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Russia and China – Strategic Partners Or Partners of Convenience?

Russia-China Fence MendingMr. Unknown and the blogger known as the Saker has collaborated to write an interesting, provocative, and insightful piece end of last year.  I truly applaud the effort and feel honored that China does have true friends from Russia.  And I am truly heartened to see that there are Russians who do see China as equals … and more importantly … as friends.

Overall I learned quite many things, all valuable to further shaping my worldview. But I also do disagree with some parts of it.  I have no doubt that the great Russian-Chinese dialogue in bringing two great neighbors closer together … perhaps one day to become allies … will continue and will a force for global peace.  But a solid house must be built on solid solutions.  So here is my response, which includes some criticisms, which hopefully will go toward building a more solid foundation between the two great nations / civilizations.

On the Land China seceded to Russia

First, on the Saker’s response to the question on why China should engage with Russia to build strategic trust when some Chinese continue to see Russia as “imperialistic”:

I don’t agree with the Saker’s argument that Russia can desegregate its “imperialistic” nature from that of historic Czarist Russia, Soviet Union, “Democratic Russia,” and Putin’s Russia represent different polities.  Different as they may be, the truth is also that today’s Russia inherited the territory China ceded through history.  That history thus is directly relevant to the map we have today.

Today Russia continues to occupy huge swaths of land (over a million square km) China transferred to Russia through Treaty of Aigun of 1858 and Treaty of Pekin of 1860.  A huge swath of Northwestern China is “landlocked” and arguably “under-developed” today precisely because of that history.

The border issue between China and Russia is also not just isolated in Siberia.  Consider that throughout the Soviet Union years, the Russians wrestled Outer Mongolia as well as large areas of Central Asia from the Chinese polity.

Today’s Uighur Independence movement in Xinjiang can be traced directly to Soviet actions (see also this article titled “Taranchis, Kashgaris, and the ‘Uyghur Question’ in Soviet Central Asia“). Exiled Tibetans think: if Mongolia can be independent, why can’t Tibet?

Outside of China, India thinks: if China can cede over a million square km territory to Russia, why can’t it cede some 100,000 square km of land?  Japan thinks: if China can cede over a million square km territory to Russia, why can’t it cede a few rocks to Japan?

History matters.

In fact, the notion of International “Law” (on territorial acquisition, for example) would mean nothing if “history” ceases to matter.  Or, as Michael Crichton, one of my favorite authors, has noted before: “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.”

So does that mean I am for asking Russia to return China’s “lost territories” back?  No.  Not really…

My personal preference is for Russians and Chinese to build a common understanding of the history of Siberia, facing up rather than whitewash history.  Emphasis should then be placed on what to make of the history – and more importantly, our shared future.

Territories – as we understand them today – are inherently “distributive,” and to avoid that “distributive” trap, both nations should usher in a common golden era of prosperity.  A friendly, stable, and prosperous neighbor is worth so much much more, especially if Russia can shed its fear and insecurities in Siberia and allow it to be integrated with the Far East economies.

As Russia and China work together, it is also helpful to keep in mind that traditionally China had not been an expansionist power because China preferred what the West calls a “tributary system” than an “alliance system” system of today.

The “tributary system” to me is not quite right.  It implies Chinese political dominance over the tributes.  If one studies history, one can see that dominance was never the goal. China rarely possessed the military power, much less the political will to project power outside its borders.

What is important to understand of China’s tributary vs. the world’s current alliance or sovereignty based system is that what China has always sought is a world where the outside did not seek to attack China, where the outside is sufficiently at awe with China that they’d engage with but dare not attack it.

Given that history, if Siberia can be developed so as not to stunt China’s growth, further if Russia and China can truly commit to a shared prosperity, then, I doubt China will ever sustain a will to recover its “lost” lands.  The Russians might take comfort in the fact that China never really saw Siberia as core historical territory (it’s territory has risen and ebbed, and only in the last few centuries was Sibera included in the Chinese polity) and also that the idea of “sovereignty” in traditional Chinese didn’t really take the form of a hard territorial boundary … but of a large swath of neighbor that is friendly with each other and to Chinese security and prosperity.


Regarding Saker’s answer to the question how China can trust Russia when it has sold and continues to sell to nations that have active territorial disputes with China such as India and Vietnam, I disagree that BRICs is the saving grace.

Personally I have never found the notion of BRICs to make sense in a geopolitical setting, given the wide schism in history, political system, culture, and economic development.  And it doesn’t make sense in my mind to bring it about discussing Russia-China relationship.

I think it’s better to simply answer that there is a contradiction in Russia selling arms to China’s “foes” and resolve the contradiction by saying that Russia and China are not yet “allies” per se … and also that Russia doesn’t believe the sale would destabilize situation on the ground since all disputing parties have worked hard amongst themselves to make sure their relationship are multi-pronged and not held hostage by the territorial dispute.

Are Russians Europeans or Asians?

I learned a lot reading Saker’s answer to the third question.  However, from China’s perspective, I still think there are legitimate concerns over whether Russia’s Atlantic Integrationists or its Eurasian Sovereignists will win out.  As Saker himself pointed out, among the Russian leadership, it is the Atlantic Integrationists that has been dominant in history … over the last 2-3 centuries.  Will Putin really buck the trend … when historians look back?  We’ll see.

I personally believe that in the next few years, there will be renewed courtship by the West to reach for Russia’s Atlantic Integrationists for two reasons.  First, the Europeans will themselves come to see that confrontation with Russia doesn’t serve its interests, American interests notwithstanding.  Second, the U.S., in five to ten years, may see Russia as a good ally to further buttress its “pivot to Asia.”  What will the Russians choose then?

As for identity politics – my sense is that most Russians identify themselves as Europeans.  It’s not just ethnicity, but culture and history as well.  Even if my sense give Europe’s influence too much credit today, the thing is that identity politics can be very unpredictable.  If Ukrainians today can be taught to reject their Slavic roots and embrace an European identity in a few years, if Taiwanese can be taught to reject their Chinese roots and embrace a Western, or American, or Japanese identity (it’s still possible), then yes, the Russians can definitely be taught to identify themselves as Europeans … a lot more European than Asian.

So I say, let’s be honest.  Push come to shove, despite Russia’s great expense of territories in Asia and the prevailing geopolitics, it is more European than Asian.  I don’t see most Russians displaying that sort of identity flexibility turning toward East Asia or China…

Russian and Chinese Interdependence

I’d like to add to Saker’s answer to Chinese concerns of reliance on Russia energy.  I too am impressed at the way the Chinese and Russian leaderships have deliberately intertwined their strategic interests.  This is the best way to make friends between two polities.  But even then, I think the Russians should still allow the fact that Chinese will “hedge their bets” and only slowly become dependent on Russia … to make sure Russia truly can become a strategic long-term partner.  The Russians after all has been known to hedge their bets with India and Japan and Vietnam and Indonesia and even Europe and U.S. against China…  The relationship between Russia and China have gone through many seasons in just over a little hundred years.  Win-win Interdependence is a good thing, but it will have to be proven … and earned.

Saving the Near-Abroad Russians

I agree with the Saker that this should not be an issue in terms of China fearing Russia.  But Russia should be mindful that China cannot condone – at least too much and too publicly – Russia’s actions in Ukraine or elsewhere only because setting off fears other have of China.  If China is to take an attitude of saving its near-broad Chinese, it will set off alarm for the current rulers of S.E. Asia.

Russia’s Contribution to the World

I believe that the average Chinese appreciate Russia contributions to science, math, and technology.  Average Chinese also love Russian music, dance, etc.  I don’t think Russian contribution to the world – including its huge sacrifices made in WWII – is under-appreciated in China.

As for the assertion that “Russian civilization has never been imperialistic,” I’d beg to differ – or at least seek some sympathy for viewing things from the Chinese perspective.  I do believe that “Russian civilization is not intrinsically imperialistic,” but I still stress that from the Chinese perspective, Russia historically been imperialistic, including leveraging its industrial strength vis-a-vis China at its weakest to take land from China.

Should China Gang up with the West to Destroy Russia?

This is really the Chinese version of the Atlantic Integrationists or its Eurasian Sovereignists for China.  In general, I agree with the Saker’s conclusion.  If China were a smaller nation, perhaps the West can save an “honorary” role for it (e.g. Japan), persuade it to gang up on Russia – as if it were a powerless third-world nation without technology – and share the spoils.  But the truth is that China is considered the main nemesis of the West, with Russia being the second most powerful nation (at least militarily) by the West.  China is very well in the crosshairs of the West.  China is also too proud and too big to simply occupy an “honorary” seat in the Western world.

For all these reasons, I don’t think the Russia should fear China ganging up with the West.  But the question should not be disregarded either … since Russia if dismembered is a big prize for anyone…

Still if Russia must go with that frame of thinking – of one of its neighbors (West or China) ganging up to destroy it, then the realist perspective is that given its population size of a Bangladesh, Japan or Mexico, it could never be truly independent … in the very very long term.  It must be part of an alliance … perhaps even a junior member of a bigger alliance.

In the end, for Russia to be independent, I think the best way forward is for Russia to coordinate policies with its neighbors – China and Europe – to promote the mutual growth of Eurasia.  In Asia, it should not be stuck in old thinking and view Siberia or Central Asia as purely its own that must exclude China.  Rather Siberia should be viewed as an opportunity for developing a mutually joint greater Eurasia co-prosperity region driven by both Russia and China.

Now going to Mr. Unknown’s Answer to the Saker’s questions.

Creating a “Chinese Lebensraum” from Russian Territory

I like Mr. Unknown’s answer … a lot.  But in the deepest sense, I don’t think addresses Russian fears.  If the best “peace” the Chinese can give the Russians is that as long as you are strong, we won’t attack you, that’s not much comfort.  It’s a realist answer – which almost goes without saying….  But in the long term, I think what Russia wants is some sort of reassurance beyond that.

I like to add my comments in the above “On the Land China seceded to Russia” Section here as well.  The short answer, if Russia and China truly build a mutually respectful, beneficial relationship, then there would be no political will in China to build a “Chinese Lebensraum” because that shared future is worth so much more to China than any “Chinese Lebensraum.”  The realist answer that also answer Russia’s long-term fear is: make China thy brother.

I also want to add that no nation in the world has more neighboring states than China.  If China were to attack its neighbor in a way that everyone sees as opportunistic, it will raise alarm throughout bordering states, creating instantly an anti-China coalition surrounding its borders.

Throughout history of China, China had rarely be an aggressive military expansionist country.  I’d like to believe that’s due to Chinese culture, or the warm heart of the Chinese people.  But another equally solid reason is its geography.  China has had to be a moderate power because it couldn’t afford to be too aggressively militaristic given its many neighbors!

Is Russia crazy to sell its latest military technology to China?

It’d be crazy for Russia to do so if Russia – China relationship is to be dominated by mistrust.  But not so if Russia and China are to become long-term strategic partners.  Is U.S. crazy for selling technology to U.K. or France or Israel?  Can Russia and China be that close?

In my view, Russia has two paths it can take regarding arms sale to China.

First, Russia may take the route of the West – following U.S. leadership – in creating an arms embargo on China.  But I believe it is inevitable that China will catch up … one day.  It think it to be in the strategic interest of Russia to work with China, to sell technology China needs, at this stage … leveraging the goodwill to truly build strategic trust … trust that will prove to the Chinese that it means to be a long-term strategic partner of China.

For example, as touched upon by Saker, Russia’s agreement to share technology and co-develop new technologies is a win-win for both – molding Russia know-how with Chinese capital.  To the extent China benefits, so does Russia in terms of jointly developing the next generation of military technology which would not have been possible to either party by itself.

Even if Chinese were to catch up with the Russians on technology, Russia participation would have laid a template of long-term strategic cooperation far into the future.  And as far as Russia stays in, China and Russia with both gain … mutually, cooperatively.  Just as European nations can pool resources to form the Airbus or to develop the Eurofighter Typhoon, surely China and Russia can do something similarly amazing … in both civilian and military arenas.

Authoritarianism vs. Democracy and China’s Contribution to the Developing World

I don’t have much to add to Mr. Unknown’s answers to questions regarding democracy, authoritarianism, or China’s Contribution to the Developing World.  Suffice it to say that I agree with everything said … and that what was said was only tip of the iceberg.  In a way, this entire blog is devoted to debunking the standard ideological framework of looking at Authoritarianism, Democracy and role of China and the West in the world, including the developing world.

Russia Vs. West for Importance as China’s Trade Partner

The next couple of questions relate to whether Russia can vie for China’s strategic interests given the West’s much larger market power and China’s immense interests in trade.

If we look purely in terms of Russia vs. the West … yes the West will be  more important.  This is a natural result from just demographics alone, as touched on above: the West has a population over 1.1 billion – and that doesn’t even include Japan.  But Russia occupies a geographically important space – straddling Europe and Asia.  It is  resource rich.  It has technology (space, military, computers, etc.).  It has a population that’s bigger than Japan.

Yet to me, this is all secondary.  China has long been saying that it is seeking “win-win” relationship, and that its relationship with one nation is never meant in a distributive way to disadvantage another.  And I think China means it in a deep and profound way.

Thus when China trades with Vietnam, and Vietnamese become richer, China doesn’t think, oh my gosh, that’s a competitor.  No, China thinks, now there is a bigger market for us, as well as more there will be more innovations and produces coming our way. In addition, when China partners with U.S., it will pursue things that are win-win for both, and not aim dominate the other party, or – importantly – to disadvantage a third party.

This is how France, Germany, Japan, U.S., U.K. view each other now.  Yes, they compete in some ways, but more often than not, they cooperate … and share in the spoils of economic growth.

People may argue, hypothetically, what if the West pressures China to choose.  I think China will be able to push back.  For example, China thus far has not bowed to U.S. pressures to sanction against Russia the way European powers have bowed.  China will continue to chart an independence course, economically and politically.  It will continue to refrain from alliance building and will continue to focus on fostering win-win relationships.

In the end that’s how China will distinguish its rise from all others’ before.  It will not gain at other’s expense.  It truly is seeking to use development as a force of good for all, not as a weapon for dominating others.

Chinese political muscle and Coordination of U.N. Security Votes

Finally, to the question of why China has coordinated so little with Russia in  the U.N. Security Council and seems so chicken in flexing its political muscles around the world.

I think China and Russia have coordinated more than appearance would show.  China, in so many ways, is not in a position to dictate, especially on things that are political or military.  It is strong in the aggregate, but it is still a economically backward country, ranking behind, for example, countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Algeria, Chile, Libya, Iraq, just to list a few…

As China gains more muscle, it will surely be more confident in articulating its stance on global affairs.  The past is definitely not a predictor of the future here.  But in the mean time, I think China’s lack of assertiveness will last for a while longer.  It is a giant, but a soft giant for now.


As I  look around the world, I see the primary threat to world peace as the West’s political and military hegemony.  I welcome Russia’s re-assertion in world affairs in Syria and the Middle East, but for now, world affairs will still be dictated on Western terms.  Both Russians and Chinese should understand that.

I have no doubt that in the coming years, the West will in multiple ways to try to drive a wedge between Russia – China.  For Russia and China friendship to survive and to prosper, they must seek a genuine common basis for understanding their history … and defining their future.  Putin and Xi has done a decent job of it.  And I welcome efforts such as the one by Saker and Mr. Unknown.  But for the relationship to be truly strategic and stable, rather than tactical and opportunist, a lot more work needs to be done.

[Editor’s Note: This is a much belated response (have had to deal with family health issues the last few months).]

  1. March 8th, 2016 at 02:21 | #1

    Excellent analysis. China, Russia, and India will have to be as stupid as they look to “Western” eyes to fight each other while the “West” (or the few nations which lump everyone under their dictate, willingly or otherwise, into that imperial term) chuckles.

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