China and Russia’s coordinated policies in foreign affairs and economic endeavors belie deep-seated fissures that might well prevent their current period of cooperation from evolving into a sustained alliance.
Despite China’s planned participation in Russia’s annual Caucus 2020 exercises on September 21-26, Sino-Russian history is so replete with war, unequal treaties and racism, there seems little probability that their present military cooperation will succeed in developing into a military alliance.
The current Russo-Chinese cooperation seems loosely rooted in the notion that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Both countries apparently believe that checking U.S. power is in their national interests. China wants the U.S. to withdraw from its military and diplomatic commitments in the Western Pacific, thereby allowing Beijing to assert primacy in Asia, at least for a start. Russia seems to want the U.S. to decouple itself from the decades-old NATO alliance, thereby enabling Moscow to re-assert its dominance in the Baltic region and Eastern Europe.
Russia’s drive eastward in the late 17th century already brought Russians into conflict with China’s Qing Dynasty. After a series of clashes in the 1680s, the two empires temporarily settled on a boundary along the banks of the Amur River, separating Manchurian China from the Russian Far East. The Chinese, however, apparently resented Russia’s intrusion into a region Beijing considered its backyard. The Chinese also seem to have felt humiliated by defeats in subsequent wars with Russia and by having been coerced into signing what Beijing still refers to as “unequal treaties.” The ill will generated between China and Russia over several military conflicts in the 18th and 19th centuries, and a fierce ideological rivalry in the late 20th century, might also be an obstacle to an enduring bilateral alliance. Some Chinese commentators allege that Russia still occupies hundreds of thousands of square miles of Chinese territory seized in Tsarist times. China even recently claimed that Vladivostok, the most prominent city in Russia’s Far East, is historically Chinese territory.
China and Russia’s profoundly different cultures might also help to limit a bilateral honeymoon. A portion of Russia’s self-image is that of protector of the Slavic World, guardian of the Orthodox Christian faith, and the lead society in the Eurasian landmass from the Urals to the Pacific. Moscow’s historical view of China further seems conflated with a contempt for the Mongols, who cruelly subjugated Russian Slavdom for centuries. Ethnic tensions took a dark turn in July 1900, when Russian soldiers in the Amur River territory of Blagoveshchensk executed a racist rampage with forced deportation, and killing roughly 5,000 Chinese in the operation.
China sees itself as synonymous with civilization and calls itself “Jungwo” or center country. The Great Wall was continuously maintained by Chinese dynasties to keep out what China viewed as the “northern barbarians”: the Russians and earlier marauders. Chinese racism seems to extend to everyone outside its civilization’s values, such as China’s current concentration camps holding more than a million Uighurs, who are Turkic, as well as against Africans doing business in China.
Today, most Russians who live in Siberia reside less than 150 miles from the Chinese border, and the Russian population in these border provinces is in decline. Siberia, larger than the continental United States and India combined, is home fewer than 35 million people, with hundreds of millions of Chinese just over the border. At some point, China may start eyeing this energy- and mineral-rich region of Russia. Chinese investors have already leased large swathes of land in Russia’s Far Eastern realms.
The only major link that connects European and Asian Russia is the Trans-Siberian Railroad. China is now building more roads and more rail connectivity.
President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is clearly the junior partner in the Sino-Russian anti-American “alliance of convenience”: China’s growth is nearly five times that of Russia. Bilateral trade is increasing with the hoped-for goal of reaching $200 billion by 2024. Most of their joint projects are being carried out in agriculture, light industry, and energy. Last month, the two countries agreed to initiate two new joint projects: a gas processing plant and a bilateral insurance company. China’s investments in Russia are largely in energy, agriculture, forestry, construction materials, textiles, and household electric goods.
China seems to see Russia less as an economic partner than as a source for extraction of energy and raw materials. In 2019, Russian exports to China consisted almost entirely of oil, mineral ores, and wood. China appears to favor procurement of technically advanced products from the West rather than from its Eurasian ally. China, for instance, awarded contracts for hydroelectric products for its massive Three Gorges Dam to two European consortia, one headed by Germany’s Siemens Corporation, the other by the British/French GEC-Alstom, evidently preferring western designs to bids by Russia’s “Energomashexport.” Additionally, the trading branch of a major Chinese oil refining enterprise has been turning down Russian crude oil exports since Moscow’s state petroleum institution, Rosneft, was sanctioned by the United States.
There seem to be problems even in the most vibrant dimension of Sino-Russian cooperation: arms sales. While China in the past purchased billions of dollars of fighter and bomber aircraft from Russia, Beijing has quickly been developing its own arms industry, sometimes reverse engineering Russian weapons systems. Russia, perhaps annoyed at China’s aggressive pattern of copying its weapons systems — such as the SU-27 fighter and the S-300 surface to air missile system — has delayed a planned shipment of its premier S-400 air defense system. Moscow, it seems, decided to deliver the system to China’s regional arch-rival India instead. China’s development of its most modern stealth fighter aircraft, the Chengdu J-20, resembles a cancelled variant of a Russian fighter aircraft.
China is already successfully challenging Russia for influence among the post-Soviet states in Central Asia, particularly in Tajikistan. China’s establishment of a military base inside Tajikistan near its border with Afghanistan appears to have bested Russia’s effort to provide the Tajik government with security against Afghanistan-based jihadists just across the border.
Another area of disagreement is China’s opposition to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its subsequent invasion of Ukraine.
A major plank of disingenuously articulated Chinese foreign policy is the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. While disapproving of Russia’s assaults on sovereign states, China seems to have no problem asserting its own will in and around other states, for instance, in the South and East China Seas, India and the Galapagos Islands.
Russia, in turn, has not supported China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea, in an attempt not to alienate Vietnam, the Philippines or Malaysia.
Mainly, this bilateral condominium might be doomed to collapse because there is no trust in the relationship. Russian security officers recently arrested a Russian scientist accused of spying for China. Russia and China act far more like competitors than allies. Their common antipathy for the United States most likely presents a distorted image of a coordinated policy agreement. These two authoritarian rivals could eventually assume their normal historical role as adversaries, even enemies. Consequently, Western intelligence agencies and policymakers might want to be wary of not overestimating the solidity and longevity of the Chinese-Russian friendship.