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Does China’s Rise Pose a Threat to Russia?

CIIS Time: Apr 26, 2013 Writer: Zhao Huasheng Editor: Li Xiaoyu

Zhao Huasheng[1]


The unbalanced development between China and Russia is considered the biggest challenge for the development of the two country’s future bilateral ties. Among Russian academics, skepticism concerning the bright prospects for the Sino-Russian relationship has always existed and it has always been popular to be skeptical about China as a threat to Russia. Under the current new circumstances, there are new connotations and new sharpness being added to the popular views. The bilateral relationship needs to be updated and new elements need to be added to the agenda in order to ensure that the relationship remains vibrant and lasting.


I. Russia’s Confusion Concerning China


Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, believes that before the end of twentieth century, there was a dramatic switchover of positions between China and Russia. Russia entered into the weaker position after being in a stronger one, while China is now becoming stronger after having been weaker. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s GDP was only one third of Russia’s. The gap started to narrow down between the two countries in the late 1990s. But now China’s GDP is four times that of Russia’s, marking the first time that China presents a stronger image than Russia in recent history. This is equal to no less than a political earthquake in Russia. Russia feels more and more uneasy about being China’s neighbor.[2] Russia’s famous scholar on international relations Sergei Karaganov once said, “Not only in Russian public’s sub-consciousness, but also in the minds of elites, China is now more and more seen as a threat rather than an opportunity.” Under this consensus, there are still quite a few sharply divergent understandings about China’s threat.

Immigration: This is the most popular view. Many in Russia hold the opinion that China is overpopulated with insufficient land and resources. In contrast, neighboring Russia and Siberia are so different by being sparsely populated with vast land and abundant resources. This is a huge attraction to China. The influx of Chinese legal and illegal immigrants is difficult to manage. Some scholars are worried that Chinese immigrants will outnumber the Russian residents living in the Far East and form dominance over the land.

Economic expansion: This view considers China’s economic activities in Russia’s Far East and Siberia as a threat to Russia. People who hold this view believe that China’s development in the Far East and Siberia is dangerous to Russia, and that the area will eventually be dominated by China economically. Some have even termed it as a form of Chinese “colonialism.” The economic threat, along with the immigration threat, will eventually undermine Russia’s control over this region and endanger Russia’s sovereignty.

Territorial threat: China and Russia have solved all of their territorial disputes, as was recognized by the two sides in a bilateral agreement on the eastern sector of the 4,300-kilometer border signed in 2004. But Russia’s fear over China’s territorial threat is still there. In dealing with border treaties signed between China and Russia in the mid 19th century, China’s attitude is that it recognizes their legal effect, but at the same time considers them to have been imposed on China. But in Russia’s logic, the fact that China considers the treaties are unequal hints at China’s denial of the treaty’s legitimacy. Therefore, Russia is very sensitive towards the public opinion in China on the unequal treaties, fearing that it foreshadows China’s denial of historic treaties once China gets stronger.

Threat from expansion: This view believes that China will unavoidably expand and concludes that China will occupy Siberia and the Far East. China’s occupation of the region will not be achieved by peaceful means like immigration and economic expansion, but rather by force. Alexander Khramchikhin, the head of the analytical department of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, is the representative of this view. But his view is rather extreme and not widely accepted. It has received criticism even within Russia.

Besides the “traditional” threats mentioned above, under circumstances in which there is a widening gap between the two countries, Russian academics have also developed new understandings about China’s threat.

The new-type threat: This view neither agrees with the point that the threat comes from China’s traditional military aggression, nor the point that the threat comes from the danger of Chinese immigration taking over the Far East and Siberia. This view asserts that China’s threat to Russia is a new type of threat that is entirely different from previous ones. Russia will probably become “the raw material appendage of China and its political appendage.” Karaganov is a representative figure of this view.

The strategic security threat: This view is based on the perception of capability rather than intention, which labels China as a potential threat. In recent years, comparisons between the Chinese and Russian military strength are not in favor of Russia. China’s conventional military forces have surpassed Russia, and the gap between China and Russia in strategic nuclear weapons is narrowing. Chinese military expenses in 2011 were RMB 601.1 billion, as released by Chinese officials. According to the figures provided by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Russian’s military expenses in 2011 were USD 64.12 billion, while China stood at USD 129.27 billion. China’s expenses were twice those of Russia. The room for Chinese military spending to grow is still quite large.

China’s threat to the Russian sphere of influence: Russia sees the post-Soviet region as its sphere of influence, a region where it has special interests. China’s development in the region adds to Russia’s feelings of complexity. It is a popular view in Russia that China has posed a challenge to Russia. “The Chinese are all over the world, and their business landscape is so large as to cover the Baltic Sea region, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. Different from our foreign policy, the Chinese do their business in a quiet way. It is a pity that rather than being an ally to contain the United States’ growing impact, China has become our competitor in the post-Soviet region.” Central Asia holds the most prominent position in the issues of Post-Soviet space. There is a strong view among Russian academics that China not only shares Russia’s “cheese” in Central Asia, but also intends to get Russia out of the area in the future.

China’s strong rise poses an important question to Russia: how  to cope with China? Many people believe that China will replace the United States in the near future to become the world’s largest economy. Some Russians believe that competition and confrontation between China and Russia will become the mainstream. In this sense, which side should Moscow take and what role will it play? At the same time, Russia is afraid of the “G2” (China and the U.S.), in which Russia’ interests would be sacrificed by the collusion between China and the United States. Russian academics have not reached a consensus in this regard.

Align with China: Those who hold this view believe that Russia should strengthen its strategic ties with China. They call for aligning with China on the diplomatic front to counterbalance the United States, and politically would also accept China’ model and regard China as a role model and physical resource for Russia’s modernization. Generally speaking, they believe China is indispensable in the development of the Russian Far East and Siberia.

Contain China: Those who hold this view believe that China cannot help Russia solve problems during its modernization, nor can it help with security problems. China should not be the priority in Russia’s foreign diplomacy. Russia should form an alliance with democratic countries, and its major partners in the Asia Pacific region should be Japan, South Korea and the United States. Russia should let these countries become the main contributors to the development of its Far East, and the region should become a space for Russia’s cooperation with Japan, South Korea and the United States to contain China. In terms of security, this group called for the formation of an alliance with the United States, the European Union, Japan and India. Obviously, such a view is strongly ideological. It is philosophically liberal, representing a politically pro-Western point of view. By forging an alliance with the West, its target would be to contain China.

Balance China: Those who hold this view support the idea of developing relations with China and attach importance to  maintaining good terms between Moscow and Beijing. However, in the face of a rapidly rising China, Russia needs to balance China and strengthen its own status by increasing cooperation with other countries; on the other hand, Russia should keep a distance from China in order not to be dragged into China’s possible conflicts with neighboring countries. Japan is a very special player in this assumption. It is the “Germany in the East” for Russia – both a resource of Russian modernization and an actor to offer more space to deal with China. While in the possible confrontation between China and the United States, such a “balancing” view is reflected in the way that Russia prefers to play mediation roles and hedge between the two sides to maximize the outcome while minimizing costs. This view has a big impact on Russian elites.


II. Essential Analysis and Elaboration


As for Russian’s conceptions about China presented above, we must analyze and explain.

The threat from Chinese immigrants has been an old topic in Russia, but it is more political hype than factually based. Both Russian officials and serious scholars deny such accusations. Konstantin Romodanovsky, director of the Russian Federal Migration Service, said that 13 to 14 million foreigners enter Russia every year. Three fourths of them come from the Commonwealth of the Independent States, one-tenth from European Union, and about 400,000 are Chinese. Most of the foreigners are just there for short-stays, and only 680,000 stay for permanent residency. The so-called Chinese immigration threat does not exist at all. According to official figures quoted by the Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Science, there are around 200,000 Chinese immigrants living in Russia, marking less than 0.02 percent of the Russian population. Russia’s Institute of Strategic Studies once authored a report on China’s presence in the former-Soviet regions and its conclusion was that there is no sign of large-scale Chinese immigration. China does not present a direct immigration threat to Russia.

The so-called expansion of the Chinese economy is also pure hype. As a matter of fact, Chinese economic activities in Russia are all processed under Russian laws and regulations. Under such circumstances, China’s economic activities cannot pose a threat to Russia, and they will not take control of Russia’s Far East. As economic globalization deepens, cooperation and integration among neighboring areas is a very natural trend. It is no wonder that China is increasing its economic presence and activities in Russia as it is Russia’s closest neighbor in the Far East. Moreover, China’s development of resources in the Far East and Siberia also benefit the Russian economy, a fact that is recognized by some Russian scholars. As for accusations that China may occupy the Far East and Siberia, this is not a serious academic judgment and is an exaggeration that ignores the objective reasons and the trends of the times.

The territorial issue is sensitive for Russia, but it is no more than that: sensitive. Russia’s concerns that China may deny historic treaties will not happen. China has no intension to change these treaties. The historical treaties between the two countries involve around 1.50 million square kilometers, which are related to Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. If Chinese were to deny such treaties, it would face a crisis with all of those countries. If it wants to make any changes concerning the status quo, it will likely cause a full-scale war. No matter whether you are analyzing from a political or military perspective, this is not an option for China.

As for China’s so-called “new-type” threat to Russia, which states that Russia will become China’s raw material and political appendage, this is actually more up to Russia than it is to China. Within Russia’s economic structure, the resource sector – energy in particular – is usually outweighed. This is a long-term problem of its own, and China is not responsible for this problem. This is not a unique problem existing only in Sino-Russian economic ties, but also a prevalent phenomenon in Russia’s economic activities with other countries. It is not fair to blame only China. As a matter of fact, China pays attention to Russia’s concerns and tries to make the trade structure more balanced. But it will take a long time to change the current pattern, and the key is at the hand of Russia. The theory that Russia will become an appendage to China is not a real theory and will not stand up to close inquiry. No matter how China develops, Russia is still a big nation. What is more important, to talk about whether bilateral ties are equal, it is up to the two countries’ attitudes and policies, rather than a comparison of national strengths. There is no single country neighboring China that will become an appendage, not to mention a country as strong as Russia.

Russia’s concerns about the strategic security threat are understandable. However, in the context of the Sino-Russian relationship, Russia’s strategic security has been fully guaranteed. Politically speaking, there is no reason for China to become an enemy. On its military strength, China is still in the process of trying to catch up. China’s strategic arsenal is much smaller than that of Russia, and armament is also behind. China now imports aircrafts, submarines, warships, and missiles from Russia – a fact that also proves that Russia is more advanced in this regard. In the future, China will have the opportunity to narrow this gap, but it will not have an overwhelming advantage over Russia. Russia has been used to its strategic advantage. Russia’s sense of insecurity comes from the diminishing strategic advantage rather than a real security threat.

China’s active presence in the former Soviet regions is true, but this presence is characterized by normal political and economic activities that are not targeted at Russia or intended to exclude Russia. China respects the historic links that Russia has with the region, and it avoids having conflicts with Russia – a fact that is also noted by Russian scholars. But what should also be noticed is that the former Soviet republics have gained their independence and are no longer part of Russia. They have their own rights and demands to develop economic and political relations with the outside world, and other countries also wish to develop relations with these former Soviet republics. The development of their ties cannot be considered a challenge against Russia’s interests.

Among Russian scholars’ assumptions about China, the most worthwhile to note is the idea of “balancing China.” The idea of aligning with China is considered to restrain Russia’s space, while “containing China” is thought to have too many negative effects. As a result, “balance China”, in between the above two ideas, seems to be the smartest option. Some Russian elites are very devoted to this idea. Though this view seems to be reasonable, in fact it is very difficult to put into practice, as its effect may turn out to be the total opposite of what was intended. The view that Russia can serve as a mediator between China and the United States has only theoretical significance, as neither China nor the United States necessarily need a mediator. And for China, it would rather treat Russia as a partner than as a mediator. China does have some conflicts with the United States and some of its neighbors, but they are in absolute opposition or confrontation. To make Russia’s policies based on China’s confrontation with the United States and other countries is not a reliable policy approach.


III. Modest Adjustments and Balance


China and Russia have no need to evade any questions or topics between each other. The constant adjustment and balance of the two sides’ requirements is the best way to keep bilateral ties as vibrant as ever.

From Russia’s perspective, it needs to adapt to China’s transformation and learn to get along with China based on a new perception and mentality, while there is no need of being over anxious or imaginative. As a matter of fact, the change in the balance of power between the two countries started with the Soviet Union’s fall, and it has lasted more than 20 years. China has always respected Russia and has not changed its attitude as its strength grows. Even during the 1990s, when Russia was at its weakest point, China still saw Russia as a big power, which was very rare among other big nations. Although China’s GDP has greatly surpassed Russia, there will not be big gaps, especially in the security area. Russia has its trump card while China has its weak points. Gross domestic product cannot stand for everything, and some Russian scholars are also clear about this point.

From China’s perspective, it never considers that it is stronger than Russia, and it holds dear the equality between the two countries. China should pay attention to Russia’s feelings and adjust its mentalities and policies based on Russia’s responses. In the future development of Sino-Russian relations, China’s value of political equality should be particularly highlighted to demonstrate China’s faithful fulfillment of political equality. At the same time, Beijing should also show Moscow that Beijing wishes to see a prosperous Russia.

On big power relations, China should not accept the so-called “G2”. Although the U.S. and China now rank as the world’s first and second largest economies respectively and the two countries’ relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, the “G2” thinking is wrong and cannot apply in certain scenarios. The thinking is based on a hegemonic mentality that can be explained by the ruling of the strongest, which is against China’s claim that all countries, whether large or small, are all equal, as well as China’s claim that it will never pursue hegemony. The “G2” will lead China to become distanced in its ties with other countries and will push them to the other side, while also not pleasing many other small countries. It will also hamper the Sino-Russian ties for sure. Logistically speaking, this thinking is at odds with the Sino-Russian strategic partnership, unless Russia is willing to be China’s “little brother.” The G2 thinking will not only see the breakup of the strategic partnership between China and Russia; what is more, Russia will further impose its policy to contain China. In practice, this thinking is not based on reality, especially the situation of the international society today. Other big countries will not listen.

China instead should promote a multipolar world. Compared with unipolar or bipolar structures, multi-polarization meets more of the global needs. For Sino-Russian ties, it is not only about consensus reached by the two countries on the post-Cold War international order and structure, but also the foundation for the two countries’ equality in international society. China should engage in more cooperation with Russia on the multi-polarization issue, as this will promote the Sino-Russian strategic partnership of coordination, conforms to China’s international claims, and best serves China’s national interests.

As for strategic security concerns, China also needs to give a positive response. The security issue is particularly important in bilateral ties with Russia, and it is the cornerstone of the two countries’ relationship. If there is any dispute on a security issue, it will undermine the foundations of the relationship. Russia has the intention to invite China to negotiations between Russia and the U.S. in their bids to cut down on nuclear arms. But China does not want to be involved in these discussions as it thinks that its nuclear arms are not on the same level as Russia or the United States. It is reasonable that China is unwilling to participate in this platform. But from a development perspective, Russia and the U.S. will move closer and will likely form a united front against China. This situation will not be beneficial to China or to Sino-Russian ties. What is more important is that Russia’s concern for strategic security increases. This will become a real problem after the concerns are accumulated to some extent. One more thing to be noted is that among Russian academics, there are still some who are suspicious as to whether China will maintain long-term peaceful development.

China and Russia have established mechanisms to guarantee their interests in strategic security, including in political and military fields. The two countries have the need to improve these mechanisms under the new circumstances. The two countries once established military mutual-trust mechanisms at their border areas in the 1990s to solve the security issues there. China and Russia can borrow this model in the strategic security area and take measures to deepen the mechanism to foster the foundation of long-term trust in the area.

The stability of the Asia Pacific region, especially Northeast Asia, will pose a security threat to both China and Russia in the long run. Both sides are working on building mechanisms. China and Russia share a similar vision and interests in the security of the Asia Pacific. The two are similar in location and condition. In building the Asia-Pacific security system, China and Russia can form a joint platform as a pivot. The platform is designed to push the two countries’ common vision and provide a cornerstone for collective security in the Asia Pacific region rather than a tool to oppose the United States. Some Russian scholars suggest a comprehensive security system in the Asia Pacific, but this can hardly be achieved soon. China and Russia’s cooperation in this regard will be more effective than the unilateral actions of the two countries, and their cooperation will have a greater impact on building a comprehensive system in the future.

Russia’s Far East and Central Asia have been considered the two most complicated regions in Sino-Russian ties. But, if seeing this issue from another perspective, they are also the regions with the biggest potential to have more cooperation. If cooperation is achieved, the Far East and Central Asia will further boost their bilateral ties.

There are huge opportunities for cooperation embedded in the Far East. Russia has laid out a national policy to develop the Far East and Siberia, and its central government has attached great importance to the region to rejuvenate the Russian economy and integrate itself into the Asia Pacific economy. China’s role in the development of these regions is not clear. On the one hand, both sides want to have collaboration on this matter. The two countries ratified an action plan to develop cooperation in China’s Northeast region as well as Russia’s Far East and Siberia in 2009. But on the other hand, Russia is quite suspicious about the huge influx of Chinese capital and labor forces, which has hampered the deepening of cooperation. The two sides should strive to break this bottleneck. Russia has been worried about China’s control over its economy and politics in the Far East and Siberia. This way of thinking will not help solve any problems. Russia should build up its confidence. Siberia and Far East need to develop and their development should be open. China and Russia share a 4,350 kilometer border in this area, making them natural partners that cannot be separated from each other. It is not reasonable to exclude China from the development process in this area, and doing so would not be good for either side.

Central Asia is another sensitive region that concerns the Chinese and Russian relationship. It cannot be denied that the two countries have some economic competition and clashes of interest in the region, but the common interests that the two countries share in Central Asia should not be ignored, as they weigh more heavily for both sides. Central Asia is a neighboring area of both China and Russia. In many aspects, especially in the security field, this region means something similar to both China and Russia. As a result, the two countries share many of each other’s views and have similar interests in the region. From a strategic point of view, it is a buffer zone for China and Russia. To make the buffer zone work, they cannot simply avoid having contact with each other; they must have cooperation. From a more general perspective, Central Asia, Russia’s Far East and Mongolia all connect China and Russia. They have special meanings for both sides. If anything occurs in any of these three regions, the relationship between China and Russia will be in danger. In fact, historic issues between China and Russia often took place in these regions. As such, the two countries should have the vision to build these three connecting regions to become a stable belt that will serve the long-standing stability of China and Russia.

In order to embrace the future, China and Russia should strengthen their ongoing cooperation, and also develop a new agenda.

Economic cooperation should be strengthened between the two countries, and its structure should be optimized. While enlarging the scope of trade, both sides should also work on more open direction for investment, scientific and technological research. Russia hopes China will be not only a consumer but also an investor. The fact is that Chinese investors have a desire to enter the Russian market, but they often encounter a series of obstacles, such as the market being closed to foreign investment in some areas, poor investment environments and law enforcement, and less guarantees on the safety of investments.

The Sino-Russian strategic partnership in energy is of utmost importance. Energy exports are the pillar of the Russian economy, while energy imports are China’s economic lifeblood. Russia has a huge capacity to export oil, and China is a tremendous market and a giant consumer. China and Russia are neighbors, meaning that the transportation of oil and gas is much easier, without passing through a third country or transporting them through the sea. Transportation is safely guaranteed. So far, the annual oil trade volume between the two sides is 15 million tons. Russia exported 240 million tons of oil in 2012 and China imported about 270 million tons last year. However, the trade of oil between the two countries accounted for less than seven percent for each country. China and Russia have far more potential to increase the scale of energy cooperation, and increase the trade volume and percentage to a more reasonable level. Under the unstable circumstances of the international security and energy market, this could be an important development for the two countries’ energy security, providing a lot of benefit to both sides.

In future international political and economic relations, regional and multilateral mechanisms will play a more and more important role. Cooperation in these mechanisms should be an important part of the agenda for Russia and China to discuss. Mechanisms such as the SCO, BRICS and G20 should become the major platforms to implement cooperation. Such mechanisms can reflect the concepts and advocacies of the two countries and they are quick and flexible in operation. China and Russia should work together to promote development and get their voices heard on political and economic matters.

Collaboration on the development of the North Pole can also be a new agenda for Sino-Russian cooperation, though it mainly depends on Russia’s attitude. Moscow is reluctant in responding to China’s involvement in the North Pole affairs. The main reason is that Russia wants to maintain its monopoly over the North Pole by trying not to get more non-Polar countries involved in it. There is no doubt that countries bordering the North Pole have a more important say in the matter, but the North Pole does not only concern the countries in the Arctic region. Rather, it concerns other countries in the world. China began to conduct scientific research in the North Pole in the 1990s, and it was deemed a special observer by the Arctic Council. In 2008, China submitted an application seeking to obtain permanent observer status. China and Russia have the potential for further cooperation on scientific research, environmental protection, resource development as well as the “northern route,” and such cooperation will be a great benefit to each other. The two countries should work hard to promote this agenda.

China and Russia should work more closely with each other on hot spot issues in their surrounding areas and build a sound mechanism to solve these problems. There are two long-standing hot spots in Russia and China’s neighborhood: the Korean peninsula issue in the east and the Afghanistan issue in the west. One concerns the peace and security of Northeast Asia and the other is related to the peace and security of Central and South Asia; both are sensitive enough to concern regional stability. Discussion of and cooperation on these regional issues should become an important agenda for China and Russia, as it will not only help deepen the ties between the two countries, but also improve the statuses of the two nations in resolving regional affairs. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is one good platform that is not operating at its potential. The SCO can play a very unique role in ensuring the two nations’ security, safeguarding regional peace, and pushing forward the establishment of a reasonable international political and economic order. China and Russia should take full advantage of the SCO as a platform to benefit both sides on all issues.


IV. Conclusion


For China and Russia, being each other’s huge neighbors, the establishment of a friendly neighborhood is an option that is in accordance with the fundamental interests of the two countries. Both Chinese and Russian academics should have a clear vision about this path. Even more, as strategic partners, the relationship between China and Russia should also be a role model for a new type of relationship between great powers, characterized by political equality, mutual security, cooperation and mutual development.

The two countries have different political systems, social structures, ethical mentalities, and general ways of thinking. As a result, there are often “misalignments.” Both sides should be familiarized with these situations in order to reduce conflicts and avoid misreading each other. China and Russia are no longer “homogeneous” societies, and the voices of their media are more dynamic. This requires them to adapt to each other’s diversified appeals and different voices of the media, and to handle bilateral ties under this diversified condition.

Sino-Russian relations should be built on interests, rationality and regulations, which should not repeat the sentiments of fantasizing or idealizing each other. The strategic partnership between Russia and China means that the two sides should not violate interests, rationales and rules, but rather obey them. Both sides should not fantasize about expecting each other to ignore their own interests, rationales and rules. If this occurs, China and Russia can forge more stable ties.

(Source:China International Studies, No.39, March/April 2013)

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