The Sino-Russian Eurasian Axis

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS August 29, 2017

While media attention has focused on China's role in constraining or supporting North Korea's quest for a nuclear strike capability, Russian policy must be taken into account as well. Though it was the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong which sent some 3 million troops to fight in the Korean War (suffering some 400,000 casualties), it was the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin which had originally equipped the North Korean army and backed Kim Il Sung's invasion of South Korea. Russian pilots also flew "North Korean" fighters in combat against American pilots during the war. Today, Russia and China are still aligned with the North against the South as if the Cold War was still on.

            Last week, two Russian Tu-95MS "Bear" bombers, accompanied by Su-35S fighter jets and an A-50 early warning and control aircraft flew near Japan and South Korea as a "show of force" to protest the opening of joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises. Official Russian sources called the bombers "strategic missile carriers" implying they were capable of launching nuclear strikes. Their mission triggered intercepts by both Japanese and South Korean fighters. The U.S. has used similar displays of airpower during the crisis by flying B-1B "Lancer" heavy bombers over South Korea, escorted by South Korean and Japanese fighters to show alliance solidarity. There is a difference, however. The B-1B is no longer configured to carry nuclear weapons under terms of the two Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START). So the Russian display could be seen as an escalation of tensions.

            Moscow has followed Beijing's line during the Korean crisis. Both nations have expressed concern that North Korea's aggressive actions could provoke counter actions by the U.S. and its allies (particularly Japan) that would be dangerous to their own security interests. In response to Pyongyang's threats to launch nuclear attacks on American territory, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that such claims "will create international legal grounds for using military force against itself in accordance with the right of a state to self-defense enshrined in the United Nations Charter." Russia also joined with China in voting for UN sanctions on some North Korean exports, though the two powers opposed sanctions that would have truly crippled the Kim regime, such as cutting off energy supplies and financial networks. Moscow and Beijing both want to keep North Korea intact under Communist rule on a divided peninsula. In the same statement warning Kim Jong Un against provocations, Russia protested the joint U.S.-ROK exercises, as had China; and both capitals have denounced the deployment of anti-missile defense systems in South Korea. The message from both is that the U.S. should act to reduce tensions and reject escalation; the pattern of past crises that has left Kim free to advance his weapons programs.

             There is, however, more to the Beijing-Moscow axis than continuing the legacy of the Korean War. Both countries are focusing their grand strategies on dominating Eurasia, the heartland of the "world island" that will give them preeminence in global affairs. There has been some media attention to China's "Belt and Road" initiative which President Xi Jinping has described as providing a "common destiny for Eurasia." The plan (first mentioned in 2013) calls for China investing up to $4 trillion in infrastructure projects across Eurasia and Africa, involving some 60 countries. How the first trillion will be used is already under discussion. It is the vanguard for Beijing's reach for global power and is one of the largest, most visionary programs ever conceived. The Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing in May attracted 29 heads of state (including Russian President Vladimir Putin) and representatives of 130 other countries (including the U.S.), plus the leaders of 70 international organizations, including UN Secretary-General António Guterres. President Xi pushed the idea forward again at the G20 summit in July under the theme "Shaping an Interconnected World."

            The resources Beijing seeks to develop across Central Asia, the Middle East (focus on Iran) and Africa, and the political alignments it hopes to forge, will empower its strategic ambitions in ways that other powers in Asia, from Japan to India, fear.

            Russia, however, has its Eurasian dreams too. Most of Central Asia was once part of the Soviet Union. President Putin's policies are overtly revanchist. This has been most obvious in his reconquest of Crimea and instigation of insurgency in eastern Ukraine. But Moscow has also been bullying Belarus, threatening the Baltic States and intriguing with the Central Asian regimes. The renowned scholar Walter Laqueur in his insightful study Putinism: The Future of Russia and the West (2015) devoted considerable attention to the rise of a Eurasian mindset in Moscow which started soon after the supposed end of the Cold War. "About the current Russian government and those who support it, it can be said with little exaggeration, 'we are all Eurasians now,'" he wrote. The founder of this school of thought is Alexander Dugin according to Laqueur, which gives the movement a scary trajectory in that Dugin is openly a fascist who paraded around in Nazi garb in his youth. He was a Sociology professor at Moscow State University before retiring in 2014. Many of Dugin's 30 books are available in English and can be readily ordered on Amazon.

            Laqueur explains how Dugin's movement rose to such influence. It moved beyond "old-style conservatism, as the experience of other countries had shown, it was not sufficient---it was unexciting, even boring." And politics based on "interests alone are not enough" to win mass support. A higher ideology was needed, and Eurasianism was the answer, exceeding even nationalism in its appeal to something higher, The doctrine goes beyond traditional Pan-Slavism to embrace both Asian and Arab cultures in a grand alliance against the West. As Dugin put in his 1997 textbook The Basics of Geopolitics, "In principle, Eurasia and our space, the heartland Russia, remain the staging area of a new anti-bourgeois, anti-American revolution ... The new Eurasian empire will be constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, strategic control of the USA, and the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us. This common civilizational impulse will be the basis of a political and strategic union."

            Reality has modified theory. Russian military intervention in the Syrian civil war in accord with old Cold War ties to the Assad dynasty has put Moscow in alignment with Shiite Iran against the larger Sunni Arab bloc led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It also makes it harder to pursue Eurasian aspirations with Turkey, though Russian diplomacy continues to seek common ground with the increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogen.  

            The Shanghai Cooperation Organization formed with China in 2001 initially included four Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. A primary function was to prevent any resurgence of militant Islam after its suppression by the Soviets. Pakistan and India have since joined; the first due to its strong ties to China, the second to keep an eye on what could be a hostile coalition. India has refused to participate in the Belt and Road plan and is drawing closer to the U.S. and Japan to offset the Eurasian dreams of the Beijing-Moscow axis.

            How durable it the axis? Putin is a proud nationalist, but the balance of power in the axis has clearly shifted to China. Putin has nothing to offer that rivals the Belt and Road vision and can only hope to benefit from Chinese money like the other weaker parties in Central Asia by trading energy and minerals for infrastructure development. There are only 40 million Russians east of the Urals facing hundreds of millions of Chinese along their border. Even Dugin recognizes that Russia is too weak to go it alone in the Eurasian expanse. Can Putin expect fair treatment from his Chinese partners? Can joint hatred of the West keep them together? Both Putin and Xi need a higher cause to maintain their authoritarian, essentially fascist rule.

            During the 2010 Korean crisis, which followed the sinking of a South Korean warship by a North Korean submarine, tensions peaked with major naval exercises by all the regional powers. Russia sent a fleet of 30 warships to the Sea of Japan, including the nuclear-powered flagship Peter the Great as part of a larger exercise involving some 20,000 troops. It was in support of China and North Korea, but also a demonstration that Russia is a true Eurasian power, not to be taken lightly by either friend or foe.  The recent flight of nuclear-capable bombers should be seen as a similar statement.

            American leaders must take such "shows of force" as more than just a passing incident and understand they are part of a larger, determined effort to change the balance of power in the region and around the world. The United States must rally its resources and its nerves accordingly for the road ahead is long and dangerous.  

William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.

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