plan.

Unlike what Professor Mearsheimer predicts about Russia “switching sides” to “ally” with the US “against China” in accordance with his structural realist outlook, the vision that I’ve articulated doesn’t directly concern the US, has less of a potential for military conflict between any of the three pertinent parties (Russia, China, India), and therefore isn’t as likely to provoke a Russian-Chinese security dilemma. After all, Russia already arms India to the teeth despite military exports relatively declining in recent years, though this has yet to negatively impact their ties. A structural realist would presumably expect it to have already done so, as well as Russia’s announcement late last year that it plans to sell jointly produced BrahMos supersonic missiles to the US’ mutual defense ally in the Philippines. Both arms relationships pose conventional threats to Chinese national interests.

In fact, they’re arguably more threatening from a structural realist perspective than China’s purely economic influence in Central Asia since Moscow is literally arming potential foes on Beijing’s doorstep with whom it has territorial disputes. Nevertheless, Russian-Chinese ties remain solid because neither Moscow nor Beijing want to provoke a security dilemma along their vast shared border that would distract them from objectively existing US-driven conventional military threats along their western and southern peripheries respectively. Apart from this shared interest, both aspire to complete the gradual pairing of the Russian-led Eurasian Union with China’s BRI through the SCO. Russia and China also rely on one another as natural resource suppliers and customers respectively, as well as cooperate real closely on trans-Eurasian connectivity corridors.

These institutional and economic interests are more closely aligned with the neoliberal paradigm of International Relations and have at least thus far greatly mitigated the potential for any emerging security dilemma between them despite predictions to the contrary by Professor Mearsheimer and other structural realists. Russia and China still compete with one another, but it’s mostly in the diplomatic realm and nowadays especially involves the kingmaker role of India. The South Asian state can decisively shift Eurasia’s geostrategic trajectory depending on the interplay of its diplomatic interactions with the world’s top three Great Powers: the US, China, and Russia. I wrote last month that “The Future Of US-Indian Relations Depends On New Delhi’s S-400 Decision”, which could see India moving away from the US and closer towards Russia.

That scenario, which seems the most likely at the moment considering the US’ repeated threats to sanction India if it goes through with that air defense deal, would accelerate the earlier examined grand strategic vision of Russia and India jointly leading a new Non-Aligned Movement (“Neo-NAM”). Any movement in that direction might temporarily complicate China’s relations with Russia and India, but since it wouldn’t have much of a meaningful military component with respect to the third-party states in which those aforementioned two would cooperate to economic-connectivity ends (with the Philippines and perhaps also Vietnam being exceptions due to potential BrahMos sales), this “friendly” competition should be manageable by all. It might also peacefully restore the perceived (key word) loss of “balance” in Russian-Chinese relations with time too.

That outcome would basically result in the emergence of a third pole of influence in an increasingly bipolar world characterised by the US-Chinese New Cold War, which could in turn help stabilise International Relations while also importantly avoiding Professor Mearsheimer’s dire prediction about another seemingly inevitable Russian-Chinese split. To put everything together in a theoretical way, structural realist factors are partly responsible for Russia and India cooperating to “balance” their mutual BRICS and SCO partner in a “friendly” way through neoliberal economically and institutionally driven means, with an emphasis on the “friendly” aspect in a nod towards constructivism’s appreciation for perceptions so as not to inadvertently provoke a security dilemma with China. In other words, all three theories are pertinent to the bigger picture.

This leads to my concluding prediction, which is that Russia will indeed seek to “balance” China in the future and arguably already is, but that this will not take the structural realist form that Professor Mearsheimer expects. Instead, it will rely more on the precepts of neoliberalism with a deep appreciation for constructivism. It will also involve India, not the US. This will in turn help Russia avoid the worst-case scenario of a security crisis erupting with China which could then be exploited by the US to divide and rule these Great Powers in pursuit of its hegemonic ends. In the event that India is somehow courted back to the American side and thus more actively contributes to the aggressive containment of China, perhaps by Washington declining to sanction New Delhi for the S-400s, then Russia and China would move closer together to “balance” the US and India instead.

Andrew Korybko

The writer is an American Moscow-based political analyst specialising in the relationship between the US strategy in Afro-Eurasia, China’s One Belt One Road global vision of New Silk Road connectivity, and Hybrid Warfare. He tweets at @AKorybko.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


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