Israel Rafalovich
Israel Rafalovich

Between antagonism and ambivalence: Russia-China relations

For decades the antagonism between Russia and China was a constant of international politics.

Such mutual relations tend to be marked by ambivalence.

With hardly any other country has Russia fostered contacts with such intensity as with China.

External trade relations have developed with similar intensity. Second only to Germany, China has become Russia’s most important trading partner.

China’s importance to Russia with regard to external trade extends beyond the quantitative aspect. China is one of the few markets in which Russia can sell plant and machinery.

Both sides show an equal interest in greater cooperation. During the past years, it has been said repeatedly that a constructive partnership was developed on the bases of “balanced relations”. This partnership, however, was not an alliance, nor directed against third parties.

There are several reasons for China’s significant role in Russian foreign policy. The two biggest Asian land powers have a common border of 4 300km. Furthermore, there is a border of a further 3 000km between China and central Asia, which Moscow views as a direct sphere of interest.

During his last visit to Beijing in October 2004, Russian President Putin signed an agreement that finalised the demarcation of their border along the Ussuri River, near the far eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk. This resolved 40 years of bilateral border disputes.

The significance of Sino-Russian relations is not only growing, it is also changing. This is closely linked with the new orientation of Russian foreign policy on Asia during recent years.

The Soviet side had previously perceived the Asia-Pacific region exclusively under military-strategic aspects. The new orientation was aimed at integrating the then USSR into this dynamic part of the world economy and, at the same time, bringing Soviet power to bear.

China was the central factor in the policy towards Asia, whereas Japan was to play a major role in the economic field. Steps were also taken, therefore, to normalise relations with Japan.

Change, of course, was also adopted in favour of South Korea and the Korean peninsula.

China was worried about a rapprochement between Russia and Taiwan. In strategic terms, a possible total orientation by Russia to the West was viewed as a development that could shift the global balance of power to the disadvantage of China.

Moscow’s policies are still primarily oriented to the United States and Japan. In Moscow there was a growing call to attach equal importance to the relations with the West and East in view of the refusal by the US to accept Russia as an equal-ranking partner and to foster its economic integration into the region.

Russia decided that it needed to reassess the role of China in its foreign policy.

A far-reaching change in orientation took place in the foreign-policy discussions in Moscow. Concepts came to the fore that were aimed at the assertion of “national interests” through a policy oriented to a balance of power.

China became not only a renewed focus of Russian foreign policy towards Asia as a direct neighbour, but also a counterbalance to Japan and the US. Moscow once again began to play the Chinese card.

For the Russians, the relation between Russia and China ensured the necessary balance in Russia’s relations with the West and, viewed as a whole, between East and West.

Close relations between Russia and China are also useful in conflicts with the US and Japan.

The demonstration of harmony is explained by extensive mutual interests in various fields.

One common interest was to promote the economic development of one’s own country. This meant a common interest in the creation of regional and global security, which would be able to create the peaceful environment needed for economic development.

There was also a common interest in countering the disintegration of multiethnic states, common ground in the fight against fundamentalist tendencies especially in Islam, a concurrent need to stabilise the situation in Central Asia.

China is grateful for Russian support in multilateral regional security initiatives, which the two discussed along with delegates from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The group agreed to move forward with plans to establish an anti-terrorism centre in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent.

The SCO, which has Moscow’s support, is useful for China’s domestic security agenda. China announced an ”anti-crime campaign” in the western province of Xinjiang, the home to the ethnic Uighur separatists that Beijing accused of being behind a series of bombings in the region.

There has long been international condemnation of human rights violations in China’s campaign against Uighur separatists, so the timing of the crackdown coincides with Russian- and SCO-backed anti-terrorist initiatives and is designed to lend it legitimacy.

In return, China enhanced its economic involvement with economies of Central Asia and the Russian far east, and at the same time both Moscow and Beijing benefited from limiting of American influence in the region.

China and Russia are retooling their strategies to attenuate American dominance and ensure that the US will not override their interest impunity in the future. Both states remain committed to closer relations with the US. They are also deeply dismayed by the US’s handling of the Iraq crisis and less inclined to pursue their ties to the US at high cost to other national interests.

For the Chinese, this can translate into a more muscular assertion of China’s role as the dominant Asia-Pacific power, while Russia is expected to underline its geostrategic value as a nuclear power.

Russia has an interest in a more orderly world. The current mechanisms for bringing about changes are few and not very effective.

China is on the lookout for new alliances that would level the playing field more with the US in managing global affairs.

China’s anxiety over American global power brought it to call for new alliances whose purpose is to include military support for Iran in order to check American control of the Persian Gulf.

China is keeping an eye on the consequences of the Iraq crisis on the Asian region. The Chinese would like to consolidate their relations with the US but, at the same time, they are very pragmatic and determined to defend what they regard as their own interests.

China defends its military cooperation with Russia, while strongly attacking American efforts to build space-based weapons like its proposed national missile defence.

Russia and China’s joint stance against the development of outer-space weapons and in an apparent condemnation of the proposed American national missile defence warned that the development of space-based weapons would lead to a new arms race.

On the other hand, Moscow is not planning a joint response with China to the American decision to abandon the 1972 ABM treaty and to build a missile defence shield.

At the same time, conflicts still exist between Russia and China, especially in the field of economic cooperation, and the significance of the economic relations between the two countries is repeatedly emphasised.

The military components of cooperation have become the subject of controversy.

Various factors play a role here. Russia has become one of the most important arms suppliers of China.

China has purchased two Sovermenny-class modern Russian destroyers, and the high-tech machines brought tension to the Taiwan Straits. The destroyers sailed through the Taiwan Straits as a reminder of China’s massive amphibious war games and ballistic missile tests.

China signed a contract to purchase the destroyers in 1997 as a response to Washington’s dispatch of two aircraft carrier groups to the Taiwan Strait to monitor the 1996 military exercise, a move that further heightened tensions in the strait.

Intensive collaboration is also developing in the fields of military training and technological cooperation.

This is viewed critically in Russia, since the economic form of implementation — to a large extent based on barter trade — is regarded as a disadvantage, and adverse consequences are feared to Russian relations with South-East Asia. On the other hand, the question is raised whether a “future enemy” is not being provided with arms.

The Russian media ask whether measures of unilateral disarmament since the beginning of the nineties should be revoked in view of the armament tendencies in the Asia-Pacific region.

The antagonisms are made even greater by differing views on a host of international issues. Regardless of assurances to the contrary by both sides, these differences are not unimportant. They mainly revolve around Russia’s relations with Taiwan, the claims of both sides in Central Asia as well as the role of Russia in South-East Asia, where it likes to be viewed as China’s opposite number.

From a Russian perspective, the Chinese card is fraught with risks. The decisive aspect is whether the individual conflicts can be resolved in the future rationally or whether they will be perceived and assessed in light of what is claimed to be a lesson in history.

Russia finds itself in a difficult situation in Asia especially in regard to China. Russia was formerly accustomed to compensate its traditional sense of inferiority towards the West through the awareness of superiority towards the countries in the East.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, Russia can no longer play the part of the “big brother”, but is rather obliged to accept that a change has taken place in China’s favour, that it is being economically overtaken by its eastern neighbour.

Although an open conflict in the near future is ruled out, voices are being heard in Russia that consider the possibility that China is working towards a territorial revision against Russia; others are convinced that this is already the goal of Chinese policies. The risk is portrayed in the economic field that Russia’s far eastern — and, to a certain extent, Siberian — territories could become Chinese raw materials colonies.

In the Russian foreign policy, there is no sign of a clear position in regard to Moscow’s relationship with China.

The direction that prevails in the Russian Foreign Ministry seems to call for “equal relations” with powers east and west of Russia’s borders and not viewing the potential risks as too great, at least not in the short term.

China appears as a unique partner for economic cooperation and as counterbalance in relations with the West.

On the other hand, China is viewed by others as a “unique risk”, but with hope to integrate it into a security policy system through close cooperation and thus restraining any danger that might ensue.

Others among the decision-makers in the Russian Foreign Ministry view the risks emanating from China as the argument for a strategic partnership with the West.

The question that is being raised now is: How will Sino-Russian relations at the dawn of the 21st century develop? Will the world witness a new conflict between the two powers with a reversed balance of power and with territorial claims on China’s part? Or will the world witness an alliance between Russia and China against the West?

Despite China’s significance for Russia today, it has neither the capital Russia requires for its transformation nor the necessary technology that could enable the country to turn its back completely on the West.

A close alliance with China would increase Russia’s isolation from Western countries and from the newly industrialising Asian states, and thus widen the gap to technologically advanced countries.

Such a development would also aggravate the existing social and political crisis in the Russian far east. At the same time, the social differences between Russia and China would increase.

China is also primarily working in a different direction.

At the moment Russia cannot act as a substitute in the event of a break-off in relations with Beijing’s main partners. China also has no interest in regaining Russia as an active co-player in the Asia-Pacific region.

In the event of an increase in Western pressure on China, however, it could feel compelled to close ranks with Russia.

The future development will be substantially determined by Western policies. Up until now, this consideration has hardly been taken into consideration in the policy of European countries towards Russia.

A strategic alliance between Moscow and Beijing is very unlikely. Both countries are rivals in major regions in struggle for hegemony.

Despite all the progress in the development of mutual relations, there are deep-rooted conflicts. The friction between the two countries is currently so slight because they are both primarily preoccupied with their problems, but the end of rivalry had not come yet.