When writing about Sino-Russian relations, western journalists & academics often write as if the Sino-Russian rivalry of the past are eternal and unchanging constants in international relations. The common refrain often goes something like “despite continuing differences… Russia & China are working together…”, “Although the two parties appear aligned against the US, historical rivalries will ensure that this remains a ‘marriage of convenience’…”, even US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis commented that “I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China…” when asked about China’s unprecedented participation in Russia’s Vostok-2018 military exercises. The current prevailing opinion seems to suggest that China & Russia are big countries with big ambitions & big egos, & therefore destined to always remain rivals in international relations. Sino-Russian rivalries have been very real and intense in the past. However, there is little in-depth analysis on the underlying causes behind these rivalries, and whether these causes will continue to drive Russia & China apart in the foreseeable future. The following is far from an “in-depth” analysis, but at least dig below the surface of the notion of China & Russia as eternal, intractable rivals. Even casual scrutiny suggests that continued rivalry cannot be taken for-granted as an unchanging in international relations. In fact, the past drivers of Sino-Russian competition/rivalry are trending towards irrelevance for both countries’ strategic priorities.
Mainstream pundits often cite three major causes of past Sino-Russian rivalry/hostilities, which this article will address in order of increasing strategic impact (in other words, least to most important): ideological competition, territorial disputes, and competing influences in Central Asia.
Ideological Competition – Complete Irrelevance
This competition dates back to the late 1950s, when Mao & Khrushchev competed on whose brand of communism was the “correct” one, and which country – the USSR or PRC – should be the rightful leader of the global communist movement and various leftist revolutions across the world. It was as much a clash of personalities (Mao vs. Khrushchev) as it was a genuine ideological dispute, but the ever widening rift eventually caused the Sino-Soviet split, which in turn caused other nationalist sentiments (e.g. territorial disputes that escalated to the Sino-Soviet border clashes of ’69) to deteriorate bilateral relations to the point of enmity. It is plainly obvious that this ideological rivalry is completely irrelevant today. Neither country is genuinely communist, & neither aspires to lead global ideological crusades of any kind. This past rivalry has no meaningful impact on either country’s policy or bilateral relations, except perhaps as a historical lesson to avoid ideological rigidity in bilateral relations.
Territorial Disputes – Gradually Irrelevant
Territorial disputes used to be the biggest source of bilateral tension since feudal times, and all the way up to the days of the Sino-Soviet split. But today this is increasingly becoming an outdated relic of history, as neither side can change existing borders in its own favor, and any effort to do so is clearly not worth the cost.
The territorial dispute between Russia and China dates back to the 1600s, when both were feudal empires instead of modern nation-states. One of the fundamental characteristics of feudal empires is the lack of fixed borders. Empires expand when they accumulate power, and contract when they weaken. This means that the Qing & Tsarist Empires inevitably clashed over territory when both sides expanded into North Asia. The disputes were eventually settled in Russia’s favor, via the Treaties of Aigun and Beijing (1858 & 1860, respectively). China was forced to cede claims to previously disputed territories, which encompass parts of modern-day Primorskii Krai, Khabarovskii Krai, & Amurskaya Oblast. These treaties were among a long series of “unequal treaties” imposed on China by various European powers during its “Century of Humiliation“. The borders established in the aforementioned treaties largely reflect today’s Sino-Russian borders, and remained the basis for settling leftover territorial ambiguities in the 2000s. Consequently, here are no more territorial disputes of any kind between the PRC & Russia today. But unsurprisingly, this remains a source of informal emotional resentment among the Chinese public, perhaps even comparable to that of the Opium Wars & the burning of the Old Summer Palace.
This lingering emotional resentment, along with China’s large population relative to Russia, is the basis for the modern “Yellow Peril” myth, which remains prevalent in western perceptions (& even Russian perceptions) about Sino-Russian relations today. The narrative of this myth can be summarized as the following: China has a huge and growing population, and a rapidly growing economy. Consequently, its resource demand will outstrip its own territory’s supply. On the other hand, Russia has a dwindling population, especially in the Russian Far East, a relatively slow economy, but huge amounts of emptying land in areas bordering China. Therefore, the Chinese will inevitably take these bordering lands from Russia to “restore its lost territories”. China will do so not through military invasion, but rather the mass migration of ethnic Chinese from Northeast China into the Russian Far East. When the Chinese “flood” the region and become the ethnic majority, they’ll start an uprising and annex the region, similar to the Israeli annexation of Palestine, or the US annexation of Texas from Mexico.
This mythical narrative completely ignores two fundamental realities about migration and Chinese demographics:
1. Migration: people generally don’t uproot their lives & entire families just to settle elsewhere out of nationalistic resentment, they do so to either escape turmoil and violence, or seek better economic opportunities. In the foreseeable future, neither of those incentives will drive the average Chinese to migrate to Russia. The PRC is highly stable, and Chinese trust in their own institutions is at an all-time high. More importantly, average Chinese wages have recently exceeded those of Russians, particularly Russians in Siberia and the Russian Far East, where wages are lower than those of European Russia.
2. Chinese demographics: the “Yellow Peril” myth assumes that China’s population will grow indefinitely, and will need resources and new jobs to maintain prosperity. In reality, Chinese resource demand will likely plateau and decline as its population does the same. In fact, China’s total population is projected to decrease within 10 years, and fall below 1 billion (from the current 1.4 billion) by 2100, if current trends continue. Consequently, China is already facing a labor shortage, and will inevitably become a net IMPORTER of labor and migrants, rather than a net exporter.
Current realities on the ground in Russia reflects these trends. The latest academic and census data shows that the total ethnic Chinese population levels in Russia remain stagnant – at about 400-550K. Among them, over half live in the European parts of Russia (where economic opportunities are better). This means that the ethnic Chinese population in the rest of Russia – including Siberia & the Russian Far East (RFE) – is at most 200-300K. This represents less than 5% of the total population in the RFE. If current trends of rapidly rising wages & intensifying labor shortages in China continues, the ethnic Chinese population in Russia will inevitably DECLINE, not increase. This means China has no chance of “overwhelming” and annexing the RFE through mass migration. Needless to say, a Chinese military invasion of the region, against the world’s largest nuclear power, is futile and suicidal. Similarly, Russia has neither the intent nor the capability to expand southward to carve out territories or spheres of influence within China; any Russian attempt to do so is equally hopeless.
In short, on the territorial dispute front, Russia & China have reached a point where any attempts to change the existing border have become impossible, regardless of past misgivings and emotional sentiments. Judging by recent bilateral efforts to promote joint development and visa-free tourism, both sides are gradually realizing the irrelevance of past border disputes and are moving on to more productive endeavors.
The Competition For Central Asia – Relevant But Unnecessary
The one area of potential Sino-Russian rivalry that could still remain relevant is the strategic competition for influence over Central Asia. The two countries are the most influential powers in this region. Russia’s cultural and political influence – as a result of the Soviet legacy – remains preeminent in Central Asia, whereas China is rising as the region’s biggest trading partner. It is conceivable that the two powers could see the competition for influence in a zero-sum way in the near-future, but even in this case, such an outcome is highly questionable and uncertain. The primary reason to doubt a zero-sum competition is that China & Russia’s strategic goals in Central Asia do not necessarily conflict, & often complement each other.
China’s interests in Central Asia can be summarized in 3 line items:
1. Purchase natural resources (primarily oil & gas) from the region
2. Use the region as a part of an Eurasian land-bridge to trade more efficiently with the EU
3. Prevent the region from becoming a hotbed of Islamic extremism that promotes separatism in Xinjiang
Meanwhile, Russia’s Central Asian interests can also be summarized into 3 items:
1. Regional economic growth and integration through the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU)
2. Prevent the rise of anti-Russian regimes caused by colored revolutions & coups
3. Prevent the spread of Islamic extremism from the Middle East & Afghanistan into Central Asia & Russia itself
Looking at this list, one could easily identify areas in which the advancement of one country’s interests can also advance that of the other. Obviously, both China & Russia would benefit from preventing the spread of religious extremism & separatism. Both countries would benefit from a more integrated & interconnected EEU – Russia would advance its economic development, while China would get a more streamlined land-bridge to Europe. Finally there are the goals that do not conflict each other – China’s increased trade with Central Asia does not give rise to anti-Russian regimes or sentiments (in fact it has sparked occasional fear among Central Asians about Chinese economic monopoly, which could drive Central Asians to solidify ties with Russia as a counterbalancing force).
On the other hand, even if one party successfully squeezed out the other, the “winning” country would actually cause harm to its own self-interests in the region. Let’s imagine a scenario where the PRC successfully eliminates all Russian political & cultural influence (by some miracle), and completely dominates Central Asia economically, politically, & militarily. It would be able to exploit Central Asia’s natural resources & contain Islamic extremism, but Central Asia’s value as a part of a land bridge would be virtually useless without accessing transit through Russia. Granted going south through Iran and Turkey is a potential alternative, but a very poor one given the region’s constant political and military strife. The same scenario of sub-optimal outcomes is also applicable to Russia. Let’s now imagine the reverse, where Russia is able to completely push out all Chinese economic influence and achieve total hegemony in Central Asia. It would be able to ensure pro-Russian governments stay in power & contain the spread of radical Islam, but would be hard-pressed to advance EEU integration without any outside participation and investments.
Much like the dynamics of the Sino-Russian territorial dispute, current interactions in Central Asia has reached a point where zero-sum competition – even if successfully executed by one party against the other – is more likely to undermine the interests of the “winning” party, rather than advance it.
The traditional assumption that China and Russia “are destined to remain suspicious rivals” is increasingly becoming out of date. This is NOT just because American hostility has pressured Russia and China to set aside old rivalries, but rather those old rivalries are becoming less and less relevant to both sides, as the payoffs of “victory” in these spheres of competition has far passed the point of diminishing returns. In fact, looking at both the old territorial disputes and the dynamics of Central Asia, one could argue that Russia and China are in a strange and rare “reverse prisoners’ dilemma”, where the incentive to “cooperate” far outweighs the incentive to “cheat”, and “victory” of one side over the other represents a worse strategic outcome for the “victor” than a “stalemate”.