The devil lies in the details of Sino-Russian relations

by Yoichi Funabashi

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a popular man in China. In September, “The Biography of Putin: A Man Born for Russia” entered the top 10 in Beijing News’ best-seller list for nonfiction. According to a Pew public opinion survey, support for Russia within China has risen sharply in the past year, from 47 percent to 66 percent. Putin’s annexation of Crimea, continued intimidation of Ukraine despite Western-imposed sanctions and efforts to promote a Eurasian alliance, all make Putin a promising partner in the eyes of the Chinese.

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, it appears as though China’s move toward Russia has accelerated. During his first visit to Russia as China’s top leader last year, Xi visited the Russian Defense Ministry’s operational control center. This marked the first time that Russia opened up the center to a foreign leader.

China and Russia share a number of common interests and concerns. Both countries are ruthless in their efforts to suppress the “three evils:” terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. Both countries are fighting to stem the flow of drugs out of Afghanistan.

And most important, Russia and China have made common cause of expelling American influence from the Eurasian continent.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a symbol of Sino-Russian cooperation, and aims to eradicate the “three evils.” While the SCO is not an anti-American alliance, there is no doubt that the goal of weakening American influence in the region is well within the organization’s purview.

In particular, energy-related transactions are the magnetic force pulling Russia and China together. Following the Ukrainian crisis, Russia and China concluded an agreement under which Russia will supply natural gas to China for the next 30 years.

An agreement on such a deal had eluded the two countries for close to a decade, but apparently Putin’s personal decision to push forward with the deal allowed the agreement to be concluded at a bargain price for China. A special relationship between Russia and China is developing as a result of energy geopolitics on the Eurasian continent. This special relationship may be strengthened even further if sanctions against Russia or efforts to rebalance against China are pursued too aggressively.

On the other hand, a deep gulf remains between China and Russia.

Even the SCO is not primarily dedicated to actively countering American influence in the region. Rather, the primary significance of the SCO is defensive: The organization allows Russia and China to coordinate how to project their respective power across Central Asia.

For China, bilateral coordination with Russia rather than the regional integration of Central Asia is the core function of the SCO.

China is trying to use the SCO as a “release valve” — a means of pressuring Russia to accede to China’s advances into Central Asia. Russia, on the other hand, uses the SCO as a “safety valve” that allows it to monitor and limit Chinese expansion in the region.

Up until now, China and Russia have fulfilled different roles within Central Asia, with China focusing on economic growth and Russia on security. With instances of Russian aggression unfolding right before their eyes, however, Central Asian countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan have begun looking to China as a potential counterweight to Russia in the region.

China is also beginning to recognize the necessity of further involving itself in the political stability and defense of Central Asia as a means of containing the separatist movement in its own Xinjiang Uighur Province. China will thus find itself increasingly entwined with the rest of Eurasia.

Russia and China share a long border through the very heart of Eurasia. Memories of military clashes during the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict will not be easily dispelled in either country. Nor does Russia subscribe to the theory that China’s rise will be a peaceful one.

Rather, Russia suspects that China aspires to become the region’s hegemon. Russia likely views China’s advances in Central Asia with the same suspicion that it views the European Union’s involvement in Ukraine.

India has already emerged as a contender for regional power status in Eurasia. Russia is rapidly increasing its weapons exports to India. Russian-manufactured weapons make up 75 percent of India’s total arms imports, whereas China buys 64 percent of its arms imports from Russia.

Nor has Russia altered its neutral position with regard to China’s border dispute with India — although the same is true of its position vis-a-vis China’s territorial disputes with Vietnam and Japan.

Russia and China distrust each other. But they both distrust the United States even more. On the global stage, it is easy for them to present a united front in opposition to the U.S. — as through the formation of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Geopolitical truth lies closer to home.

The moment of truth for Sino-Russian relations will come once the U.S. has pulled its troops out of Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia. After that, both countries will have to work to maintain a balance of national prestige in the region, and redress problems for countries that feel undignified. If appeasement fails, domestic politics will revive popular sentiments for retaliation.

Russia resembles a wounded lion. While it has already lost its superpower standing, nostalgia for that era remains deeply entrenched in the national psyche.

China, meanwhile, harbors the trauma of having its former glory trampled by the Western powers and Japan. This fuels the hunger for China to achieve its dream of global ascendance.

All of which begs the question; In the event of a Sino-Russian alliance, will Russia really be content as China’s junior partner?

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of The Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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