China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, will make his first foreign trip as president to Moscow in late March on his way to a meeting of emerging-market leaders in South Africa. This will be followed by two further stops in Africa and a gathering of secondary leaders in south China for an economic forum.
The near-term agenda appears designed to show that China has friends in many places. And indeed, the Chinese-Russian relationship has come a long way. But potential pitfalls remain.
Xi demonstrated close personal attention to the symbolism of his first actions in office as party general secretary, visiting the birthplace of economic reform in Shenzhen. He toured a historical exhibit and promoted “China’s renaissance”—its return to former greatness. He has been additionally attentive to the military.
So, one is led to conclude his decision to visit Moscow has symbolic importance as well. What might it be?
First, borrowing from the American experience, it might be reasonable to assume that new leaders meet their allies and close friends before meeting leaders of countries with more complicated and cross-cutting relations. As President Barack Obama is in the process of meeting the new Japanese and Korean leaders before the Chinese, so Xi Jinping seems ready to display a working relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin before meeting Obama.
Moreover, if this approximates Chinese thinking—there was some internal debate about which capital to visit first—President Xi did not have a rich menu of options: North Korea, no way; Burma, Laos, Cambodia, too small; India, too soon. Even if Russia is a default choice, the Chinese certainly appreciated Putin’s traveling to Beijing last June within weeks of his official inauguration, as well as making China the only country he visited the previous fall during the Russian election campaign.
Second, Russia and China share some tactical and even strategic interests in constraining the West’s recent trend toward interference in other nations’ affairs, as in Libya and now Syria. Talks in Moscow would allow Putin and Xi to take stock of global and regional developments—from Afghanistan to Syria and from Iran to North Korea—and compare their world views.
For China, Putin personally can be relied upon to keep an arm’s length from Washington and to promote a multipolar world, not one dominated by the United States. For Russia, the growth of China, India, and other emerging powers is clearest evidence of the multipolar world becoming a reality. Thus, demonstrating Sino-Russian cooperation serves the interests of both in offsetting American power and influence.
The Chinese have largely chosen to interpret Obama’s “rebalancing” to Asia as part of a policy to “contain” China. For them, showing a working relationship with Russia illustrates that China cannot be contained. For the Kremlin, it permits Putin, in power since 2000, to solidify relations with China’s new leaders as Moscow pays more attention to its sparsely populated and economically underdeveloped eastern regions that physically abut the most dynamic part of the world.
Third, this visit comes at a time of heightened tensions with Japan over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, and Xi may try to woo Moscow to Beijing’s side in its quarrel with Tokyo. The Russians, the Chinese point out, have their own dispute with the Japanese over the South Kuril Islands: why not show mutual solidarity?
There, Putin may be expected to tread with caution. For one, the disputed territory is in Russia’s possession; for another, Putin seeks a closer relationship with Tokyo both to help develop Russia’s Far East and to better balance Moscow’s policies in the Asia-Pacific region.
Fourth, the Xi visit to Moscow may seek to achieve a new quality of Sino-Russian arms relations: technology transfers, not just off-the-shelf sales, and even joint development of some weapons systems. In recent years, arms trade between the two countries has gone down because Moscow had been unhappy with Chinese efforts to reverse engineer and produce Russia’s exported systems. However, there are reports of new agreements, especially involving aircraft and jet engines, where Chinese technology continues to lag. Unlike in the 1990s, when infusions of Chinese cash kept the Russian arms makers afloat, Moscow’s decision today will reflect its strategic choice.
Fifth, the visit could also be of symbolic importance in light of ongoing U.S. activity in northeast Asia. The recent nuclear tests and missile launches by North Korea have provided even stronger rationale for the U.S.-led missile defense effort in northeast Asia. The Chinese see this effort as potentially aimed at them, and are increasingly worried. This concern is behind Beijing’s much stronger response to North Korean activities of late. The Russians claim that the U.S.-NATO ballistic missile defense system in Europe might have some capacity against their strategic deterrent. The Chinese seek to capitalize on Moscow’s concerns to entice the Russians to cooperate against the rising U.S. threat to the two countries’ nuclear forces. The Kremlin, however, is less agitated about the U.S. systems in the Pacific. Its preference for now is to reach an accord with Washington in Europe that would offer reassurances that its ballistic missiles are not affected by the U.S. defenses aimed at Iran.
And sixth, the meeting could be a sign of things to come in the energy sector. Hectic negotiating activity in the gas sector has preceded the upcoming visit. After years of haggling over prices for Russian exports to energy-hungry China, Gazprom executives are promoting a target of the end of 2013 finally to reach a deal. Gazprom’s smaller competitors are also looking for infusions of Chinese capital for liquefied natural gas investments
. Putin treats Gazprom as among his family jewels, so the prospects for a deal to diversify away from dependency on the European market will rely heavily on his judgment and the price he seeks. Thus far, price has kept the two sides from agreement.
Xi’s trip to Moscow reflects the remarkable progress that has been made in the Chinese-Russian relationship over the past quarter-century, following Mikhail Gorbachev’s May 1989 visit to Beijing that marked the end of the three-decades-long Sino-Soviet cold war. The two countries, once bitter ideological rivals, have managed to build an essentially pragmatic relationship. The list of accomplishments is impressive. Since 1996, a confidence-building agreement on border demilitarization has been in force. Since 2004, their 2,700-mile-long border has been legally fixed and fully demarcated. Since 2008, China has been Russia’s biggest trading partner, having overtaken Germany. And each year, 2.5 million Russians visit China and 750,000 Chinese travel to Russia.
Most remarkable, perhaps, has been Russia’s willingness to accept the meteoric rise of China and seek to adjust to it. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Russians had developed a top-down attitude toward their Chinese neighbor, which was successively an object of their imperialist policies, a battleground of Moscow-inspired communist revolution, and a junior partner in the “socialist camp.” At the start of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the late 1970s, China’s GDP was estimated to be 40 percent of that of the Russian republic of the Soviet Union. In the past thirty years, the tables have turned most dramatically, with China dwarfing Russia four times over in GDP terms and twice in terms of the defense budget. Yet, even though the realpolitik-thinking Russians recognize the realities of power, neither the elites nor the public are captivated by the notion of a China threat.
This does not mean, of course, that the relationship is problem-free. The very fact of a resource-rich, population-poor Russia sitting next to a resource-poor, population-rich China is a source of long-term instability. The two countries’ common border looks like a thin membrane separating two very different worlds.
The level and structure of Sino-Russian economic exchanges continues to be rather low. Russians are unhappy that they have become a mere raw-materials resource base for China; the Chinese complain about the lack of investment opportunities open to them in Russia. A 2009 accord to spur cooperation between China’s northeast and Russia’s Far East has so far failed to deliver—the crossing points along the border are too few and far between. A recent project to build a bridge over the Amur River, to carry coal by rail, has been repeatedly delayed. This illustrates that while Russia and China have some obvious compatible commercial interests, a difficult common history and different economic systems have constrained cooperation.
And even though a border delineation treaty was signed almost a decade ago, Russian China-watchers complain that some Chinese textbooks still refer to some 500,000 square miles on the Russian side of the border as historically Chinese and taken over by czarist Russia under “unequal treaties” forced upon Beijing by its then more powerful neighbor. A newly installed plaque at a palace pavilion at the former imperial residence at Chengde, north of Beijing, marks the site where one of the treaties was signed in 1860 as a place of “treason and nation humiliation.” The lecture that Deng Xiaoping gave then U.S. president George H. W. Bush in 1989 about China’s belief that Russia occupies what was once Chinese territory may not be entirely forgotten by Deng’s heirs.
Moreover, while Moscow reaches out to relaunch the development of its eastern territories, and seeks to establish its presence and voice in the Asia-Pacific—both bilaterally and through organizations such as the East Asia Summit and APEC—it has not ceased to think of itself as essentially European. Vladimir Putin’s vision of integration within the continent of Eurasia stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok—not from St. Petersburg to Shanghai. For years, Moscow has been pressing Brussels for a visa-free regime between Russia and the European Union; any such arrangement between Russia and China would be inconceivable.
China and Russia also have diverging interests in a number of areas; they even compete in some. China has been making inroads into former Soviet Central Asia, where Moscow has made it clear that while it could live with a much-expanded Chinese economic presence, it would resist any attempt by Beijing to project its military presence to the region. The Chinese are clearly unhappy that Russia has been selling arms to Vietnam and that Gazprom has started drilling for oil and gas in the South China Sea, even though outside the waters contested by Beijing and Hanoi.
And on several high-profile territorial issues involving the other party, Beijing and Moscow have displayed caution. China did not follow Russia in recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia and has taken a neutral stance on the ownership of the South Kuril Islands. Russia, while firmly supportive of Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, does not take a position on Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea that Beijing and Tokyo both claim or the islands in the South China Sea.
Finally, historical observation suggests that much of China’s motivation in cultivating a good working relationship with Russia is to keep its rear flank safe as it deals with the more difficult issues stemming from its relations with the United States, Japan, and other countries.
Over the years, leaders in Beijing have appreciated President Putin’s fiercely independent stance, particularly vis-à-vis the United States, but they are allergic to any sign that Moscow is getting too close to Washington. They know they do not have to fear present-day Russia, which is relatively weak and largely focused on itself, and will be trying, as much as they can, to exploit Moscow’s problems with Washington to their advantage.
The Kremlin, while fully recognizing the importance of relations with China on their own merits, will seek to use its Beijing connection to increase incentives for the West to accommodate Russia’s national interests. In the Chinese phrase, it is a case of “same bed, different dreams.”