The Conundrum of Russia-China Alliance

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a welcoming ceremony in Beijing, China, June 25, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Mikhail Klimentyev/via REUTERS

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a welcoming ceremony in Beijing, China, June 25, 2016. Sputnik/Kremlin/Mikhail Klimentyev/via REUTERS

Over the past two centuries, China and Russia were seldom good neighbors except in the decade from February 1950 when they were allies under a treaty of alliance called “The Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance” between Russia’s predecessor the Soviet Union and China.

The treaty has a term of 30 years but not the friendship or alliance. The alliance between China and the Soviet Union could not last so long. Soon, their traditional enmity prevailed. They broke up within one decade.

Perhaps, it was just as Stephen Blank, a senior fellow for Russia at the American Foreign Policy Council, points out, “every alliance has a horse and a rider.” In the 1950s, the Soviet Union had to be the rider as it was much richer and stronger. China did not want to remain Soviet Union’s horse when it had grown stronger. It wanted to be the rider too. The two began to fight for leadership of the socialist camp. However, their alliance remained in supporting Vietnam in its war with the US. They both gave Vietnam generous aids while China even sent troops to help Vietnam with its air defense.

Only when their fight worsened into a border war could the US be benefited from the breakup of their alliance. The Soviet Union deployed lots of tanks along Chinese border. To hinder Soviet tanks’ advance, China dug canals parallel to its border. There was large-scale construction of tunnels as air-raid shelters in China. Mao, the Chinese tyrant with military talents, adopted Sun Tzu’s strategy to subdue the enemy by diplomacy. He took the initiative to improve ties with the US. Scared by a possible alliance between the US and China, the Soviet Union agreed to ease tension along the border. In addition, it began to improve its relations with the US. There were détente and nuclear disarmament as a result.

How can the two long-term enemies become close allies? Perhaps, historic enmity can be disregarded for future benefit. The alliance of Germany and France in establishing the EU is a good example. However, that are the lessons they have learnt from two disastrous world wars. The border disputes between China and Russia were much more serious than those between Germany and France.

Chinese people know from reading history that under Russian threat, China cede 2 million square kilometers of land to Russia, but perhaps they do not know China has lost more. I was fond of reading maps when I was very young. In the old map before communist takeover in 1949, there were two Mongolia provinces in China, one Inner and the other Outer Mongolia. Later, in the new map published after communist takeover, China’s Outer Mongolia Province became Mongolian People’s Republic, an independent country. Puzzled by that, I asked older people. They told me that Russia and later its successor the Soviet Union had tried hard to split Outer Mongolia from China, made it declare independence in 1921 and turned it into Soviet Union’s satellite state, but China did not recognize its independence until the Chinese and Soviet communists became allies in the 1950s.

Therefore, Russia certainly is on its alert when China grows strong for fear that China may start a war to recover the land ceded to Russia and take Mongolia back as a part of China.

Russian’s Far East is an area with great development potential but Russian government has achieved little in developing the area in spite of its great efforts because Russian people do not want to move to that area.

Chinese people, however, are fond of finding opportunities there. First, they remember well the history that Russia pressured China’s weak and incompetent Qing Dynasty to cede 2 million square kilometers of land to Russia more than a century ago. Quite a few Chinese hold that China shall fight Russia to recover the ceded land. However, they do not know exactly where the 2 million square kilometers is. They do not care but just go into Russia to find a place they can settle down and regard the place as a part of the 2 million square kilometers.

The border between China and Russia is very long and a vast area of Russia along the border is sparsely populated. Russia shall have lots of border guards to intercept illegal immigrants. However, Russia lacks funds to keep so many border troops there nor are Russian troops willing to station in the barren cold land.

Since there are few people in the vast Russian area to the north of China’s Northeast, people in Northeast China believe entering that vast area to try their luck is a better choice. They have moved into the area illegally in large number. They brought much needed funds and diligent labor to Russia’s vast Far East and have made the area to some extent prosperous. Local Russian people are happy. They enjoy the better life caused by the immigration.

Moreover, there are more girls than boys in Russia resulting in difficulties for girls to find husbands. There are, however, more boys than girls in China. Chinese boys are welcome to marry Russian girls there. As a result, there are not only lots of Chinese immigrants but even lots of Chinese families with Russian wives. Russian government is seriously worried: China is turning Russia’s Far East into Chinese colony.

That is pure bloodless colonization of Russian territories. How can Russia not treat China as invader, aggressor and colonizer?

Central Asia is another area of conflicts between China and Russia. Russia has the dream to recover its glorious past. Not exactly the glorious past of the Soviet Union as one of the two superpowers in the world, but at least as a world power as Russia always was before the establishment of the Soviet Union. Central Asian countries were members of the Soviet Union as they were parts of the old Russia before the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union has collapsed, but Russia still has great influence in Central Asia. It has the ambition to take Central Asian countries back or at least retain them as its sphere of influence.

China has been making lots of investment to build infrastructures in those countries in order to exploit the natural resources there, especially oil and gas. The infrastructures, in addition, facilitate transfer of some Chinese industries to exploit the cheap labor there. China’s win-win cooperation with them may draw those Central Asian countries away from Russia to Chinese side.

India and Vietnam have long been Russia’s sphere of influence, but China is now providing them with loans and investment and may thus draw them to China’s side.

China’s military modernization provides a lucrative weapon market for Russia. Russia has made lots of profits from weapon sales to China, but there is serious problem: China learns Russian technology through reverse engineering. It uses Russian technology to produce copies of Russian weapons not only for itself but also for export to compete with Russia in international weapon market.

If Chinese economy grows at its current slowed but still fast rate, it will have much more funds for weapon development. Russia is afraid that China may soon surpass it in weapon technology and become Russia’s fierce rival in international weapon market.

The above conflicts of interests are impossible to reconcile. How can China and Russia become allies in disregard of such serious conflict of interests?

Faced with US military threat from Obama’s pivot to Asia, China has no choice but seeking alliance with Russia as Russia is the only country strong and willing enough to help China counter the US. China has made great efforts to make Russia trust it, but without unqualified success.

In fact, while selling China advanced weapons to help China modernize its military, Russia worried that when the threat in East and South China Seas had been removed, China might transfer its troops to its north to deal with Russia and possibly for recovery of the 2 million square kilometers of land ceded to Russia by China’s Qing Dynasty or annexation of Mongolia.

In September 2014, Russia conducted a large military exercise dubbed “Vostok 2014” in its Far East near Chinese border. Analysts say that it has been the largest Russian drill since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They believe the drill was meant to deter China.

For a long time, Russia has wanted to end or modify the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty between the U.S. and Russia in order to be able to have a strong deterrent on its border with China.

In its diplomacy, though refrains from explicitly antagonize China, Russia has tried its best to mend ties with Japan. During Russian President Putin’s visits to Vietnam and India respectively in late 2013 and 2014, Putin made efforts to strengthen its longtime alliance with the two countries in order to have allies to counter China if China’s rise becomes a threat to Russia.

The historical enmity and serious conflict of interests make it impossible for the two countries to be allies. The breakup of their alliance in the 1950’s precisely proves that.

In addition, according to US gifted political scientist Samuel Huntington’s views on clash of civilizations, Russia and China have two quite different civilizations so that clash of civilizations seems unavoidable especially as they share a long border.

However, history has proved that there is no eternal friendship or enmity. Friendship has to be built while enmity can be removed as well as created. It all depends on state leaders’ vision, wisdom and tact.

France and Germany had bitter enmity for decades, which gave rise to countless wars and even world wars. However, the leaders and peoples have learnt the lessons from their cruel wars and have the wisdom to make hard efforts to set up the European Union to become close allies within the union.

Russia is lucky that Obama’s pivot to Asia has pushed China to its side. Without any efforts of persuasion, US loyal follower China who even supported US decision to bring regime change in Libya at the expense of Russia, suddenly switched to Russia’s side to join Russia in vetoing US-initiated UN Security Council Decision aimed at bringing about regime change in Syria. Russia welcomed China but still lacked trust in China. It wanted China’s large market for its oil, gas and other natural resources and needed Chinese consumer goods and investment, but refused to provide China with preferential treatment in selling resources to China. As a result, there were lots of difficulties for the two in reaching their huge natural gas deal.

Due to lack of trust in China, Russia refrained from joining China in criticizing Japan for Japan’s war crimes in World War II or clearly supporting China’s stance in East and South China Seas.

Fortunately for China, carried away by their success in removing Russian influence in the Middle East, the West began to take over Ukraine that Russia regarded as a vital area for its survival. Russia and the West had contended for the area for a long time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both had made great efforts to influence the presidential election in Ukraine. Ukraine people were thus split into two camps: the pro-EU and pro-Russia camps. There was roughly balance of strength between the two camps so that there was sometimes a pro-Russian and sometimes a pro-EU president. Before the recent civil war in Ukraine, Russia had succeeded in having a pro-Russia president elected in Ukraine. China supported the pro-Russia president with lots of aids when he visited China. Ukraine at the same time agreed to sell advanced weapons and weapon technology to China.

To further contain Russia, the EU wanted Ukraine to join EU, which may lead to Ukraine joining NATO in confronting Russia. The pro-Russia president opposed that. With EU support, the pro-EU camp launched a street revolution and overthrew the president. To have a NATO member as its neighbor is utterly unacceptable to Russia. It sent troops to annex Crimea and set up pro-Russia militia to fight for independence in Ukraine’s two major industrial states.

Believing neither China or Russia can be US rival and the impossibility of Russia-China alliance, in addition to pushing China fully to Russia’s side, Obama took the lead to impose stringent sanctions to push Russia to Chinese side. China took the opportunity to help Russia to counter the sanctions. Obama has thus pushed Russia entirely into China’s arms.

The leaders see that in spite of all the differences and historical enmity that may give rise to clash of civilizations, the two countries have similar dreams for the recovery of their past glory that are supplementing instead of conflicting each other.

Russia wants its recovery as a European power as it always was in the past. The Soviet Union was a world superpower, but the major area of its dominance was in developed Europe instead of Asia. In spite of Tzars’ expansion to the east and Soviet attempt to develop Russia’s vast Asian part, Russia’s Far East remains underdeveloped and Russian people are not interested in moving to the east to develop eastern Russia.

To avoid China’s colonization of its Far East, Russia sets the precondition that in order to settle down in Russia a Chinese shall marry a Russian and then be naturalized. China has no objection. It explains to Russia that lots of Chinese have moved to Southeast Asia and other parts of the world without colonizing the areas they occupied. They have merged into local communities and helped develop local economy though kept some Chinese customs. They have never tried to dominate the politics there though they may have controlled the economy there.

China is happy that Russia can provide space for China’s surplus population while Russia is happy to absorb redundant Chinese people to prevent shrinking of its population and develop its underdeveloped areas its own people are unwilling to go to develop.

Chinese dream for recovery of its glorious past aims at growing strong to be able to resist foreign bullies. In Chinese history, China usually has no desire of expansion; therefore, China’s rise constitutes no threat to Russia. On the contrary, China will provide a huge market for Russia’s energy and other natural resources.

Central Asia may be an area of conflicts between China and Russia, but it is not as China makes clear it only want to joint force with Central Asian countries in developing their infrastructures and exploiting their natural resources to be economically benefited. It utterly has no intention to interfere with the politics there. Russia will thus be able to work for the recovery of political control of those former members of the Soviet Union without Chinese interference while benefiting from the economic development in those areas brought about by China.

So are China’s ties with India and Vietnam. They are economic but not political.

China’s sincerity has won Russian trust. It has not taken advantage of Russia’s predicament to ask for unreasonable terms in its transactions with Russia. They now have not only overcome their difficulties in concluding gas deal but have set up joint ventures to develop large airliners and helicopters.

However, the alliance of the two is indeed an alliance of necessity under US threat. Will the alliance break when the threat has been removed? I will try to answer the question in my next post.

Article by Chan Kai Yee


6 Comments on “The Conundrum of Russia-China Alliance”

  1. Joseph says:

    This article is about only about two strong countries which were greatly dissatisfied with the West and their conflicting interests. The article analyzes the relationship between the two countries on the point of view of the West, or at least where the West wants the relationship to be going. I don’t think the quoting of American geopolitical ‘scientist’ Samuel Huntington is necessary. After all, it is a common sense that two countries sharing a border are bound to create frictions. But the fact that Sam Huntington points out the obvious, indicates that in American political mindset, formenting dissents to create ‘frictions’ is a core US strategy to create imbalance that is beneficial to them. What the American refuses to realize is, they are formenting lots of dissent among borders and regions where they are trying to dominate, that it rings a loud bell that everyone notice that it was not natural border and social frictions, but is actually the American’s doings. That is why it is not about China and Russia conundrum anymore, but it would a worldwide conundrum. Already in SE Asia, Indonesia and Vietnam is getting closer to China and Russia, and getting away from the US. Even Philippines president Duterte, who is a treaty ‘ally’ of the American, is trying to get closer to China and Russia in order to get away from the American. Even some Western powerhouse like Germany who is always taunted for its long-ago NAZI past is more comfortable with China and Russia than with America its supposed ‘ally’. In Africa and Latin America where so far manage to avoid being harrassed by the American, China and Russia are prominent alternative to American domination. It will not long before the world bands together behind China and Russia to form some sort of second United Nation where the American and it cronies are not invited. This will be the alliance of necessity, where no frictions and interests matter much, including those between China and Russia. And the United States of America would be isolated as bad guys the way Soviet Union was isolated decades ago.


    • Steve says:

      Quite Sensible and I don’t fully agree with Huntington’s analysis of clash of civilisations between Russian and Chinese. I have known Russians migrating overseas calling themselves Chinese formerly living in China. The multi-cultural mix of Russian soldiers with Chinese blood can be seen clearly during military games. Historically, multicultural racial harmony and inter marriages can be seen with Nth Korean, Mongolian, Chinese and former soviet states before the break up of the soviet union. Multicultural education among communities is the most important element for racial harmony. As long as there are no forced religious baptism on each other especially in Islam and Christianity, there will be harmony between Russian, Chinese and so on.

      Take as an example in Indonesia and Malaysia, inter racial marriages between a Muslim and Chinese is almost non existent 3 to 5 decades ago due to forced religious indoctrination. The Christians are no different, but nowadays people are more liberal minded because education and business comes first and foremost for their survival.

      As long as SCO gains more membership and recognition, it will become a powerful unified body. Two economic powerhouses India and China included with Iran and others on observation status. In the near future, China and Russia probably will form a special alliance based on similarities of political and military doctrine. Both of these two countries cannot afford a breakup. The geographical advantages can’t get any better from North to South.


    • Sentinel says:

      Interesting viewpoints, both yours and Chan KY’s. If the Kremlin and Moscow do not get dominated by Neocons and Atlanticist supporters, but continue instead, to be controlled by Putinists, then there is bright hope for Russia and China.

      Although Russians are realistic and hardy people, fear of China’s huge population is indeed, a fearful thing itself, and would not be far from their mind. That there exist 10 Chinese for every one Russian, is indeed something to ponder over.

      Nevertheless, the last thing one should fear is fear itself. Let’s hope fascists, dreamers of empires and conquests, and psychopaths should never ever come into power to cause massive deaths and destruction in this world. It is a matter the world should be alert to. Hopefully, a system can be established to ensure that such people will be eliminated the opportunity to rise to power.


  2. Simon says:

    China is creating a human border by settling its citizens in other countries and controlling its economy. Even in countries in the West like Britain the Chinese hold such sway in their economy such as Hinckley were the new PM backed down like a silly puppy faced with the possibility of rich Chinese moving businesses elswhere and Chinese student switching universities to somewhere in Europe. I also heard that the Japanese economy will collapse if China recall their army of workers currently living in Japan. Japan is no longer a country of hardworking Japanese, the local no longer does the donkey work and rely heavily on skilled migrant workers from China. Can you imagine if there was a war with China Japan cannot survive on its own two feets.


  3. […] via The Conundrum of Russia-China Alliance — Tiananmen’s Tremendous Achievements […]


  4. Steve says:

    I don’t think the threat of the ECS and SCS can be removed for decades. The Russian and Chinese economic partnership, political and military alliances should be established for the benefit of world peace and security lasting for decades. Russia and China are two sides of the same coin, as both are now interdependent of each other politically, militarily and economically.

    However, stolen property or forcefully taken away will always bear enmity against the thief. Political thieves such as Japan stealing the Diaoyu islands will not return stolen property back to China, let alone asking the savages to apologies for the stolen generations of over 20 million innocent Chinese slaughtered in WW2. However, Russia and China are able to negotiate bilaterally even encouraging inter marriages of convenience and establish cross border business relations. Both nations may even be setting up treaties to avoid misunderstandings rather than just Memorandum of Understanding which cannot be enforced.