Russia-China Harmony: One Sided Compromise under Compulsion?
Brigadier V Mahalingam (Retd)
Introduction

“Russia may face wars on its borders in the near future over control of energy resources”, a Security Policy document released by Kremlin on May 13, 2009 stated. It went on to add “In a competition for resources, problems that involve the use of military force cannot be excluded that would destroy the balance of forces close to the borders of the Russian Federation and her allies.” The “Middle East, the Barents Sea, the Arctic, the Caspian Sea and Central Asia” were labeled the regions where such a competition for resources could arise. The Policy Paper was approved by the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The potential adversaries were not identified by the document, but the fact that Russia shares more than 3,600 km (2,250 miles) of borders with the resource-hungry China with a small sea border with the U.S. leaves no doubt about the target country1.

Over a period of time though there was no drop in China’s appetite for resources, compelling circumstances changed the perceptions. The gap in distrust between the countries narrowed down to transform the relationship to one of association as it exists today.

Russia-China relationship is not a full-fledged alliance and is unlikely to become one. The association is surviving as Russia under plays the hesitation and mistrust that the people of the country harbour against China in the backdrop of the three-decade long animosity and border clashes that the two countries went through starting late 60s. Though the nearness in their relationship came about following the economic difficulties Russia had togo through consequent to the 2007-08 global economic crisis and the oil price crash, further exasperated by US sanctions, it has sustained, thanks to the personal rapport between the Russian President Putin and the Chinese President Xi Jinping. Russia has been stomaching China’s intrusions and interference in areas of its strategic interests patiently.

While Russia is grappling to maintain its influence and hold in areas of its interest, China with its rising power and ambitions to dilute U.S. hegemony and to share global leadership with U.S., has exhibited its ambitions to a point where it is being branded an aggressor in most parts of the world. It has been assertively pushing through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Digital Silk Road (DSR) projects to countries. In some cases, these projects are oversized and beyond the economic capabilities of the countries concerned. The client countries are thus manipulated into a ‘debt trap’ so as to increase its leverage over them.

These developments have not gone unnoticed in Russia. Consequently, Russia has been very cautious when it comes to working with China in areas of conflicting interests and ambiguity like the BRI. It is significant that though Russia has been supportive of BRI as an engine to develop infrastructure and enhance supply chain connectivity in the region, its concerns have prevented it from joining the initiative till now.

How has the relationship been developing between the two countries in areas of Russian interest? Are Russia’s interests being accommodated and will it continue? Will China exploit Russia’s isolation and the economic pressure applied by Western countries in the wake of China’s larger ambitions? How will such behaviour go with the Russian people and its internal politics? Will the relationship sustain in the post Putin era?

Border Dispute

The Aigun Treaty of 1858 between the Russian Empire and the Qing Dynasty established the border between China and Russia along the Amur River, undoing the Nerchinsk Treaty of 1689. Based on the Treaty, Russia received all land North of Amur River from Manchuria. The Subsequent ‘Convention of Peking 1860’ established the Eastern boundary between Russia and China. According to the agreement, the boundary lay from the confluence of the Shilka and Argun Rivers downstream along the Amur River to the point where it flows into the Ussuri River (Ussuri joins Amur in Khabarovsk). Lands lying on the Northern bank of the Amur were declared Russian and those on the Southern bank as belonging to China, Thus Russia gained complete control over the Primorye region down to Vladivostok. The agreement was annexed with a map of the eastern part of the Russia China border. Consequently, Russia finally secured the Ussuri region for itself2.

In 1969, military clashes between Beijing and Moscow broke out on the border, raising fears of an all-out war. The most serious of these border clashes took place in March 1969 in the area of Damansky (Zhenbao) Island on the Ussuri (Wusuli) River, near Manchuria. The conflict paused with a ceasefire, and return to status quo.

Border talks between the two countries commenced in October 1969 and continued endlessly. Serious border demarcation negotiations did not occur until shortly before the end of the Soviet era in 1991 when both sides agreed that Damansky Island belonged to China. On 17 October 1995, an accord over the last 54 km (34 mi) stretch of the border was reached, but the question of control over three islands in the Amur and Argun rivers was left to be settled later. In a border pact between Russia and China signed on 14 October 2003, that dispute was finally resolved. China was granted control over Tarabarov Island (Yinlong Island), Zhenbao Island, and approximately 50 percent of Bolshoy Ussuriysky Island (Heixiazi Island), near Khabarovsk. China's Standing Committee of the National People's Congress ratified this agreement on April 27, 2005, with the Russian Duma following suit on May 20, 2005. On June 02, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov exchanged the ratification documents from their respective governments3.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov4 signed an additional protocol on the Eastern border they share on July 21, 2008, finally settling the 4,300 km border survey.

The Partnership

Russia and China came closer following the deteriorating relations between Russia and U.S. In response to the 2014 Ukraine crisis, Western countries imposed multilateral sanctions on Russia resulting in the commodity export-driven Russian economy with its structural imbalances coming under severe stress. The looming fall in global oil prices then caused Russia to enter into a $400 billion gas deal with China for the supply of gas for 30 years leading to the construction of the Eastern pipeline, ‘known as Power of Siberia’. The pipeline, whose construction started in 2015, would carry 38 billion cubic meters of gas a year from Eastern Siberia to China5. The Altai gas pipeline also named the ‘Power of Siberia-2’ carrying gas from Western Siberia to China is also in the offing.

Putin may not have signed the most advantageous of gas deals with China. It may not have been to his liking given the three-decade long animosity and suspicion that prevailed between the two countries following the border dispute and the armed classes. That notwithstanding, the multilateral sanctions imposed by the western countries which severely restricted Russia’s access to finances for its development, trade and infrastructure projects, probably left him with no other option. This deal brought about a broader shift in Russia-China relations doubtless on Chinese terms, levelling the global power balance.

The deteriorating US-China relations, trade disputes, disruption of supply chains, closure of diplomatic missions in both countries and the possible economic decoupling knocking at the door increased China’s interests in Russian commodities. China also saw a new opportunity in the opening up of the Northern Sea Route and other trade routes through the Russian Far East (RFE) which would provide a secure route for the movement of its commodities in the event of a trade embargo or a naval blockade that may be forced following a military conflict with the west.

Russia’s Far East
Strategic Importance of Russia’s Far East

Russia’s Far East which has a long border with China, offers China’s landlocked Northern Provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin access to Pacific Ocean and Siberia. RFE has huge amounts of gas, oil, gold, precious gems and other high value deposits. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) provides a gateway to Russia and to Russian Oil and Gas fields throughout Siberia besides providing trade access to Northern Europe. This sea route cuts down costs and transportation time forgoods from Japan to the EU by 50 percent, taking about 20 days as compared to the Suez Canal route6.

Vladivostok, which leads on to the Pacific, is developing as Russia’s main port to the Pacific and is very close to China and N Korea. It is directly linked to Moscow through the ‘Trans-Siberian Railway’. ‘Trans-Siberian Land Bridge’ route, involves movement of products by ship from Japan’s West coast to Vladivostok to be further transported through ‘Trans-Siberian Railway’ to Moscow. The route then leads on to Brest in Belarus, right on the border of the EU and Poland, from where they enter the EU market to be further moved as required7.

Compatible with the importance of this area, Russian President Putin has moved the ‘Regional Administrative Centre’ for the entire Far Eastern Region to Vladivostok in early 2019. It is also the last terminal on the Trans-Siberian Rail8.

RFE’s Yakutia region holds the world’s largest diamond deposits both for use in the manufacture of machinery and for jewelry applications9. Eurasian Diamond Exchange is based at Vladivostok.

China’s Ambitions in the Region

The White Paper titled “China's Arctic Policy” published by the ‘State Council Information Office’ of the People's Republic of China on January 26, 201810 is significant and reveals China’s motivations in the region. The document says, “The Arctic situation now goes beyond its original inter-Arctic States or regional nature, having a vital bearing on the interests of States outside the region and the interests of the international community as a whole”. That said, China inserts itself into the Arctic region by asserting “China is an important stakeholder in Arctic affairs. Geographically, China is a ‘Near-Arctic State’, one of the continental States that are closest to the Arctic Circle”. It thereafter, goes on to unilaterally announce its rights in the region, citing international laws and conventions by pronouncing “China enjoys the freedom or rights of scientific research, navigation, overflight, fishing, laying of submarine cables and pipelines, and resource exploration and exploitation in the high seas, the Area and other relevant sea areas, and certain special areas in the Arctic Ocean, as stipulated in treaties such as the UNCLOS and the Spitsbergen Treaty and general international law.” China seems to be pronouncing its claims and rights to a region to which it is a mere guest due to force of circumstances. Would Russia have given the present level of access to China in the RFE had the circumstances not been so very compelling?

The White Paper further goes on to explain its involvement in ‘Arctic Affairs’ since 1925 perhaps to establish its entitlements based on its long association with the region to whatever claims it may have in a future date. Its intentions for constructing a “Polar Silk Road” as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its interests in the ‘commercial opportunities associated with Arctic shipping routes’ through the ‘Northern Sea Route’ (NSR) have also been reflected in the policy Paper.

While China may ultimately claim rights over parts of territory in the region, one more dimension has been added to the status of the region and the NSR by US’claim since 1960s that some of the Straits of the NSR are part of the international shipping route to which ‘Freedom of Navigation’ applies. Russia on the other hand claims the NSR to be a national transport communication subject to be governed under the national legislation on historical grounds. The US and Canada also have a long-standing dispute over the legal status of the waters of the Northwest Passage (NWP) between Davis Strait / Baffin Bay and the Beaufort Sea11.

It is only time will tell as to how and when these simmering issues will playout and move to the center stage and impact the world as also the US-Russia-China relations.

China Develops Russia’s Far East

A US$355 million first ever rail bridge connecting Nizhneleninskoye in Russia and Tongjiang city in China, across the Amur River has been completed, underscoring the growing Russia- China relationship. The total cost of the project is said to have been split between the two countries. The two sides jointly worked on the project, with China completing construction of its section across what it calls the Heilongjiang (Black Dragon) River and Russia handling the erection of its side of the substructure. The 2.2 km long bridge with 19.9 km track infrastructure is expected to become operational by early 2022. It has the potential to become an international goods transportation channel with an annual shipment volume of 21 million tons and 1.5 million passengers. Birobidzhan, the capital of Russian Jewish Autonomous Oblast is likely to develop as a major Chinese cross-border trading center when the bridge opens for traffic12.

China has launched Primorye-1 and Primorye-2 Transport Corridors in August 2018. These corridors connect the landlocked Chinese provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin with the Far Eastern Russian region of Primorye through which these provinces are connected to Pacific Ocean at Vladivostok. Primorye-2 is intended for cargo transportation between China and Russia, as well as between Korea and Japan13.

The Development of Northern Sea Route

Chinese are investing in Arkhangelsk and Murmansk harbours in Russia’s Northwest Arctic coastline to develop the existing port facilities further. Consequently, both the ports are expected to be amongst the world’s top 50 ports in terms of overall capacity, each capable of handling 30 million tons per annum. Arctic coastline is expected to be operational, handling regular shipping by 202514. If the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) working on a Free Trade Zone (FTZ), succeeds in finalising agreements with China, Iran, India, Israel, Singapore and 40 other countries, the Russian sea ports from Northwestern Europe to RFE will witness a sea change with a number of Shipping, warehousing, and logistics companies in both Europe and Asia coming up which will benefit Russia as well as China.

Economic Activities

Chinese company Zoje Resources Investment—working through its wholly owned subsidiary Huae Sinban Company obtained 115,000 hectares of farm land in Eastern Siberia on a 49-year lease at a cost of US $28.4 million for a project involving production of livestock, poultry, cereal, fodder and medicinal plants. On completion of the Project, the Transbaikal regional government will offer an additional 85,000 hectares to Zoje Resource’s subsidiary, increasing the allotted land to 200,000 hectares. The deal was signed in 201515. Almost all the woodlands in the area near the Chinese border had already been leased for timber extraction16. Chinese farmers are cultivating corn, soybean, vegetables and fruits in the RFE and Siberia.

In 2009, Russia and China launched a long-term development programme in the border region incorporating 205 key projects of which 94 were on the Russian side and 111 on the Chinese side. Chinese are extracting metallic ores and other natural resources, producing cement and modernising customs and border control facilities on their side while most of the schemes on the Russian side did not progress much due to funding problems17.

Based on Russian Federal Law No. 473-FZ ‘On the territories of advanced social and economic development in the Russian Federation’ (TASED) 18 enacted on December 29, 2014, Russia also established TASED special economic zones providing for substantial tax and other benefits, including reduced mineral extraction fees. No permits are required for hiring foreign workers. Initially established for 70 years, the term of these territories can be extended. These territories are managed by Committees and Management Companies and not by the local administration. Initially TASED will be created in RFE in the Khabarovsk and Primorye provinces. Chinese will be the major players and beneficiaries19.

Considering China has a claim over these territories, these concessions granted to the Chinese may have repercussions in years to come. The seeds for Chinese claim on territories in the RFE have already been sown when Chinese diplomats, journalists and nationals took to the internet to assert claims over Russian City of Vladivostok at a time when Russia was celebrating the 160th Anniversary of the founding of the city20.

China brings in, its own labour for working in such projects. Years of continuous work in such huge landed area saturated by the Chinese is likely to perpetuate their influence and hold in the area. No guarantees for vacating the land at the end of lease period seem to have been obtained by Russia. Also, in the backdrop of the three-decade long Sino-Soviet confrontation and the border clashes in late 1960s, though the Chinese presence in RFE is not much as of now, growing Chinese economic activities and resultant population surge in RFE does not go well with the Russian citizens. Will this not lead to territorial dispute subsequently?

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

Differences between Moscow and Beijing, the members of the eight nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), consisting of the Central Asian countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan besides India and Pakistan which joined the organisation in 2017, have been simmering for quite some time. The divergences have basically revolved around maintaining a hold in the region using economy as the leverage. The future direction and development of the region which would assist China establish its leadership role and the conflicting Russian desire to maintain its grip on the region which it considers as its ‘backyard’ are areas which have the potentials for discord.

Russia was keen on establishing an ‘energy club’ within Central Asia in which Russia would have a say and influence to be able to check China’s economic expansion in the region. China on the contrary wanted to create a ‘free trade zone’ to be in a position to use its economic clout to integrate their economies with its own. The aim was to move the Central Asian Countries into its orbit. Following the 2008-09 global economic crisis when the Central Asian countries were going through economic crunch, Russia and China, unable to reach a consensus went their own way to assist the countries of the region. While Russia established the ‘Anti-Crisis Fund’ under the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), China opened a credit line for the Central Asian countries21.

Russia’s desire to include India as a member in the SCO and Chinese opposition to it was an effort by Russia to balance power equations in Central Asia. The vulnerability of the region to US and Chinese interference resulting in conflict situations in its neighbourhood was a matter of concern for Russia. The role of SCO in Central Asia therefore, became yet another area of divergence between Beijing and Russia. While Beijing viewed SCO as a regional organisation, Moscow regarded SCO as a geopolitical grouping whose support can strengthen its position in its conflict with the US and in balancing China. Russia was also concerned about US engineering a ‘Colour Revolution’ in the countries of the region right in its backyard. China on the other hand was looking for its economic interests and to ensure that the region doesn’t provide safe haven for militants who could create disturbances in its Xinjiang Province. Russia was uneasy at the prospect of US and China establishing their foothold right across its borders. Consequently, Russia wanted to expand the membership of the bloc bringing in India to balance China’s influence. China it seems was not agreeable to the suggestion. Subsequently in 2017, with Russia’s pressure, China agreed to grant membership to India with Pakistan included to balance India’s weight22.

Putin during his presidential campaign in 2011 proposed the ‘Eurasian Economic Union’ (EEU) in all probability directed at securing Ukraine’s place in the Russian ‘sphere of influence’. However following Ukraine conflict, the country had to be dropped and the project had to shift focus on to Central Asia. This move was seen by China as an attempt to check its economic expansion in the region. Russia on the other hand believed that China’s BRI was meant to counter EEU which would strengthen Chinese influence in the region. These moves sparked off speculation that direct competition between Russia and China in this region may lead to conflict of interest resulting in clashes. The speculation was put to rest after a press statement was issued in 2015 following Russia-China talks when both Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping individually mentioned both China’s ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (SREB) and EEU in their respective statements signalling mutual cooperation in these arenas23.

In 2007, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan agreed to upgrade the Central Asia - Center (CAC) gas pipeline. Construction of a new Caspian gas pipeline was also agreed to. However, neither of the projects took off due to differences between Russia and Turkmenistan over the destination of the pipelines. Turkmenistan wanted the gas pipeline to connect its large Yolotan field to its domestic ports in the Caspian Sea so as to deliver gas directly to international markets. Russia on the other hand agreed to invest in the project only if the pipeline is connected to Russia. The aim was to have greater control over the production and transportation of gas to international markets. Turkmenistan rejected the proposal and commenced building its own East-West gas pipeline to connect with the Caspian Sea coast24. In the meanwhile, Russian import of gas from Turkmenistan was shrinking owing to various reasons including disagreements over pricing. Following global decline in oil and gas prices, in April 2009, Russia attempted to renegotiate the price which proved too costly for Russia’s Gazprom. China discreetly intruded in the dispute and offered a $4 billion loan25 to Turkmenistan to resist Russian pressure.

In 2007, China stepped in and signed deals with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan for the construction of pipelines for transportation of gas and oil from Central Asia to China. In 2009, gas began flowing from Turkmenistan to China and by 2012 China was importing more than half of Turkmenistan's total gas exports. With the entry of China in 2009 Turkmenistan was able to pressure Russia to pay European prices for Turkmenistan's gas26. China's entry as a customer significantly weakened Russia's dominance in the Turkmen energy sector. On the other hand, as expected, Ashgabat is paying off its huge debt by providing Beijing with gas at sizeable discounted price.

China’s New Territorial Claims in Tajikistan

China has increased its security presence in the strategically sensitive Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in Tajikistan which is located in the Pamir Mountains in the eastern part of the country. The aim was to prevent Uighur and other militants operating in Afghanistan from moving northward and getting into its Xinjiang Province. China built an outpost, its first, on the Tajik-Afghan border in 2016. In the same year, Tajik Government thereafter signed an agreement with the Chinese for the construction of eleven outposts of different sizes and a training center for border guards27.

Having secured a foothold in the region, as is the usual Chinese pattern, it seems to have activated its official media to claim Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan as belonging to it. Chinese historian Cho Yao Lu, in a recent article based on Chinese sources says “After the formation of the newest Chinese State (1911), the first task of the authorities was to get the lost lands back. Some of the lands were returned, others still remain under the control of neighbouring countries. One of such very ancient regions is the Pamir, which was outside China for 128 years due to the pressure of world powers.28” Dushanbe has demanded that Beijing disown the article and impede publication of similar such material in the future. Russian outlets on the other hand have sharply criticised what they allege is an effort by the Chinese to test waters to decide on potential future border changes.

China has overtaken Russia to become the largest foreign investor in Tajikistan in 2016, accounting for 30 per cent of Tajikistan's total direct accumulated investments. China is also the country’s third largest trading partner with bilateral trade reaching around US$1.5 billion in 201829. Tajikistan’s Gross government debt surpassed 50 percent of its GDP in 2017. Over 80 percent of this debt is to a single creditor, China’s Export-Import Bank, raising concerns of ‘debt trap’30. Though Russia has remained silent on the developments, can it be comfortable with the developments?

Misgivings and Suspicions

After the clash between India and China in the Himalayan borders in June 2020 in which 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese combatants were killed in hand-to-hand fighting, New Delhi hurriedly went through a deal to buy Russian warplanes and upgrade its existing fleet. China was not amused that Russia was selling military equipment to India at a time when it was engaged in a war with India. Russia on the other hand saw selling arms to India as a way of balancing out China’s growing power.

Russia has always been harbouring doubts that the Chinese are engaged in reverse engineering its military products and technology and then trying to sell imitation platforms based on Russian designs.

China received its first batch of S-400s in 2018 but further deliveries of the missile system were suspended according to TASS, the Russian News Agency. This comes after Moscow accused Valery Mitco, the President of the St Petersburg Arctic Social Science Academy guilty of handing over classified material to Chinese Intelligence31.

According to reports, Delhi wants Moscow to join the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific initiative. The matter is said to have been discussed between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov and the Indian ambassador to Russia, D. Bala Venkatesh Varma in a Phone Call32. Added to it, answering a question by the Secretary of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California, Mike Pompeo the U.S. Secretary of State confirmed the possibility of U.S. and Russia coming together to counter China33.

Moscow’s concerns and efforts to Balance Relationships

Though Russia is supportive of BRI, as an engine to develop infrastructure and enhance supply chain connectivity, Moscow remains concerned about Beijing's long-term intentions in Central Asia. Russia is worried that China might take advantage of the BRI to curtail its dominance in the region. Even if China doesn’t deliberately attempt to wean away Russia’s influence in the region, China’s investments, connectivity and the political influence that it gains amongst the countries through BRI are very likely to adversely affect Russia’s sway in the region.

Russia is also uneasy about China’s increased interest in the Arctic region and the surge in its investments. Though Chinese economic participation carries fiscal benefits, it potentially disadvantages Russian businesses in the long run. Kremlin also maintains a watchful eye to limit its debt liability to China so as to ensure that it doesn’t provide China the economic leverage that could impinge on its autonomy. Russia has concluded a non-tariff trade facilitation agreement with China that became effective in October 2019 but not a Free Trade Agreement (FTA)34. Possible Chinese claim to territory in the region in the future is yet another area of unease.

Although Russian and Chinese forces have been regularly carrying out military exercises since 2005, China for the first time participated in Russia’s strategic maneuvers ‘Vostok-2018’ in the RFE, said to be the country’s largest military drills since 1981. According to Russia’s Defence Ministry, about 300,000 troops, 1,000 aircraft, 36,000 combat vehicles and as many as 80 ships were to take part in the training35. China also sent a relatively small contingent of 3200 troops accompanied by military hardware including 30 aircraft. It was the first time that Mongolian troops were included in the drills36. Russian invitation to China was probably intended not to arouse Chinese suspicion that the military maneuvers were planned to test their military capabilities against China in its Far East. Likewise, the exercise was based on a scenario involving the employment of its air and naval arm and not on a land-based contingency.

Despite Russia’s territorial dispute with Japan in the Southern Kuril Islands, Japan’s reluctance to make any concessions in resolving the dispute and it’s not so friendly relationship with China, its ally, Russia’s relationship with Japan has been gradually improving under the leadership of Putin and Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe is said to have told Putin that the U.S. won't be allowed to build military bases on the four disputed islands if they were given back to Japan in a bid to resolve the dispute. However, the post war U.S.-Japan agreements ‘Japan-U.S. Security Treaty’ and ‘Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement’ (SOFA) which allows US to build military bases is said the have come in the way.37Nevertheless, it is clear both Tokyo and Moscow are recognising the benefits of their improved relations as a balancing factor in their relationship with China in the case of Japan and U.S. with reference to Russia.

Conclusion

How deep and distrustful are the Russian people’s fears, the Government’s compulsions and the forced compromises based on which Russia-China relationship is sustaining today?

Chinese presence and economic activities involving Chinese specialists and labour in the RFE are viewed with mistrust by the people of the region. They believe that the inflow of Chinese in the pretext of development work will result in demographic imbalances over a period of time. The film ‘China-a Deadly Friend’ in the series ‘Russia Deceived’ which projected China as preparing to invade the RFE in its quest for global dominance and alluded that the Chinese tanks could reach the Centre of the city of Khabarovsk within 30 minutes became an instant hit in the internet in 2015 illustrating the feel of the people. Khabarovsk which is just 30km from the Chinese border is the second largest city in the RFE after Vladivostok, the region’s administrative center38.

In October 2019 Sergey Lavrov the Russian Foreign Minister while on Rossiay-24 TV channel highlighted that Russia–China relations “have never been at such a high and trusting level in all spheres,” but Lavrov immediately inserted some doubt to his statement by remarking "If allied relations imply a military alliance, then neither Russia nor China are planning to set up such an alliance”. But he tried to neutralise his statement by saying if allied relations are interpreted as joint efforts to defend international law, the fundamentals of the world order and domestic affairs of other nations, we are unconditional allies with China in defending these principles39. Russian logic for closer relationship with China got clarified further when in the midst of a growing tensions with the U.S., when asked about the possibility of a military alliance between Russia and China, at the 17th annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club via video conference on October 22, 2020, Russian President Putin said China and Russia don't necessarily need a military union, though it could be possible40.

What is the future?

The endurance of Russia-China bond to a large extent will depend on the continuation and possible escalation of their hostility towards U.S. American intransigence in reconciling and accommodating with either country may even result in both of them going in for ‘strategic partnership’ including coalition in the military sphere. On the other hand, U.S. actions to bring about better understanding, accommodating Russia’s concerns by ending NATO’s expansion eastwards and lifting sanctions would dilute the logic for Russia’s close cooperation with China.

The fact that Chinese President Xi Jinping chose Moscow in 2013 for his first official visit points to the eagerness and the need Xi Jinping had felt at that point in time to forge a close relationship with Russia. The power balance between Russia and China has shifted since then and is further changing in China’s favour. With China’s rise in economic, military and technological domain and the growing asymmetry between the two countries, will China treat Russia as an equal partner and care for its sensitivities? If not, there are chances of friction developing between the two countries leading to antipathy. Considering the close relationship between President Xi Jinping and President Putin as it exists today, it remains to be seen if the relationship will continue to remain as at present post Xi or Putin.

Endnotes
  1. Guy Faulconbridge, ‘Russia may face wars over energy: Kremlin’ Reuters, May 13, 2009, available at https://in.reuters.com/article/us-russia-kremlin/russia-may-face-wars-over-energy-kremlin-idUKTRE54C4BY20090513, accessed on October 4, 2020.
  2. ‘The Convention of Peking 1860 is Concluded’ Boris Yeltsin, Presidential Library, November 14, 1860, available at https://www.prlib.ru/en/history/619718, accessed on September 17, 2020.
  3. China, Russia solve all border disputes, China View, June 02, 2005 available at https://web.archive.org/web/20090112225410/http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2005-06/02/content_3037975.htm, accessed on September 18, 2020.
  4. China, Russia complete border survey, determination, Xinhuanet, July 21, 2008, available at https://web.archive.org/web/20080726183004/http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2008-07/21/content_8739941.htm, accessed on September 18, 2020.
  5. ‘Construction of Chinese part of the Eastern Route of Russia-China Gas Pipeline commenced’, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), June 30, 2015, available at https://www.cnpc.com.cn/en/nr2015/201506/e95714f5bcf94ebeacfa2060a996adf0.shtml accessed on October 8, 2020.
  6. ‘Trans-Siberian Land Bridge Opens-Reducing Japan-EU Transportation Time by 50%’, Russia Briefing, June 20, 2019, available at https://www.russia-briefing.com/news/trans-siberian-land-bridge-opens-reducing-japan-eu-transportation-time-50.html/, accessed on October 17, 2020.
  7. ‘Trans-Siberian Land Bridge opens – Reducing Japan-EU Transportation Time by 50%’ Russia Briefing, June 20, 2019, available at https://www.russia-briefing.com/news/trans-siberian-land-bridge-opens-reducing-japan-eu-transportation-time-50.html/, accessed on September 21, 2020.
  8. China’s Belt & Road Initiative in Russia’s Far East, Silk Road Briefing, July 02, 2019, Russia Briefing, available at https://www.silkroadbriefing.com/news/2019/07/02/chinas-belt-road-initiative-russias-far-east/, accessed on October 17, 2020.
  9. ibid
  10. ‘Full text: China's Arctic Policy’ Xinhua, January 26, 2018, available at https://www.chinadailyasia.com/articles/188/159/234/1516941033919.html, accessed on September 20, 2020
  11. Andrey А. Todorov, ‘The Russia-USA legal dispute over the straits of the Northern Sea Route and similar case of the Northwest Passage’ ResearchGate, Arctic and North. 2017. No. 29, file:///C:/Users/mahal/Downloads/The_Russia-USA_legal_dispute_over_the_straits_of_t%20(1).pdf accessed on September 22, 2020.
  12. ‘First Russia-China Bridge across the Amur River Border is Completed’, Russia Briefing, August 13, 2020 available at https://www.russia-briefing.com/news/first-russia-china-bridge-across-amur-river-border-completed.html/, accessed on September 21, 2020.
  13. Primorye-2 Transport Corridor's Cargo Traffic from China Up 65% in 2020’, BRICS Information Portal, May 28, 2020, available at https://infobrics.org/post/30989#:~:text=May%2028%2C%202020-,Primorye%2D2%20Transport%20Corridor's%20Cargo%20Traffic,China%20Up%2065%25%20in%202020&text=Since%20early%20May%2C%20over%201%2C500,were%20launched%20in%20August%202018, accessed on September 19, 2020.
  14. Chris Devonshire-Ellis, ‘The Northern Sea Passage Between Europe and Asia-Russia’s Developing Arctic Ports’, Russia Briefing, April 10, 2017, available at https://www.russia-briefing.com/news/northern-sea-passage-europe-asia-russias-developing-arctic-ports.html/, accessed on September 22, 2020.
  15. The global farmland grab in 2016: how big, how bad?’, Grain, June 14, 2016, Annexe-1, Land Deals 2016, Page 92, available at https://www.grain.org/media/W1siZiIsIjIwMTYvMDgvMzAvMTZfMzJfMzRfNjY5X0xhbmRncmFiX2RlYWxzXzIwMTVfQW5uZXhfMV9GSU5BTHYyLnBkZiJdXQ, accessed on October 1, 2020. Main Paper available at https://www.grain.org/article/entries/5492-the-global-farmland-grab-in-2016-how-big-how-bad, accessed on October 1, 2020.
  16. Ivan Tselichtchev, ‘China in the Russian Far East: A Geopolitical Time Bomb?’ South China Morning Post, July 10, 2017, available at https://www.realclearworld.com/2017/07/10/china_in_the_russian_far_east_a_geopolitical_time_bomb_186392.html, accessed on October 31, 2020.
  17. Ibid.
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  20. FACT CHECK: Has China Really Claimed The Russian Port City Of Vladivostok?’ EurAsian Times Desk, Eurasian Times, July 04, 2020, available at https://eurasiantimes.com/fact-check-has-china-really-claimed-russian-port-city-of-vladivostok/ accessed on October 2, 2020
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  22. Marc Lanteigne, ‘Russia, China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Diverging Security Interests and the ‘Crimea Effect’, January 2018, available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322158646_Russia_China_and_the_Shanghai_Cooperation_Organization_Diverging_Security_Interests_and_the_'Crimea_Effect' Chapter 7, Page 124, accessed on September 30, 2020.
  23. ‘Press statements following Russian-Chinese talks’ Kremlin, May 08, 2015 available at http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/page/176, accessed on October 11, 2020.
  24. Karen Smith Stegen, Julia Kusznir, ‘Outcomes and strategies in the ‘New Great Game’: China and the Caspian states emerge as winners’ ScienceDirect, Journal of Eurasian Studies, Volume 6, Issue 2, July 2015,Pages 91 to 106, available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1879366515000032#bib108, accessed on October 1, 2020.
  25. Marcin Kaczmarski, ‘Russia-China Relations in Central Asia: Why Is There a Surprising Absence of Rivalry?’, The Asian Forum, August 19, 2019, available at http://www.theasanforum.org/russia-china-relations-in-central-asia-why-is-there-a-surprising-absence-of-rivalry/, accessed on October 1, 2020.
  26. Karen Smith Stegen, Julia Kusznir, ‘Outcomes and strategies in the ‘New Great Game’: China and the Caspian states emerge as winners’ ScienceDirect, Journal of Eurasian Studies, Volume 6, Issue 2, July 2015,Pages 91 to 106, available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1879366515000032#bib108, accessed on October
  27. Brigadier V Mahalingam, ‘Will China’s Military Presence and Economic Involvement in Tajikistan Undermine Russia’s Influence in the Region?’ Indian Defence Review (IDR), August 15, 2020, available at http://www.indiandefencereview.com/spotlights/will-chinas-military-presence-and-economic-involvement-in-tajikistan-undermine-russias-influence-in-the-region/ accessed on October 3, 2020.
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  29. Kinling Lo, ‘China increases its presence in Russia’s former Central Asian backyard’ South China Morning Post, August 25, 2019, available at https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3024261/china-steps-its-presence-russias-former-central-asian-backyard, accessed on October 3, 2020.
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  33. ‘Communist China and the Free World’s Future’, Speech by Michael R Pompeo, Secretary of State at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California, Department of State, July 23, 2020, available at https://www.state.gov/communist-china-and-the-free-worlds-future/ accessed on October 7, 2020.
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(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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