National Security & Defense

Russia and China Are on a Collision Course in Asia

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin meet in Shanghai, China, May 2014. (Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty)

Whether they realize it or not, China and Russia are on a collision course on the Asian continent that is bound to lead to bloodshed — or even a nuclear exchange in the worst-case scenario. At present, the two countries seem to be at peace, basking in the glow that accompanied recent announcements by U.S. officials that geopolitics was leaving the post-Cold War era of American uni-polarity and returning to an age of competing Great Powers, raising the ghosts of Metternich and Bismarck organizing diplomatic “concerts” in Europe 140 years ago. Given the persistent drip of bad news confronting Russia and China, one can imagine the satisfaction the two nations take in such pronouncements. It seems their decision to work together over the past half decade paid off, but both nations face challenges that could spell trouble and bring them inexorably into conflict in the near future.

China and Russia face significant economic and security issues. China’s double-digit economic growth has not only declined, it has come to a screeching halt. Leading economic indicators suggest that China is in recession and experiencing negative real GDP growth. Party leaders and their families have already signaled their awareness of the economic fundamentals through their rapid transfer of personal wealth out of China. It will not be long before the general population becomes sufficiently conscious of this capital flight to raise a protest. In an effort to head off this disturbance, the Chinese Communist Party has increasingly raised nationalist arguments to distract its citizens from the country’s real challenges.

Russia faces larger problems than its neighbor. Just as it appeared that rising prices for energy might be Russia’s salvation, the sudden precipitous drop has caught the nation ill-prepared. Vladimir Putin and his supporters had planned to finance vital investments in a rapidly degrading military as well as crumbling roads, bridges, and an electrical-power distribution system through fossil-fuel extraction, but — after the fracking revolution — $30-per-barrel oil threatens to stretch on forever. Putin’s fiscal cupboard is now decidedly bare.

RELATED: Will the Chinese Economic Giant Stumble?

China’s economic issues are combined with security concerns. The nation remains almost totally dependent on outside resources to supply its economy. Oil from the Middle East, as well as ores and rare-earth minerals imported from Africa and Australia, all have to come to China by sea, a sea that is controlled by the United States and its ten aircraft-carrier strike groups and 60 silent fast-attack submarines. China also faces a far more basic shortfall: clean water. Its runaway industrial growth has come with a heavy price in polluted air and an increasingly toxic water supply. In fact, the former “Middle Kingdom” has taken to physically redirecting the Himalayan headwaters of major rivers to direct more fresh water into China, robbing South East Asian nations of their birthrights and sure to cause further discord.

#share#Russia’s deepest ills are basic as well. It is a sick nation getting sicker. Alcoholism is up and the average life expectancy for Russian men and women is declining, making it unique among advanced nations. The result is a shrinking tax base even as demands for government services rise, as well as the rapid depopulation of Russia’s vast interior land mass — Siberia, never a densely populated region, is experiencing a dramatic decline in its ethnic Russian population. The largest concentrations of Russians lie along the Siberian Pacific coast where Russian navy and fishing fleets reside, around the oil and natural gas fields, and near the massive fresh-water Lake Baikal.

RELATED: Russia’s Economic Stagnation

China’s leaders have realized their failure to intimidate their Pacific neighbors and the United States into ceding a Chinese sphere of influence in the western Pacific and Indian Ocean. They had hoped to arrange a situation guaranteeing their access to vital resources in the Middle East, Africa, and Australia, but they moved too soon, before their military was sufficiently large, and too aggressively. Now the entire region is on its guard against Chinese aggressive actions. In consequence, Communist Party chieftains will soon turn to their nation’s more traditional route of security.

Russia should prepare to defend its eastern lands. But the Russian bear is weak.

Except for a brief period during the Ming Dynasty when Chinese fleets explored as far as East Africa, China has been an expansionist continental land power throughout its 3,000-year history. From the Warring States period to the present day, China has conquered, absorbed, and annexed to solve its security problems, and sitting just to its north is a vast, underpopulated, undefended region brimming with energy, precious ores, and fresh water. For the Chinese, these natural resources represent not just security, but survival. There is only one problem: The lands belong to the Russians.

Russia should prepare to defend its eastern lands. But the Russian bear is weak: lacking the population, money, or military might to confront a growing China that is desperate to secure access to vital resources. The return to an era of Great Power competition is not necessarily welcome when your “Greatness” is so obviously weak and your “partner’s” desperation is so palpable.

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