By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)
The complex geo-politics of the world have been reshaping nearly every two decades. Russia and China are two giant neighbours that occupy the largest landmass in Asia. Traditionally they have been two antagonist societies but have often chosen marriages of convenience. Their relations post World War II era have been vacillating between extremes. Currently the relationship is best described as close, unequal, unreal and complex.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US-China alliance de-facto ended, and a China-Russia rapprochement began. In 1992, the two countries declared that they were pursuing a “constructive partnership”; in 1996, they progressed toward a “strategic partnership”; and in 2001, they signed a treaty of “friendship and cooperation.”
The two countries now enjoy close military, economic, and political equations, and support each other on various global issues.
In the 17th century, China and Russia fought for the dominance of Siberia. By the mid-19th century, China’s economy and military lagged far behind the colonial powers. The Russian Empire exacted many concessions from China. Meanwhile, Russian culture and society, especially the elite, were westernized.
Public anger against Chinese emperor led to a revolution.
In late 1917, Russia too had a civil war. In 1922, the Soviet Union was formed, and they supported China’s revolution. Yet, Sino-Soviet relations remained fractious, and both countries fought two wars in the next ten years.
In 1949, with Soviet support, the communists established the People’s Republic of China, and made an alliance with the Soviets. Mao became the supreme leader.
The Soviets helped China’s industrialisation. After Stalin’s death, China found that the Soviets had shifted to socialism. It encouraged Mao to plunge China into the ‘Cultural Revolution’ to expunge traces of the Soviet ways of thinking.
Beijing was pleased when the Soviets crushed the Warsaw Pact dissidents. China was also happy with Soviet were the first to launch a man in space, and that communists had caught up with west on technology. But there were serious differences on approach to nuclear deterrence.
Moscow was cultivating India, as a major purchaser of munitions and as a strategically-critical ally. However, China escalated threats to the northern parts of India, especially from Tibet. Moscow clearly favoured India and Beijing felt betrayed as a result.
Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ included the Chinese rejection of the Soviet form of economic development that upset the Soviets. The Soviets withdrew their technicians along with the economic and military aid. The split was finally ideological and forced communist parties around the world to take sides.
The Soviets gave refuge to 50,000 refugees who escaped from Xinjiang in July 1963 to escape persecution. China ridiculed the Soviet incompetence in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. After the seven-month Sino-Soviet border conflict of 1969, China started considering the Soviet Union a greater threat than the US.
In turn, overtures were made between the PRC and the US, such as in the Ping Pong Diplomacy and the 1972 Nixon visit to China.
Differences Continue to Grow
After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping consolidated his power by 1981. But the philosophical difference between both countries did not reduce. The 1979, the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, a Soviet ally, did not go well with Soviets. In 1982, Brezhnev and Deng agreed to restore diplomatic relations. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became President of the Soviet Union. In 1989, he withdrew Soviet support from the communist government of Afghanistan. The rapprochement accelerated after the Soviet Union fell and was replaced by the Russian Federation in 1991. Russia itself turned to privatization.
Complex US-China Initial Relations and Rapprochement
The US did not formally recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for 30 years after its founding. Instead, the US maintained diplomatic relations with the Republic of China government in Taiwan.
In 1950, the US fought the 1950 Korean War against China and Soviet Union. This worsened the US-China relations for the times to come.
China provided resources and training to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Once China became nuclear-armed in 1964, it put limits on the US to take on China directly. Watching the Sino-Indian border war in November 1962 and Beijing’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US concluded that China was more militant and more dangerous than the Soviet Union. The US placed an embargo on trading with the PRC.
Once US decided to wind down the Vietnam War in 1968, it gave China an impression that the US had no interest of expanding in Asia anymore and the USSR remained a bigger threat.
In 1969, the US began relaxing trade restrictions on China. During the February 1972 Nixon visit to China, the two sides issued the Shanghai Communiqué, pledging to work toward the full normalization of diplomatic relations.
The US also now acknowledged that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China. During Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping’s January 1979 visit to Washington, many bilateral agreements on science and technology, cultural interchange, and trade were signed.
The US-China military cooperation began in 1979; American arms sales to China were initiated, and in 1981, it was revealed that a joint US-China listening post had been activated in Xinjiang, near the Soviet border although Chinese demands for advanced technology from the US were not always met.
US Realises China Mistake
President Ronald Reagan’s vociferous anti-communism and serious differences with China on the Israel–Palestine conflict, and on the Falklands War, saw the beginning of deterioration in relations.
The differences increased after the suppression of the Tiananmen protests. The US and other governments enacted a number of measures against China’s violation of human rights. Subject to certain exceptions, no licenses were to be issued for the export of any defence article on the US munitions list.
Import of defence articles from the PRC was banned. This has not been restored till date. Taiwan remained a major issue, and Washington continued to support Taiwan, including with arms.
China was also upset with the US’s Indo-Pacific defence strategy, which was widely viewed as aiming to isolate China in the East Asian region. President Xi has also been dismissive of US complaints about cyber security even as China’s claims in the South China Sea and rapid island building brought to open the Chinese expansionist plans. Meanwhile, US friends in the region have been looking for leads from Washington.
China’s rise is seen as a “threat to the world order underpinned by American dominance or American values.” President Trump was more aggressive and questioned the “One-China policy” without getting any strategic advantage in return.
The exit from Afghanistan will allow more attention and military build-up in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean to checkmate China. The US is arming South Korea with the THAAD missile-defence system, is building close military cooperation with India and supporting the QUAD.
Punitive tariffs have been imposed on many Chinese companies and human-rights issues in Xinjiang and Tibet are getting the free-world’s attention. The US government has also designated five Chinese government controlled media firms as “foreign missions.”
More recently, the US has been accusing China for the worldwide coronavirus epidemic. The US blocked shipments of semi-conductors to Huawei, while China, threatened to place Apple, Boeing, and other US firms on “unreliable entities” lists.
The US also criticized Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping as “a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology.” The US also imposed sanctions on many Hong Kong and Chinese officials for their role in curtailing political freedoms in Hong Kong.
Post Dissolution–Unsettled Russia Moves Closer to China
Unlike China, Russia went through an unregulated form of privatisation after the Soviet dissolution, resulting in deep socio-economic inequalities and a collapsed economy.
Clearly, after the Cold War, China emerged far more stable economically, with high growth rates. The Russian economy was mostly driven by export of natural resources to Europe and Asia.
With a weakened Russia, diplomatic relations between China and Russia dramatically improved. Their long land border was demarcated in 1991. The US-China alliance ended and Russia-China began a “constructive partnership”. In 1996, it became a “strategic partnership”.
In December 1998, both pledged building an ‘equal and reliable partnership’. Both tacitly reinforced that the US was their main competitor.
In 2001, they signed a treaty of good-neighbourliness and friendly cooperation, a 20-year strategic, economic, and an implicit military treaty. They also began the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to counter the growing US influence in Central Asia.
Relationship of Convenience
Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power and consolidation of Putin’s hold, the two nations have become closer militarily, economically, and politically, and begun supporting each other on various global issues.
China remains an important purchaser and licensee of Russian military equipment. It is also a main beneficiary of the Russian Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline. While Russia has increasingly raised concerns about China’s ambitions and influence in Central Asia, an area traditionally within Russian influence, the Sino-Russian relations are currently close and cordial.
Complex Defence and Economic Relations
As the Russian currency collapsed after the 1991 dissolution, China used this opportunity to flood the Russian market with cheap Chinese imitations including of the globally appreciated Russian crystal and porcelain.
Cash-strapped Russia was desperate for markets. Fast-growing China needed military hardware and energy resources. On the other hand, despite Russian protests, China reverse-engineered most Russian weapons platforms and started becoming independent. It added to Russian worries that China has already started taking over erstwhile Russian defence markets in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
West Pushes Russia into Chinese Arms
Despite a major landmass in Asia, traditionally, the Russian people and rulers have preferred to be known as a European nation. After dissolution they hoped to become a western country. China realised the Russian insecurity.
On the other hand, the US snubbed Russia and tried to move closer to Russian borders by taking in more erstwhile Warsaw pact countries into the NATO and EU fold. This pushed Russia, to its own detriment, into the Chinese arms.
The western powers also helplessly watched as Russia engineered occupation of strategically crucial Crimea. That was the only way for their Black Sea fleet to remain relevant.
China and the US have issues related to trade, technology and Indo-Pacific. For Russia, the main issue is severe western economic sanctions, as punishment for annexing Crimea. Interestingly, China does not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Russia does not support China’s claims in the South China Sea.
Therefore, there is no overt ideological alignment between Russia and China today. The two governments share a hostile history of dissent, deep suspicion of western interference and a strong desire to impose tighter controls over their own societies.
Both have cracked down on non-governmental organisations. Russia appreciates China’s comprehensive internet censorship and “social credit” plan to rank citizens based on their loyalty and behaviour.
Russia-China Economic Relations
The aggravation of relations between Russia and western countries has contributed to the expansion of economic ties with China. Bilateral trade is on target to reach $120 billion in 2021. Plan is for $200 billion by 2024.
Russia has a negative trade balance with China with China clearly dominating the relationship. China and Russia have long advocated reducing the role of the dollar in international trade and so emphasis on bilateral trade. Russia’s decision to use Huawei equipment in its 5G trials was announced with fanfare. Of course there are issues to resolve.
BRICS, RIC and BRI
Participation in such organizations as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and RIC (Russia-India-China) adds significant importance for Russian-Chinese economic relations.
The Chinese “silk road economic belt” is planned to go to Europe through Central Asia and Russia. These projects will be financed mostly by China-created and dominated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), to which Russia is a party. The Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) Chongqing-Xinjiang-Europe route will also pass through Russia.
Military and Defence Production Relations
After the EU arms embargo on China imposed as a consequence of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, China moved back to Russia for military hardware, making up for 25-50 percent of all Russian foreign military sales. In 1999, China also discussed the one-billion dollar Israeli-Russian sale of AEW&C jointly produced by Russia and Israel.
In 2004, Russia blocked the sale of both the Su-35 and Tupolev Tu-22M bombers to China over concerns of reverse engineering of platforms. Later Su-35s and S-400 air defence systems were sold to China.
China now focuses on domestic weapon designs and manufacturing, while still importing certain military products from Russia such as jet engines. China has decided to become independent in its defence sector and become more competitive in the global arms markets.
China’s 2015 Defence White Paper called for “independent innovation” and the “sustainable development” of advanced weaponry and equipment. In December 2019, Russia again accused China of intellectual property theft of a range of military technologies. In June 2020, Russia charged one of its Arctic scientists of passing sensitive information to China.
Perceptions by Local Populations
Since the Sino-Soviet border opened in 1988, Russian officials and media have warned about “Sinification” of the Russian Far East. In recent years, such warnings have reduced due to concerted efforts to promote relations. Russia’s weak currency has helped attract Chinese tourists, accounting for nearly 30 percent of Russia’s tourism. 71 percent of the Chinese think Russia has a positive effect on world affairs.
To Summarise—Unequal Complex Dynamics
China and Russia have been carrying out strategic coordination, especially when it comes to the US. But, Russia is conscious that in the long run, China would leave it high and dry.
Beijing and Moscow have refused the US demand for China to participate in the US-Russia nuclear disarmament negotiations. The Chinese are worried that under the context of the deterioration of China-US relations, Russia will be drawn by the US to its side.
International relations are complicated. The relationship between great powers cannot be generalised with simple values and ideologies. Currently, the US has launched various sanctions against both China and Russia. China is also under attack for Covid-19. Seemingly, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is the approach.
Russia is also conscious that oil as a source of energy is fast losing significance and in the long run would lose huge revenues and export dependence.
Xi is pushing the BRI with Chinese companies contracting to build roads, railways, fibre-optic cables, and other hard infrastructure across the Eurasia and beyond. Natural resources are the only sector where Chinese and Russian interests most strongly overlap.
People-to-people ties may have improved but the mistrust remains. As China-Russia economic connections strengthen, their relationship will become even more unequal. Russia will, in effect, become a junior partner after having been a super-power and having groomed Chinese communism and its defence industry.
China’s sheer mass, proximity, desire to dominate Russia and Central Asia, and deep-rooted history and willingness to economically coerce others could eventually compel Russia to look again to the West. A long history of competition and mistrust makes the recent warming in China-Russia relations all the more complex.
China currently needs Russian help to expand westward. Yet Russia is best positioned to spoil China’s ambitious forays. Currently, the West has forced Russia into Chinese arms. Both countries currently have authoritarian leaders. Both still have at least a decade of power ahead.
The possibility that Russia could lean again toward the West always remains high, especially if ambitious China decides to encroach into Russia’s Far-East.
The West has economic and security support to offer to wean away Russia. India continues to be the long-term friend of Russia and will be dependent on Russian arms for next two-three decades. Russia needs India as much India needs Russia. It will be in India’s long-term interest that Russia moves away from China and should therefore take all actions to support the same.
-The writer is a IAF veteran and Director-General Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS). The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda