China and Russia are no more than allies of convenience

Posted: August 23, 2012 in South China Morning Post
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A new op-ed in today’s South China Morning Post, this time a solo number. Looks at the relationship between China and Russia, and how not all that is BRICS is united. They may agree on some things, but this is not some new geopolitical alignment. Touches also upon my China in Central Asia work, about which there is going to be a lot more over the next few weeks.

China and Russia are no more than allies of convenience

State councillor Dai Bingguo’s visit to Russia this week for strategic security talks has once again focused attention on the supposedly close relationship between the two BRICS powers.

An image of alliance thrown up by their parallel voting in the UN and Western analysts’ inability to look beyond former cold war alliances mean that suspicion is often cast on a relationship that has as many fractures as it does cohesion. The reality is China and Russia disagree as often as they agree.

On the chaos in Syria, the two have shown they are willing to support each other by holding up the UN as a reason for their refusal to countenance action on Syria. But while both may see eye to eye on this issue, this is not always the case. Looking in the annals of Security Council resolutions over the past few years, one can find a few instances where China or Russia found themselves abstaining alone.

Disagreeing in the UN Security Council on lesser resolutions is one thing, but far more contentious is the long border they share and the countries in between.

These concerns have two key aspects: on the one hand, Russia fears the loss of its economic and strategic influence in Central Asia, while, on the other, it fears China may overwhelm its vast and empty eastern provinces. Back in 2000, then prime minister Vladimir Putin enunciated how fundamental these concerns might become when he stated that “if we don’t make concrete efforts, the future local populations [in Russia’s East] will speak Japanese, Chinese or Korean”.

Russian analysts often talk in alarmed tones about the huge demographic disparity between China’s northeastern provinces like Heilongjiang (38 million people) and Amur Oblast on the Russian side (830,000)

And, economically, Russia can also see that it is increasingly losing out in Central Asia, previously its economic backyard. While Russian remains the language of choice in the region, it is China that is being seen as the economy of the future. Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uzbek traders all go to Guangzhou and Urumqi for goods to import, and the China National Petroleum Corporation has signed and brought online with extraordinary speed a growing array of pipelines and oil and gas contracts from Central Asia.

The loser in this growing pipeline orientation to China is of course Russia. Not only because its firms are losing control of the Central Asian resources, but also since a growing reliance on Central Asian energy is playing against Russia in its direct negotiations with China over bilateral energy sales. The two sides have been unable to agree on the pricing of gas for almost a decade – in which time China has built a major gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, one of the world’s richest gas reserves, something that strengthens China’s hand in its negotiations with Russia.

Losing economic might and the potential fear of Chinese demographic pressure are fundamental concerns for Russia. And they build on tensions that were left over after the cold war, where the Chinese and Russian communist parties never quite saw eye to eye.

It may be the norm for elder Chinese officials to know some Russian language from that time, and for Dai to speak of how a “healthy relationship” has been forged over the past decade. But often when China looks to Russia, it sees an example of how not to manage the opening up of the state from a socialist regime. And from a Russian perspective, the new Muscovites see themselves as more European and transatlantic in their outlook and international gravitas than as members of the up-and-coming BRICS community.

So, Dai’s visit to Russia, for all the usual reassurances uttered from both sides about close co-operation, should not be taken as further evidence of some great geopolitical alignment reflective of a shifting global order. China and Russia are occasional allies of convenience, not geopolitical brothers in arms building the “other” world order.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

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