During a recent workshop with European and Chinese foreign policy analysts, a few similarities between the Russian and the Chinese “defences” from global influences were striking.

Europe has for some time regarded the concept of non-interference as obsolete, a relic from a time before relinquishing sovereignty, at least partially, became the standard for states of the European Union. 

For the public in the West, the atrocities in Rwanda and Darfur were further proof of the necessity of the “responsibility to protect”, the antipode of the non-interference concept. The world should be based on rules and their global enforcement – this became the basic assumption of European actions in the Balkans and elsewhere. But the recent crisis over Ukraine has reminded us that in much of the world, leaders assert their global position by holding strong to the notion of non-interference, not only in order to shield their domestic politics from the spectre of regime change, but also to limit foreign influence in their broader region.

The recent crisis over Ukraine has reminded us that in much of the world, leaders assert their global position by holding strong to the notion of non-interference.

During a recent workshop with European and Chinese foreign policy analysts, a few similarities between the Russian and the Chinese “defences” from global influences were striking. [1]

First, whether fed by conspiracy theories, propaganda, or genuine concerns, both countries are driven in their support for non-interference by fear of internal destabilisation. The colour revolutions were, for Russia, a series of Western plots that can be repeated on the streets of Moscow; for China, the student protests in Hong Kong are equally fuelled by an invisible American hand.

Second, the penetration of foreign media and the Internet is perceived both in Moscow and in Beijing as a strategic move to undermine the respective regimes. In fact, Putin has called the Internet a “CIA project”. As a result, both governments limit the access to foreign media. The Russian government recently adopted a law limiting foreign ownership of outlets, while in Beijing, foreign media is simply censored. Both governments are building national firewalls against the global Internet as well; though Russia, which has made moves to consolidate its .ru and .rf domains and repatriate data, is a novice in comparison to its eastern neighbour who already has a largely closed (self-contained, domestically controlled) Internet.

The colour revolutions were, for Russia, a series of Western plots that can be repeated on the streets of Moscow; for China, the student protests in Hong Kong are equally fuelled by an invisible American hand.

Third, the Russian fear of radical Islamic terrorism from Chechnya has its analogue in China, where the Xinjiang massacre has made the leadership aware of possible limits to China's involvement in the Middle East. "Even if we feel we must protect our economic interests in the Middle East and would want to join the coalition against ISIS, we have to take into account that this can be read as anti-Muslim move by our large Muslim minority," one scholar explained. Beside its geopolitical calculations, Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was to some extent founded on Russia's fear of Islamic radicalism.

Fourth, both Russia and China attempt to “nationalise” their elites: the former recently forced the oligarchs to move their money, children, and healthcare from Switzerland and London back to Russia; the latter asks its tycoons to bring their profits back to China and the young Chinese to return home upon graduation from the US and the UK.

The readiness and capacity to executing “small wars” is for both countries a legitimate weapon for maintaining their respective “spheres of influence”.

Fifth, the readiness and capacity to executing “small wars”, as one Chinese analyst put it, is for both countries a legitimate weapon for maintaining their respective “spheres of influence”. The outlines of such actions are vague, but their existence seems unquestioned, posing a significant opposition to the Western order. The question is how long China will feel comfortable in the world that their Russian partner brings - a world of revisionism and unpredictability.


[1] ECFR seminar held with the Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS) of Peking University on 14-15 October 2014. It was made possible by a grant from the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Beijing.

Read more on: Asia, Global conflict in the chinese century

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.