Russia-China relations: fantasies and reality


Is Russia in control of its relationship with the world's emerging superpower? Ben Judah introduces a new series on openDemocracy Russia. 

Ben Judah
21 January 2013

China is Russia’s indispensable nightmare. Indispensable because the emerging superpower is Moscow’s biggest trading partner, its future as a raw materials, oil and gas exporter and essential to Putin’s ambition to play the balancer, the king-maker even, in the UN Security Council and world’s affairs. But China is also a Russian nightmare – only China could conquer Siberia, with migrants, corruption and venal local acquiescence should Putin’s grip ever falter.   

Russia’s Chinese nightmares 

Russia-China relations are the stuff of fantasies and paranoia, which reflect the deepest held views about world affairs of those that expound them. They are what the West chooses to conjure up when they want to frighten Russia. Here is an example:

‘Not all of them yet realize that, whatever quarrels they have with Warsaw or Washington, these will soon pale beside the existential challenge they face along Russia's eastern and southern borders.’

These are not the threats of an armchair general but the Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, the great white hope of the EU, writing in The Economist.  Chinese nightmares are also what the Russian foreign policy establishment stirs up to try and frighten the Kremlin into modernizing and investing diplomatic capital into East Asian visits and embassies. Listen to this terrified appeal from Sergey Karaganov, who has advised Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev about the wider world: 

‘But, if current trends persist, Russia east of the Urals, and later the entire country, will become an appendage of China – a warehouse of resources, and then an economic and political vassal. No “aggressive” or unfriendly effort by China will be needed; Russia will be subdued by default.’

This kind of fear-mongering is not restricted to politicians or the politically minded. A recent New York Times special report announced that the borders of the Russian state are sooner or later, likely to be redrawn by a demographic tidal wave:

‘Russia’s greatest geopolitical fear is fed by a very plausible scenario — China, populous and resource-hungry, taking over large chunks of Siberia, part of Russia’s failing and emptying East. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese have already crossed the border at the Amur River and set up trading settlements, intermarrying with Russians and Siberia’s native nomadic minorities.’  

Russia’s Chinese facts 

You could almost joke – ‘Tell me what you think about the future of the Sino-Russian relationship and I will tell you what you think about the future of Russia.’ 

Is Moscow a successful, sovereign raw-material exporter to the world?  Is it in control of its dialogue with Beijing and has it secured its borders against corruption and migration?  Is Russia a dystopian blend of Asiatic settlement in the Far East, with neo-Tsarist propaganda and little better than Central Asian bureaucracy at the centre? Then Moscow rules an illusion of empire, which has ended up completely dependent on Beijing. 

This is why we have decided to begin 2013 with this special series on Russia-China Relations: Fantasies and Realities.  

Our first theme is the fantasies and facts behind Russian foreign policy towards Beijing. Alexander Gabuyev, Moscow’s leading young writer on China, examines how Russian sinology has been in collapse and decay since the fall of the USSR, leading to a rise in ignorance, fear-mongering and bad policy choices by the Kremlin. 

Our second theme is the reality of the Russian Far East. In the summer of 2012 I spent several weeks travelling through the remote regions most settled by Chinese migrants, such as Birobidzhan, Khabarovsk and Primorye, for my forthcoming book ‘Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In And Out Of Love With Vladimir Putin’.  I draw on this experience to argue Russia is not losing Siberia. To look at what the politics of Putin’s Far East really are, Russia’s leading reportage writer Olesya Gerasimenko shows how surprisingly un-Asian, but shockingly hostile to Moscow the region has become.

Opening up each power’s world-view, we present the foreign policy dreams of leading Russian and Chinese specialists. Pavel Salin, a frequent commentator in Russia’s leading journal Russia In Global Affairs, argues that Moscow has taken fright at an impending Chinese world order and need to recalibrate its position in world affairs, especially towards the United States. The view from China is presented by Liu Jun from the country’s hub of Russia studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai. He lays out what China’s new leadership wants from Russia and why the USA’s return to Asia means that Moscow and Beijing might have to draw closer. Zooming in from the contours of geo-politics, Raffaello Pantucci and Li Lifan from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences draw on their recent travels in Central Asia to explain what growing Chinese and Russian competition means for Kyrgyzstan. 

Our final theme is the view from the West. Laying out some of their latest research and new essay collection China 3.0  and digging into Chinese intellectual debates, Jonas Parello Plesner and Thomas Koenig from the European Council on Foreign Relations explain the roles increasingly allocated to Russia  in new foreign policy thinking, showing how ideas of a formal alliance with Russia have gained some ground now the US is seen to be trying to contain China in East Asia. They also examine whether such ideas of trying to cooperate more with Russia are gaining ground in the West while Beijing eclipses Moscow in the imagination of the foreign policy elite as the competing command centre in global politics. 

The aim of our series is to enable OpenDemocracy readers to see Russia-China relations clearly for what they are and what they mean: a not so dramatic reality in the Russian Far East and grand dreamtimes in both countries about the world order itself. 

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