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‘Turn to the East’: Russia, the West, and the rise of the Chinese century

March 15, 2022 at 2:50 pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meet in Beijing, China on 4 February 2022 [Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency]

The West’s attempt to marginalise Russia and expel it from Western economic arrangements might well work. Still, a weaker Russia would have no choice but to embrace China. And this would help China to achieve global predominance in the future.

 “Turn to the East” and its limits

“Turn to the East” (Povorot k Vostoku) was a little brochure published almost a hundred years ago by a Russian émigré. It launched what is called “Eurasianism”. Its proponents believed that Russia is neither a Slavic civilisation (the point of Slavophiles) nor belongs to the West, as Westernisers believed. In Eurasianists’ view, Russia is a unique civilisation, based mainly on the “symbiosis” of Orthodox Slavs and Muslim Turks. Eurasianism was, in a way, a reflection of Soviet ideology, which emphasised the emergence of the multi-ethnic “Soviet people”, a peculiar quasi-nation. Eurasianism, mostly unknown during the Soviet era, became quite popular by the end of the Soviet era and at the beginning of the post-Soviet regime. One might assume that “Eurasianism” was Asia-oriented. Still, Eurasianists, with all their dislike of the West and appreciation of Turkic people of Russia/the USSR, has not been much interested in China. It has been usually ignored or seen as a hostile force. As a matter of fact, Russia’s turn to the East has always been limited.

The limits of China’s appeal

Moreover, throughout most of post-World War II Soviet history, China and the USSR were mortal enemies, especially after US President Nixon’s visit to Beijing. By the end of the Soviet era, the relationship between Beijing and Moscow was restored, and trade resumed. It was especially active in the Russian Far East. Still, Moscow’s rapprochement with Beijing was slow and reluctant. There were several reasons for this.

To start with, the emerging post-Soviet elite, both immensely rich tycoons and the middle class, dreaded the Chinese totalitarian model, in which the very nature of private property does not exist, and the State continues to be the ultimate proprietor, which prevents “symbiosis” between tycoons and the bureaucracy. This was the model of operation in post-Soviet Russia, especially after Putin’s rise. Many tycoons and members of the prosperous middle class were not sure about the safety of their wealth. Despite this, they invested their funds in property in the West, where they assumed both their cash and their property would be safe.

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Indeed, many of them were students during the Soviet era, and their Soviet lecturers told them that private property was “sacred” in the West, as Karl Marx had once said. They would have understood how wrong Marx was, recently. For both the elite and the masses, China could not provide a comfortable living, similar to the lifestyle of the West. They wanted to live in Europe, if not the US, whose image started to soar some time ago. There were also racial, cultural and historical stereotypes. In the minds of many Russians, the Chinese were related to Asian barbarians, such as the Mongols, whose devastating conquest in the 13th century had led to what Russian historiography called the “Tatar-Mongol yoke”. This lasted for 250 years and led, most Russian historians asserted, to the country’s degradation and falling behind the advanced West, which had attracted the Russian elite since the 18th century.

This image of China had been widespread among Soviet dissidents of the late Brezhnev era, as the writings of Andrei Amalrik testify. Russian Westernised liberals, who had emerged as the leading intellectual and cultural force after the collapse of the USSR, usually subscribed to China’s image in Western, primarily American, discourse, which invariably asserted that China’s totalitarian system was absolutely dysfunctional and that the country had no future.

Some Russian writers presented an alternative vision of history, with China playing a leading role in Russian destiny. This was the case with the Russian writer, Viacheslav Rybakov, who used the moniker VanZaichik (Van Hair). In his novels, Russia became a part of the Chinese empire, which was transformed into “Ordussia” (a blending of the names Horde and Russia). Still, this novel was peculiar literary kitsch, or parody, not a political program. Still, despite the Russian elites’ and the masses’ – in their majority – desire to distance themselves from China, Russia started to feel China’s economic gravitation more and more, mainly because it had experienced increasing problems dealing with the West.

China’s economic push and its consequences

At the beginning of the post-Soviet era, Russia still believed that Beijing would badly need Moscow. Indeed, Russia started to sell China weapons in the 1990s. Still, as time progressed, China seemed to be less and less dependent on Russian weapons. Trade with the Far East intensified. Still, this increased the region’s dependence on China and created the potential for the region’s secession from the Russian Federation.

Yet, Moscow had not invested much in the area, despite many talks. Moscow’s increasing inability to free itself from Beijing’s gravitational pull could well be seen in gas deals. Moscow engaged in negotiations with Beijing, related to gas deals, a long time ago. Still, Beijing was unwilling to pay the same price as European customers, and the talks led nowhere.

The Russian conflict with Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea has changed everything. Sensing the problem with the West, Putin immediately agreed to China’s conditions in 2014. “The Power of Siberia”, the gigantic pipeline, was a massive and expensive undertaking, and some observers assumed that Gazprom, Russia’s major gas company, would never make a profit. The gas line was still a clear win for China: not only did it get a cheap and stable source of gas, but this made its delivery secure, in case of conflict with the USA.

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The economic dependence on China became more apparent as time progressed. While the launching of North Stream 2 became increasingly unlikely and Putin planned an invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese market became even more important for Moscow.

Before the Ukrainian war, Putin visited China and secured a deal for another gas line. Putin certainly assumed that the Ukrainian venture would be a quick and easy blitzkrieg, in the fashion of the wars in 2008 and 2014, and he believed that the West would still be interested in Russian gas. Yet everything went awry. The war became a protracted and bloody conflict, leading to Russia’s virtual expulsion from the West’s economy. China is emerging here not just as the major, but possibly the only, market -not just for gas, but for everything else as well.

Moreover, China might be the only country whose financial system could be connected with Russia’s financial network. Indeed, with Visa and other financial outfits ending their engagement with Russia, Chinese companies have proposed replacements. The acceptance and spread of Chinese credit cards could have not just economic implications – Russia’s increasing integration into the Chinese economic commonwealth – but also a cultural impact.

The birth of “Ordussia” and the Asian century

Travel to European countries is becoming increasingly complex, not just because of entry visa problems but also because Chinese credit cards are not accepted in most places in the West. At the same time, Russians can easily visit China and other countries which increasingly depend on China’s economic engagement, such as Iran.

Russian students might find that, while rejected by Western universities, they would be welcomed by the Chinese. And if this process of being exposed to China or the Orient, in general, were to proceed for a long time, a fundamental change could well happen in Russian culture: not only would the legacy of Peter the Great, the Westernising emperor, but even “Eurasianism” or Sovietism, with its still-latent Russo-centrism, be erased or, at least, be dramatically deformed, and Sinocentric “Ordussia” would be born, not as a peculiar post-modernist literary play, but as a political reality.

Russia’s emergence as the major “younger brother” of the Middle Kingdom might, in the long run, reveal the paradox of Weltgeist (spirit of history). While hailing the collapse of the USSR and marginalising post-Soviet Russia, the Western – especially the US – elite believed that all of this would ensure the West’s permanent global dominance. Something different is happening: removing the “Eurasian” or Russian empire from its position as a global player, the West has removed the continental counter-balance to China, and ensured the Middle Kingdom’s global predominance in the not-so-distant future.

(Source: Anadolu News Agency)

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