This article was originally published at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and is reposted her with kind permission from RIAC.
Mao Zedong once summed up his philosophy on foreign policy with the following metaphor, “a wise monkey sitting on top of the mountain to watch the two tigers fight in the valley below.” The tigers in the Great Helmsman’s formulation were, of course, Moscow and Washington, and Beijing was the wise monkey. And China was able to play the role of “wise monkey” in its foreign affairs quite successfully for a number of years, skillfully manoeuvring in the background of the global confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. It carefully and calculatingly corrected its foreign policy course depending on the emerging balance of power and the interests of the People’s Republic of China at the given moment in time.
In the 21st century, however, it would seem that Moscow has become the wise monkey. The Soviet Union is gone, and China is now punching in a new weight division. Deng Xiaoping’s words of wisdom that China’s leaders should “observe dispassionately, stay in the shadows and try not to reveal themselves” is no longer relevant for Chairman Xi Jinping, and “staying in the shadows” is not an option. The animosities between China and the United States that have been simmering for decades are now transforming into a full-fledged confrontation, complete with economic, technological, geopolitical, military and even ideological dimensions.
Not only has the coronavirus pandemic failed to slow down this growing confrontation, but it has actually served to accelerate it quite dramatically. The world is moving towards a new kind of bipolarity, albeit one that is quite different from the Soviet–American bipolarity we witnessed during the second half of the 20th century. The two tigers are more than determined, neither is prepared to back down, and no “groundbreaking deal” between Beijing and Washington is on the horizon. And while temporary “ceasefires” and tactical agreements are likely, the battle in the valley will not be over any time soon.
Why Sitting it out on the Mountain Will not Work
Will Moscow, as the wise monkey in our metaphor, be able to sit back and observe this historic and wholly unpredictable battle on top of the mountain while maintaining a careful balance in relations between Beijing and Washington?
The answer seems obvious—no, it will not. Not because Russian diplomacy lacks the necessary professionalism or experience, but because Russia’s reputation in the United States is no better than that of China. The only difference is the seriousness with which the country’s elites perceive the threats emanating from its two main adversaries. Washington sees China as a serious strategic competitor that is ready to challenge the United States’ global leadership. Russia, on the other hand, is seen as a bully that does not have the resources to compete on an equal footing with the United States, but will jump on any chance to harm U.S. interests.
Obviously, the image of a bully and saboteur (a “ruiner,” if you will) is not exactly the best starting point if your goal is to act as a balancing force between the two superpowers of the 21st century. The American tiger would happily gobble up the Russian monkey if it got the chance, and it would not think twice about it. But only to get the annoying monkey out of its hair so it can concentrate on its fight to the death with the truly dangerous China.
What is more, it is far more difficult for a wise monkey to sit atop a mountain in the 21st century. The world has become too cramped, countries depend too much on one another, and even the slightest hint of isolationism involves costs that are simply too great. Politicians, military leaders and business people are forced to choose between the United States and China on a daily basis. This is why the wise monkey, one way or another, whether it wants to or not, is forced to come down the mountain and directly or indirectly take part in the battle that is raging between the two tigers.
There is, of course, no doubt that Russia is on China’s side in this battle. Simply put, there is nothing that the White House could offer the Kremlin that could even theoretically outweigh the value of the strategic relationship between Russia and China for Moscow. What is more, there is no one in the White House or the Department of State who is prepared to work towards developing good relations with Vladimir Putin as persistently and with as much dedication as Henry Kissinger was in relation to Mao Zedong half a century ago.
Russia as the “Monkey King”
That notwithstanding, it is entirely possible that the monkey that has come down the mountain may play a role that is independent of the tigers, and one that could even affect the outcome of their altercation. We should stress here that we are not talking about a monkey in the traditional Russian understanding of the word—the “monkey prankster” from Ivan Krylov’s tale. In Russia, the monkey is seen as a weak and reckless creature, somewhat of a clown, impulsive and unpredictable behaviour with a penchant for tomfoolery and mockery.
The Chinese image of the monkey, however, is quite different, and this is the image to which Mao Zedong quite obviously appealed. In the Chinese tradition, not only does the monkey personify resourcefulness and cunning, but it is also praised for its remarkable mind and considerable strength. Take the mythological Sun Wukong (“Monkey King”), for instance, a figure that is known throughout China—while ambiguous and contradictory, the character is nevertheless more hero than villain, is rather charismatic and has his own set of ethical principles. “Monkey King” may not have the physical strength that other Chinese mythological figures have, but he fears none of them and is always ready to stand up to even the most formidable of opponents.
What advice can we give to the Russian “Monkey King,” who, as fate would have it, has been thrust into the position of a potential participant in this battle of two huge tigers, instead of remaining on the sidelines? First, don’t anger the tigers, and don’t let them provoke each other. It will only hurt Russia in the long term if the confrontation between China and the United States continues to deteriorate—even if from a tactical point of view it would elevate Moscow in Beijing’s eyes and strengthen ties between China and Russia on the whole. The strategic risks of a deterioration in U.S.–China relations are extremely grave, especially if we take the potential pitfalls arising from international stability, regional crises and nuclear non-proliferation, as well as the risks to the world economy, finance and global technological development, into account. These are extremely heavy prices to pay and, as such, they negate any tactical gains that Russia might extract for itself from a further exacerbation of the confrontation between the United States and China.
Second, we should tell Russia that a tiger cannot change its stripes, even if you are fighting alongside it. In many respects, the interests of Russia and China coincide. Yet there are areas where their interests diverge. For example, Chinese corporations and financial institutions are effectively complying with the U.S. sanctions against Russia. Beijing is not inclined to support Moscow on the “Ukrainian issue” and does not recognize Crimea as a part of Russia. Moscow, in turn, is not ready to consider the territorial disputes in the South China Sea exclusively through what we might term the “Beijing prism,” nor does it side fully with China in its disputes with India and Vietnam. The strategic partnership between Russia and China does not exclude the possibility that the two sides might disagree on certain issues, and these differences must not be ignored or minimized. Thus, strengthening cooperation between the two countries does not necessarily have to mean creating a formal military and political alliance.
Third, if the monkey truly is wise, then it will realize that the valley beneath the mountain is home to many animals, not just the two tigers. And the monkey’s interests may coincide with those of a number of these animals. The trend towards a new bipolarity is definitely gaining momentum, but this does not mean that there is already no going back. It is important that Russian politics does not focus exclusively on this emerging bipolarity and instead actively promotes trends that oppose this bipolarity in one way or another. In this regard, developing broad cooperation with the European Union is particularly important—after all, the European Union is another monkey that has been forced to come down from its mountain and step into the unknown valley of tomorrow’s world politics.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.