Dr John C Hulsman is the Founder and Managing Partner of John C Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk firm. He is also a life member of the US Council on Foreign Relations.
There has always been one giant intellectual problem with a fully-fledged Sino-Russian revisionist alliance coming to challenge the present Western-dominated world; someone would have to be Batman and someone would have to be Robin.
‘The Batman Problem’ has always stopped these two great powers from fully coalescing into a cohesive alliance.
Yes, they share a hatred of the American-dominated world, as well as the urge to revise it into a more autocratic-friendly multipolar construct, where they are free to dominate their immediate regions: In the case of China, East Asia, in the case of Russia their ‘near abroad’ (the Caucasus, Belarus, and, above all, Ukraine).
Together in power terms, they alone jointly have enough geostrategic wherewithal to actually challenge the present order.
Russia, for all that it is overall a fading great power, has more nuclear weapons than any other country, and – following strategic reforms implemented after the Georgia War of 2008 – was seen as possessing an increasingly capable military.
In Vladimir Putin (and in direct contrast to the Tower of Babel that characterizes EU decision-making) it was also seen to have a ruthless, capable leader at its helm, one not afraid to deploy troops and take casualties, as he did in 1999 in Chechnya, 2008 in Georgia, 2014 in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and 2015 in Syria.
While Russia provided the military muscle, China was simply the world’s most important rising power, with an economy that has increased in size a whopping ten times since only 2000.
At present, only these twin autocracies in tandem pose any real threat to the established order. As both are also revisionist powers, their structural alliance was always a real possibility.
Also, in macroeconomic terms, an energy-ravenous, booming China beautifully complements a one-crop economy like Russia -along with the US, and Saudi Arabia/OPEC, one of the three global energy great powers – even as Chinese manufactured goods can fill the Russian market.
Earlier on, Russia’s sophisticated weapons export market also helped a rising China begin to catch up with a militarily dominant America, as Beijing provided Moscow with desperately needed trade.
So, for ideological, strategic, and macroeconomic reasons, the two seemed to be a geopolitical match.
Yet, practically, while the two did tend to side with one another over the past years, and while the chemistry between Xi Jinping and Putin is very good (oddly, the characteristically unemotional Xi often speaks warmly of their genuine rapport) a fully-fledged alliance has never blossomed.
Much as in the new era (up until the Ukraine war) the EU tilted toward the US while also flirting with a neutralism in the brewing Sino-American conflict – based upon a mixture of French Gaullism, German mercantilist isolationism, and general incoherence – Russia tilted toward China, while maintaining a certain geopolitical distance.
The reason for this is ‘The Batman Problem.’
For Putin’s too-often unremarked-upon domestic popularity (presently the latest independent Levada Center poll gives him a stratospheric 83 percent approval rating) is founded on his ironclad desire to ‘Make Russia Great Again.’
Following in the footsteps of his hero, Peter the Great, Putin has restored Russia to great power status after a weak tsar (Boris Yeltsin) left it a mendicant, even as he has shaved the aristocratic Boyars’ beards, in his case corralling the oligarchs who had run roughshod during the later shambolic days of Yeltsin’s reign.
However, as was true for the Russian Tsar, it is through the cauldron of war (in 2008, 2014, and 2015) that Putin has made it clear that, at least as a regional great power, Russia is once again a force to be reckoned with.
As a true believer in Great Russian nationalism, it was neither in Putin’s own biography or character, or in his political interests, to play second fiddle to China, as assuredly he would have to do in any ironclad alliance, giving the yawning differential in their power capabilities.
At best, Russia is a power on the wane, beset with intractable economic, demographic, corruption and political problems, while China is indisputably a rising superpower. For an alliance to work, Russia would have to play ‘Robin’ to China’s ‘Batman,’ serving as the weaker, less important player in any alliance.
Until the advent or Russia’s catastrophic miscalculation in the Ukraine War, this is something Putin desperately did not want to do, given his Great Russian Nationalism power base, as well as his own inclinations.
Historically, ‘The Batman Problem’ has caused the Sino-Russian alliance trouble before. Following the death of the (in Communist terms) revered Stalin in 1953, Mao broke with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev over precisely this issue, no longer content serving as second banana to a USSR with a new, untested leader.
Simply put, Mao was happy to play Robin to Stalin, but not to his lackeys who succeeded him, given China’s own gigantic power potential.
Until Ukraine, the shoe has been very much on the other foot, as Putin refused to swallow the bitter pill that second-class status in any Sino-Russian alliance would make necessary. But that was before Ukraine.
Now, militarily discredited, economically beset by unprecedented sanctions (and with the real threat of the West turning off the natural gas spigots in just a few years), and an international pariah (at least in the West), Putin’s freedom of geopolitical maneuver is extremely limited.
His only real play is to join with China and challenge the present world order. But he is doing so as ‘Robin,’ to China’s ‘Batman,’ from a position of increased weakness. But, for China, at last, Ukraine has solved ‘The Batman Problem’ preventing a formalized Sino-Russian alliance, which will now come into force, very much on Beijing’s terms.
However, for Beijing, Ukraine’s re-ordering of the global power configuration is very much a mixed blessing.
On the one hand it is pleased that its superpower rival, the US, must now keep more military resources in Europe than it would have otherwise, tempering Washington’s ‘pivot to Asia,’ as China strives to expand its power in the Indo-Pacific. America no longer has the luxury of facing only one hostile, revisionist power at a time.
The biggest strategic benefit China and Russia gain from their joint alliance is perhaps that it frees both countries from the necessity of vast military deployments along their shared 4000-kilometer border. This allows Russia up to face Nato in Europe and China to face the US and its allies single-mindedly in the Indo-Pacific, while leaving this critical internal border largely unmanned.
But, far worse for Beijing, the European Union has awoken from its long strategic nap. As a result of the Ukraine War, economic powerhouse Germany has committed to re-arming after two generations, and Brussels (mirror-imaging what is happening in Russia) is firmly back in the western alliance camp, along with the US, the UK/Anglosphere countries, and Japan.
Gaining a quasi-neutralist Russia while losing a quasi-neutralist EU to America is not a good geopolitical outcome from Beijing’s point of view. While the Batman problem has been solved for China, its ‘alliance of autocracies’ is still very much the lesser force at the global level, to the ‘alliance of democracies.’ That is, if they can get their act together.