What can Russia count on from their partnership with China?
This article originally appeared at Interpolit, translated from Russian by Monna Lita exclusively for SouthFront
70 yrs ago, on August 7th 1945, an Soviet-chinese agreement was made about friendship and union, which became preface to all subsequent partnerships between the two countries after WWII. In 1950, 6 months after the announcement of the development of the People’s Republic of China, a new agreement was made. Since then, regardless of temporary difficulties, relations between our countries are progressing dynamically. Today, some consider China almost an ally to Russia as it relates to building a new world order. What is the reality of the character and prospects of our relationship?
Russia and China have a lot in common. There is a certain striking chronological consistency of events that shows up in the history of our countries. The first diplomatic contact that occurred between Russia and China was in the year of 1618, when a cosak named Ivan Petlin arrived in Beijing and received a charter with an invitation from the Chinese officials to visit Tianxia and trade. At that time, the Ming Dynasty was living out its last days, and in Russia the Romanovs have come to power after The Time of Troubles. Almost simultaneously the Monarchy seized to exist in our two countries: after the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, the Qing dynasty was removed from power and the first president of the republic Sun Yat-sen was elected, and in February of 1917 a Russian tsar renounced his throne.
A powerful development in the relationship between the two countries began after WWII and the coming to power of communists in China under the leadership of Mao Zedong. There was even a song then “a Russian and a Chinese are brothers for eternity”. The Soviet Union was helping the PRC develop their economy and strengthen their place in the international arena. At that time, both our countries desired to see a new and a just world. Many today think that relations between Moscow and Beijing have reached an unprecedented level. Many contracts have been signed in the area of economics; Russia and China became the originators of many international initiatives like BRICS and SCO. China’s support of our country in the political sphere plays a special role after the West entered sanctions against Russia and began increasing military forces at Russia’s borders.
More often we hear the voices in the Russian Federation, that the union of Russia and China will not only allow our country to overcome the cool relationship with the West, but will create a new and a multipolar world, where Washington’s all-out dictatorship won’t not exist. Those who support this type of an approach are saying, that China possesses an economical power, while Russia is a nuclear superpower, and together we can create an indestructible alliance. Basically, the official rhetoric of the Chinese leaders contains the same spirit. “Together we are not only kind neighbors, but also like-minded friends and reliable partners in a mutually beneficial partnership”, wrote in an article prior to visit to Russia in October of last year the Premier of State Council of the Republic of China Li Keqiang.
At the same time, there are facts that are the cause for reevaluation of such hopes. First, trade turnover in 2014 between Russia and China only came to a total of 95 billion dollars, which put our country on the list as a trade partner with China only in the 9th Place. Today, objectively speaking, Beijing is more interested in maintaining a good relationship with the US, Japan and Europe, than with us. Second, many contracts that were signed with China are not actualizing. Until this day, not a single bridge has been built that is to go through Amur and Ussuri. In the beginning of this month the first test train of the New Silk road was set forth, which is supposed to open the way for Chinese products to reach Europe. Regardless of assurances made in readiness to participate in a project, very little has been done at this time. Consequently, the Silk Road has already began the work to bypass Russia, and by going through Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.
Thirdly, mentally the Chinese and the Russians differ significantly. A partnership with the Chinese is not the same as, say, a partnership with the Belarusians.
Let us not forget the historical account that the Chinese may present us with. The trouble is that our country was forcing the Chinese side to sign disadvantageous agreements in the moments when China was weak. According to the Aigun (1858) and Beijing (1860) agreements, Russia was given almost 1.5 million km2 in the Far East. The agreements took place when China was weakened by the Opium wars. China still considers those events as a great national humiliation. There was also a Russian-Chinese convention of the year 1898 and the “Boxer Protocol” of 1901. Even prior to the preparation of the friendship agreement in 1945, the Soviet Union demanded the Kwantung Leased Territory be yielded to it, and demanded all rights to control the Chinese-Eastern Railway.
Today, the situation has changed significantly. China is a world power acknowledged by all, and it is more vocal than ever about it’s geopolitical ambitions, and Russia had pleased in yet another economic crisis.
‘It is necessary to share that on which the Russian-Chinese relations can be built, and that on which they are actually being built on,’ says the director of the School of Oriental studies in the school of economics, professor Aleksei Maslov. ‘What can relations be built on? To answer that question, it is necessary to refer to history. In the 1950, the Soviet Union was actively helping China progress by building its industry, and mainly, by restoring the country’s human resources. The USSR prepared the staff, which then worked in the PRC for decades. It would not be an exaggeration to say that our country played a key role in the development of China. After that, Mao Zedong said that this was not money that was a gift, nor investments, but credits that we had to return. But a spoon is dear when lunch is near – The Soviet Union invested into China when itself was in the process of post war recovery.
Stalin’s and then Khrushchev’s strategies were harshly pragmatic. The Soviet Union looked at China as a powerful support of its politics in East Asia.
And although our relations were developing roughly and pragmatically, there was also a true friendship between the two countries. If we are to take that which was said above and apply it to the present time, then we will see that China’s politics are also very harsh and pragmatic in relation to Russia. But again, this does not exclude the Chinese personal great liking of Russians.
Principles on which relations can be built are fixed in a Russian-Chinese agreement on friendship, good-neighborliness and partnership since 2001. These principles of equality and respect are in the interests of one another.
And now lets talk about how relations are really built. China is solving a range of its problems that have accumulated due to the country’s tempestuous growth. The first problem for the PRC is maintaining the pace of the industrial growth and the welfare of its people. That is why China wants to use Russia as a continuous source of raw materials for the development of its industry. In the political arena, Beijing wants to see Moscow as a reliable partner in the UN. At the same time, China views Russia as a marketplace for its products and as a passage to transport products to Europe. China also views Russia as an important partner in international organizations such as SCO and BRICS.
We have to understand, that today we have switched roles. And these roles are not just in economics, but also in the system of leadership. Of course Russia is not in the same situation with China, as China was with the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Regardless, we can see that in a multitude of international organizations and in the new economic initiatives China plays the key role, not Russia. Furthermore, China is precisely the singular country that can ensure the implementation of these initiatives. If we look at Russia’s participation in BRICS and other projects, we can see that our country is playing the role of a younger partner.
But we should not view the present situation from a primitive point, like who is wealthier or who is poorer. We need to look at the situation stemming from points of civilized progress. Russia is currently at a turning point of its own with economic problems, which are the generators of this circumstance. China today, however, is on the rise of a new turning point, which is reflecting in the growth of their economy and their geopolitical ambitions. We have switched places because China was able to take advantage of the modern world. Russia is inscribed into a Chinese concept of development, like China was inscribed into the concept of the Soviet Union long ago.
– ‘Should we fear the expansion of China unto Russian territories? Or are we going to be reliable allies?’
– ‘The future of China’s development can be figured out without difficulty, if you consider the logic of this country’s historical development. China has never laid claim to non-Asian territories, meaning that that particular space, historically was never a part of its development. If we don’t take into consideration some small areas on the border, China has never claimed expansion in the direction of the Soviet Union or Russia. It is unlikely that China will use its human potential to expand itself at the cost of Russia’s territory.
Secondly, China never attracts those territories that are in a place of stagnation or are pointing downward from an economic point of view because it is simply not profitable. That is why the regions of Siberia and the Far East do not beckon the Chinese today, by and large.
Thirdly, China’s human potential also changed. The Chinese that live in today’s China are not the same Chinese that could survive under any condition. Now the Chinese want to live somewhat comfortably. Therefore it is more profitable for PRC to come to developed and familiar territories. That is why China is developing toward Europe and the countries of Southeast Asia like Indonesia and Malaysia.
China does not view Russian territory as a place where it can relocate.
If we were talking about Russia’s resources, then Beijing is not hiding the fact that it is committed in getting the optimal prices and having good working conditions in order to work in the Russian Federation. The PRC asks for special privileges, preferences and involvement when it comes to transporting its minerals. But China behaves this way in relation to all countries.
If we were to take a spiritual aspect of partnership, then China and Russia’s cultures are divided by a great abyss that includes a relationship with the image of man in this world, the perception of the divine, value of human life. This abyss is defined historically, and cannot be overcome. It is not a political slogan but it is a fact that the citizens of both countries love one another’s culture. But this does not mean that the countries understand one another. We are not bound by spiritual principles but by political ambitions.
– ‘Are the Chinese angry that Russia before sometimes took advantage of weak China?’
– There is a paradox that I noticed in scientific and journalistic publications of China. There is no mention of Russia’s Imperial past of the 19th Century. Russian is not included in the list of countries that occupied China.
Psychologically, many factors came into play. For example, Soviet Russia rejected tsarist government’s demands to pay contributions. Let me remind you that after the Yihetuan (Boxer) rebellion, which in 1901 crushed several foreign nations, China was supposed to pay the contributions to Great Britain, the United States, Japan, France, Germany and Russia up until the 1950s. In 1917, Russian was the first to refuse the contributions. Secondly, Russia was transferring territories to China, which was given to her through a number of agreements. For example, in the 1950s we gave ports Port Arthur and Dalian. In this situation, the Soviet Union behaved very nobly. That is why nowhere is it mentioned that the Chinese have issues with our country.
Yet, it is worth considering, that today in China the idea of national humiliation and a rebuilding of national pride is being very actively exploited. That idea is being realized in the slogan “Chinese dream”. That dream is completed in the restoration of China to the limits and to a status, which the country maintained until the middle of the 19th Century. There are no specific countries named that China has issues with. But we objectively are observing the growth of Chinese nationalism.
I recently conducted interviews among the Chinese students that were in Russia. I asked them, which trends do they consider to be the most meaningful. I gave them 3 options to choose from: a growth toward an era of globalization, growth of nationalism, grown of interest toward regional cooperation with other Asian countries. All of the students answered that they were most interested in the growth of nationalism, and not just a growth in interest toward their own culture, but also the restoration of national pride.
We have to understand that there is a big nationalist oriented state growing next to us.
– ‘Are we taking advantage of all the possibilities for a two sided partnership?’
– China sets fairly strict conditions. It is not interested in Russia as an investment (it invests more in Europe), but as a corridor. And we are logically fearful that a huge influx of Chinese products will blunt Russia’s industry. A massive purchasing of Chinese merchandise can lead to the same thing as a partnership with Western Europe led to in its day, – we lost entire industrial branches.
China is not thinking so much about our interests. Beijing had made a proposal about the Silk Road, we sluggishly supported the idea, and China immediately revealed to us that it has other partners. China can indeed do without us by developing relationships with Middle Asia, South Caucasus, and Turkey. It’s just that China does not want to lose a profitable Russian market.
We ourselves have created many of the illusions regarding China. Our first illusion is that PRC has to be the largest investor in the Russian Federation. This illusion was actively operating among some of our politicians and businessmen. But China itself has never mentioned it!
A second illusion is that China will think about our interests, even to the hindrance of its personal interests. China does not consider Russia as a primary interest. That is simply because China does not consider anyone a priority.
If we took a look at our trade partnership, then we do not stand in first place for China. It basically has to do with the fact that we do not have merchandise with which to trade. South Korea makes up almost 190 billion worth of products imported to China, Japan and USA – 160 billion, Germany – 105 billion. (That is more than all of Chinese-Russian circulation of the goods). Our businessmen are complaining that the Chinese do not want to buy anything, but other countries have found their place in the market. The PRC is mostly buying electronics, advanced technology, technical equipment vehicles, and medical technology. Russia can only supply energy resources. An underdevelopment of Russia’s industry is explained by non other than recent relatively small volumes of trade.
– ‘I regard the Russian-Chinese relationship as balanced,’ says president of MGIMO University, an expert on China, Nikolai Kotlyarov. ‘We have an agreement on partnership; our political relationship is very good. There are discussions whether we should sign a security agreement and a military-technical partnership. And we are in cooperation with one another, but is it imperative to have a military-political bloc agreement? I think that it is not necessary either for us, or for the Chinese. We need to develop our economic relations. Of course, not all is well in this area, but a state has a will.
– Many positions about the economic relations are not yet realized.
– Problems definitely do exist. But what makes up the structure of our exports? It is mainly raw materials. Our China investments are small.
Russia needs to invest into joint projects, which is what the Chinese partners often stress. It’s necessary that the flow of money did not only come from their side. We particularly need to invest into the Moscow-High Speed railway.
The Asia-Pacific region is very promising because roads there are in need of paving, and science parks and special economic regions need to be established.
A number of contradictions do exist. China is complaining about our immigration laws, that one has to take a test in the Russian language, which leads to a rise in cost of a Chinese labor force in Russia. Our businesses are complaining about the low qualifications of Chinese workers. There are concerns that China in its own interests will want to claim our Far East region. All concerns and claims are logical in their own right.
But all of our experience shows that a partnership is possible through state’s support. Major projects only work when there is political freedom.
Relationship development is a matter of time. We just don’t need to have high expectations when it comes to our contact with China. It is not like China will give us money and raise our economy. The Chinese have their own problems. We need to gently keep looking for possibilities of a partnership and to realize those possibilities. Basically, we are working in that direction. With that, it is understood that we are not the primary partners for the Chinese, but they have their own interests in different regions of the world.