Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping’s decision to make Russia his first state visit suggests Beijing’s renewed prioritization and reinvigoration of its relations with Moscow. In the second of the “China’s and Russia’s Future” seminar series for rising scholars, three Chinese and three Russian graduate students from Peking University, China Foreign Affairs University, Tsinghua University, and the University of Warsaw discussed their views on trends in Sino-Russian relations. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated.

Civil Society Building

One of the Russian participants stressed the role of non-government organizations (NGOs) in expanding tolerance and openness, creating the ground for political participation, bridging the gap between the individual and the state, and educating the populace about the rule of law in China and Russia.

  • Restrictions: A Russian scholar noted that this space within China is wider than often assumed, given that it has 450,000 NGOs, which is nearly twice as many as that of Russia. Despite having fewer NGOs, however, she maintained that Russia has historically imposed fewer restrictions on these organization’s international contacts and for-profit activities.
  • Moving Forward: A Russian student argued that both China and Russia should address: 

    • Discrepancy between donors requirements and local NGO needs
    • Top-down approaches that discourage expression of dissatisfaction or criticism
    • Lack of accountability for donors and reporting both domestically and abroad
    • Diversification of NGO spending and the role of personality in decision making on grants
    • Disconnect between long-term and short-term goals

National Character

A Chinese scholar described the nature of national character and its impact on foreign policy. A nation’s common language, culture, and psychology shape how that country responds to external stimuli, he said. For Russia, he detailed the impact of religion and authoritarianism in creating a national ethos marked by tenacity, variability, extremism, insecurity, suspicion, great power chauvinism, and a Messiah complex.

  • Creating New Channels:  Beijing should look for new channels to understand Russia’s foreign policy, the Chinese participant maintained, especially on key issues like the Syrian crisis, the Diaoyu/Senkaku island dispute, and the Korean peninsula. He cited key issues Impacting Russia’s foreign relations as:

    • Russia’s status under a new international system
    • Distrust of major neighboring countries
    • Great power and strongman stance, diminishing negotiation flexibility
    • Willingness to engage in and take risks
    • Assumption of extreme decisions
    • Changeability and pragmatism, as evidenced on the Black Bear Island negotiation

Confucius Institutes

A Russian participant detailed the proliferation of Confucius Institutes promoting Chinese language and culture throughout the world, with institutes expanding into 84 countries over the past 12 years. Within Russia there are 17 institutes, concentrated primarily in Siberia and the western portion of Russia, she said.

  • Western Influence: One participant asked if institute concentrations in western Russia reflected an attempt by China to reduce Western influence on Russia. The Russian panelist responded that this was a function of both concerns over Western influence and ties to Europe, as well as China’s attempts to reach further into Russia’s power centers and remote regions.
  • Mutual Understanding: Among challenges impacting Confucius Institutes, a Russian scholar cited: 

    • Gaps in Chinese and Russian culture leading to high attrition rates
    • Focus on lower levels of language, with few in more advanced programs
    • High costs associated with some of the programs
    • Lack of trained Chinese and Russian teachers, due to low salaries and lack of set standards

Energy Cooperation

A Russian participant described the paradox of Sino-Russian energy cooperation. She noted that despite the fact that Russia is the largest energy producer and China is the largest energy consumer, their energy cooperation remains “remarkably underdeveloped,” evidenced by their lack of a bilateral gas pipeline. Despite Xi’s recent visit to Moscow, she noted that the two lack momentum and face disagreements over: 

  • Pricing: Russia does not want to sell its resources at an amount lower than that paid by European countries, while China refuses to accept such a high cost, she explained. Despite the economic crisis in Europe and Moscow’s search to diversify its markets, Russia does not wish to meet Chinese demands on pricing. These demands, she added, are exacerbated by Beijing’s subsidies for domestic companies and the promise of its own significant gas reserves.
  • Transport: China wants a pipeline to be built on the eastern frontier, while Russia wants it to go through its west, a Russian scholar added. A pipeline through Western Siberia is viewed in Russia as mitigating “overdependence on China.” Yet, given that China’s “thirst for energy” is in its southeast, the Russian geographic proposal remains untenable, argued one Russian panelist. While both have been waiting until conditions “turn in their favor,” a Russian student advocated Moscow reaching out first to garner greater Chinese investment in energy exploration and infrastructure.

Alliance Formation

A Chinese scholar reviewed the differences between countries that form relations based on common sentiments and those based on interests, remarking that the latter are more reliable and enduring. He added that concerns over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, missile defense expansion, color revolutions, and U.S. rebalancing to Asia, have led Moscow and Beijing to feel pressure from the West. 

  • Bipolarity: External pressure has contributed to a bipolar Sino-Russian structure that is set upon avoiding isolation in such forums as the United Nations Security Council, he asserted. To analyze the full extent to which China and Russia can cooperate, he advocated analyzing scenarios:

    • Chinese reaction to the Georgian-Ossetian conflict and Russia’s role
    • Russia’s response to China’s difficulties in the East China Sea and territorial disputes
    • U.S. reaction to formation of a Chinese and Russian alliance

Role in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

One of the Chinese panelists said that China’s greater investments in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which have long been regarded as the “backyard” of Russia, have elicited concerns that Russian influence may be waning. Another Chinese panelist qualified this statement by arguing that while Russia has a global perspective, China retains a markedly regional one. He added that these countries have tended to welcome Chinese investment to balance Russia, resulting in Moscow needing to increase its involvement.

  • Eastern Europe: A Chinese scholar remarked that while Belarus remains Russia’s closest ally, there remain divergences driven by political and financial crises between the two countries. Geopolitical and economic importance notwithstanding, gas disputes and regional instability have also led to tensions between Russia and Ukraine, he added.
  • Central Asia: A Russian panelist suggested that Chinese influence and direct involvement in Central Asia has been acutely felt by Russia, which views such engagement as a challenge to Russian authority. A Chinese participant took issue with this claim emphasizing that China and Russia have a “complementary” (hubuxing) relationship when it comes to Central Asia, with the former more of an economic driver and the latter retaining its political and cultural influence.