Russia and China: the inevitable end of the 'strategic partnership'?

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Janusz Onyszkiewicz
Janusz Onyszkiewicz

Former minister of national defence of Poland

In a report presented by the CIA in 2019, the possibly tightening cooperation between Moscow and Beijing is presented as the most challenging development for US interests. China and Russia are seen as having many common interests and similar approaches to the main global challenges. Both countries share very similar non-democratic political systems, their economies are compatible and both are ready to challenge America’s position in the world.

As we see today, these commonalities form a solid basis for close cooperation between the two and create the potential for even deeper cooperation in the future. However, there are very serious problems that may, in the not-so-distant future, alter and even overturn this ‘rosy’ situation.

The source of potential future Russo-Chinese conflict lies in geography and history. In the 17th century, Russia was in the process of absorbing new territories in Siberia and ultimately had to regulate its acquisitions with China. The resulting treaty signed in Nerchinsk in 1686 established the Russo-Chinese border on river Amur. However, two centuries later, Russia extracted almost 1.5mn km2 of new territories from China that now constitute its Far East region. The treaties which the Chinese were forced to sign established the border on the Ussuri river and were later declared as “unfair and unequal”. Mao Zedong openly raised the issue of these lost territories, blaming Russia for having ruthlessly exploited a weakness of China.

These tensions culminated in a series of Sino-Soviet border clashes in 1969 on islands in the Ussuri river. The Russians successfully repelled the Chinese attempt to gain control of the Damansky Island. In the clashes, about 60 Russian and 800 Chinese soldiers were killed and the defence of the island became part of the Russian national mythos.

With the concept of communism becoming sterile and lacking any inspirational power, nationalism is naturally filling the vacuum

However, starting from the 1980s, under the rule of Deng Xiaoping, China embarked on a gradual process of replacing the communist ‘totalitarian utopia’ with an autocracy that placed strong emphasis on economic growth and market mechanisms. Russia, with its tremendous raw material resources across the border, became an indispensable partner for China. The problem of “unequal treaties”, therefore, had to be put on hold.

This does not mean the hatchet has been buried. Maps available in China – and often used in schools – still present these territories as ‘temporarily abandoned’. China is practising a creeping annexation of territories along the Ussuri river. By a skilful alteration of the main current of this river, China has gained control of a host of river islands, resulting in the acquisition of almost 1500 km2 of formerly Russian territory. The Damansky Island, a scene of fierce fighting in 1969, is now in China and on the island is a small museum dedicated to the battles. Every year Chinese border guard conscripts begin their service by taking an oath there.

It seems that the long-held Chinese approach of ‘keep a low profile, hide capabilities and bide time’ is gradually being replaced by the ‘China Dream’, which Xi Jinping defines as “a great rejuvenation of the nation”. With the concept of communism becoming sterile and lacking any inspirational power, nationalism is naturally filling the vacuum. If, at some point in the future, China faces domestic issues resulting, for example, from a mismatch between growing aspirations and economic growth, the issue of lost territories and the need to secure Siberian resources can easily be brought onto the political agenda. The Chinese museum exhibitions arranged under the slogan “do not forget the humiliations of the Nation and revive the national spirit” can serve as a new source of inspiration.

Russia is fully aware of the gravity of its Far East problem. Memories of the loss of Alaska and northern California still remain. The danger that the Far East could, economically, become part of China lingers. And these worries are well-founded. The economy of the region was dominated by heavy and defence industries which collapsed in the post-Soviet era. What remains is the excavation of raw materials, predominantly oil and gas, and exploitation of timber, making the region a raw material supplier to China.

China is rather reluctant to develop any confidence-building measures and mechanisms of military transparency in the region.

The spectre of China looming over the Russian Far East has somehow been dispersed by policy of later Chinese leadership. Officially, China is very seriously trying not to alarm the Russians and to avoid anything that would affect Russia’s national pride.  Nevertheless, the dilemma Russia faces persists: how can it develop the Far East without endangering its status? The region needs external investments and personnel to work there. The problem is that Russia, with its hostile policy towards the West, could hardly expect to attract backers from the West, Japan or South Korea. That makes China by far the key potential investor.

On top of that, the population in the region is diminishing due to negative birth rates and mass emigration to central Russia: between 1990 and 2010, every fifth resident left the region, most of them young people. Therefore, most of the potential labour force would have to come from China. In other words, this could result in a swift Sinicisation of the region, opening the way for another ‘Alaska scenario’. Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote quite rightly that “Siberian natural resources are immense, but without western support Russia cannot be sure to retain a control over the region.”

There is, however, another possible scenario. China could also opt for a much harsher and rapid solution through the use of force. This scenario is clearly in the minds of the Russian military who are concerned about the lack of military balance in the Far East. While Russia’s Eastern Strategic Command has as many as four army-sized headquarters (in comparison to a mere two in the Western Command), it is not underpinned by a sufficient number of active troops and would have to rely on a massive redeployment. This would not be easy, as there are only two railway lines – of poor quality – between central Russia and the Far East. On top of that, China is rather reluctant to develop any confidence-building measures and mechanisms of military transparency in the region. Military exercises in 2006 and 2009 were interpreted in Moscow as an indication of Chinese readiness to launch a large-scale offensive against Russia.

It is not just the military that is worried about China. The well-known Russian political analyst Dmitri Trenin was already cautioning in 2000, “The widespread fear of a yellow peril is the complete opposite of official complacency and self-satisfaction. (…). What is new is that what seemed a remote prospect decades ago is now perceived to be rapidly becoming reality.” Nikita Mikhalkov, a Russian nationalist and staunch supporter of President Putin, released a film with a very telling title “China takes over Russia”. In it, China crushes Russian forces in a matter of weeks and seizes the Far East. Eastern Siberia is interminably rented to China and Western Siberia becomes a kind of Chinese-Russian condominium. It is worth noting that the film was seen in Russia by more than 3 million viewers.

When rummaging in the Russian internet, one can find many comparisons between present Russo-Chinese relations and World War II, when the Soviet Union allied with Hitler’s Germany. It seemed at that time that the two countries shared many common interests: the Soviet Union provided Germany with raw materials, while Germany presented the Soviets with a brand-new heavy cruiser ‘Lützow’. Yet everybody knows how that alliance ended…

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