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The Revisionists
China and Russia’s “Sphere of Influence” Fallacy

Earlier this week, China and Russia officially announced that they will cooperate on military drills in the Mediterranean in 2015. As Gideon Rachman argues in the Financial Times, this is designed to make NATO and the West uncomfortable by intruding into the center of its sphere of influence:

The Chinese will doubtless enjoy the symbolism of floating their boats in the traditional heartland of European civilisation. But, beyond symbolism, Russia and China are also making an important statement about world affairs. Both nations object to western military operations close to their borders. China complains about US naval patrols just off its coast; Russia rails against the expansion of Nato. By staging joint exercises in the Mediterranean, the Chinese and Russians would send a deliberate message: if Nato can patrol near their frontiers, they too can patrol in Nato’s heartland.

Behind this muscle-flexing, however, the Russians and Chinese are pushing for a broader reordering of world affairs, based around the idea of “spheres of influence”. Both China and Russia believe that they should have veto rights about what goes on in their immediate neighbourhoods. Russia argues that it is unacceptable that Ukraine – a country ruled from Moscow for centuries – should now join the western alliance.

China and Russia, Rachman notes, think the West is hypocritical to claim that all nations should have a right to self-determination—what has been called the “Sinatra Doctrine” (because of the song “My Way“). They point to the Monroe Doctrine, for example, as evidence that the United States historically has supported allowing great powers to maintain and control spheres of influence.

But as Rachman points out, inclusion in U.S. treaty systems is largely based on nations’ willing cooperation, not just on geography and the exercise of power. That’s especially true today:

It seems to be almost a rule that the closer a country is to any putative Russian or Chinese sphere of influence, the more eager it is to cement an alliance with the US. From Poland to Japan – and points in-between – America’s allies need little persuasion to shelter under the US security umbrella.

Rachman makes an interesting point about the debate that Sino-Russian military cooperation raises, and he draws important conclusions about what effect the drills may have. We recommend reading the whole thing.

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  • Anthony

    China, Russia and Sinatra Doctrine – “A far more fundamental change to the world order is taking place. It’s the rapprochement of China and Russia.” Question one may asks is will this alliance of convenience (animated perhaps by interest in American global influence diminishment) endure. Are we witnessing a happy geopolitical couple acknowledging that geography matters? On the other side, article utilizes distinction without real difference – sphere of influence or alliance between willing partners – when you come right down to comparisons.

  • Andrew Allison

    Sauce for the goose?

    • Corlyss

      No, sophistry.

  • Corlyss

    “China and Russia argue that the West would be hypocritical not to grant them their “spheres of influence.” ”
    Well, that’s amusing, this quasi-petition for recognition as an adult. It must be designed to appeal to empty-headed liberals who think all nations are equal just because they have a flag and anthem, and therefore the West is obligated somehow to let them play too. The two understand full well that the powerful do what they will and the weak endure what they must.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “spheres of influence” can’t be granted, they can only be given. It seems to me that Russia and China’s “sphere of influence” has already been made, and include the axis of Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, and a few other small states and non-governmental actors, and that’s it. Every other nation is either being threatened by this axis, or is allied already with America. It simple look at the hundreds of US military logistical bases around the world, compared to the Russian or Chinese military logistical bases (almost none), shows just how many nations trust Russia and China enough to allow military basing.

  • Bankotsu

    The info in the article seems to be outdated. Russia and China already had joint naval excercises in mediterranean this year in January.

    January 27, 2014

    Russia and China have begun their first naval war games in the Mediterranean in what is seen as preparation for joint military operations in the world ocean far away from their territorial waters.

    The joint naval drill, which began on Saturday, involves Russia’s heavy nuclear missile cruiser Peter the Great and Chinese frigate Yancheng, the Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement.

    The Russian and Chinese warships will perform joint manoeuvring, in the course of which the Russian cruiser will set up a smokescreen and ship-borne helicopters of the two vessels will practise landing on each other’s deck.

    The warships will also conduct air-defence training, using their helicopters as mock targets, the statement said.

    “It is for the first time that the two countries are holding such training for operational teamwork of their navies,” the Russian Defence Ministry noted.

    “The main purpose of the drill is to enhance the interoperability of Russian and Chinese combat ships for joint operation in the Eastern Mediterranean.”

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