This is the paper that Dr. Marina Oborotova insisted that I write instead of my true assessment of Russian Resurgence and Hegemonic Intent. She threatened my grade if I did not comply. 2008

POLS 357     Russian and Eurasian Politics     Dr. Oborotova    Timothy J. Sipp      5/07/08

Russo-Chinese Relations in the 20th & 21st Century: Geo-Politics & Planetary Evolution

Formal Russo-Chinese relations pre-date other Sino-European arrangements with the signing of the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. This treaty set the precedent for all future discourse by addressing the multi-faceted nature of shared borders and self-determination. Both nations developed without significant cultural interaction and were mature sovereigns before mutual expansion brought them into prolonged contact and occasional conflict. With historical disputations ranging from territorial ambitions and access to ports to ideological differences and favorable trade, the ongoing developments in Russo-Chinese relations will remain paramount to a stable Asian-Pacific region and world for the foreseeable future (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004) 

The national interests of Russia revolve around domestic stability, both ideologically and economically. However, the Russian leadership must necessarily address the evolving socio-cultural and geo-political realities of its geography and proximity to an ascendant China. The balance of regional power between Russia and China has oscillated throughout history. At the onset of their formal recognition in 1689, China was in a short-lived superior negotiating position (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004). China treated the Russians with more respect than their European counterparts because the Russians arrived by land, not by sea, signaling to the Chinese the possibility of these ‘new barbarians’ showing up armed, en mass, with intent. With subsequent centuries came the weakening of the Qing empire due to corruption, internal dissent and insurgency, as well as the concerted external pressures of an expanding Europe. The Qing policies against Han Chinese migration into the frontiers of Mongolia and Manchuria led to the eventual inability to control the sparsely populated regions making them vulnerable to assimilation by tsarist Russia and subsequently the communists after the Bolshevik Revolution (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004).

During the early years of the Soviet Union, the Comintern arrived in China to organize what became the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1921. However, Russian policy was markedly dualist as deepened relations were sought with both the revolutionary CCP and the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalists that were the internationally recognized government of China (formerly the ROC or Republic of China). The conference at Yalta, resolving WWII, made provisions for renewing tsarist-era claims on northeastern Chinese ports and the joint ownership of the Manchurian railway. Also included in Yalta was the establishment of a Soviet naval base at Port Arthur. After WWII, Moscow provided invaluable aid in the form of military equipment and supplies, brought through Manchuria, to Mao’s CCP to help them win the ensuing civil war between the CCP and Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT. Of interest, is Stalin’s preference for dealing with Chiang Kai-shek of the KMT instead of Mao Zedong, leader of the CCP and Stalin’s desire to pursue a divided China vulnerable to territorial expansion and Soviet influence without the Chinese ability to pose a reciprocal challenge (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004).

Regardless of any latent tensions between the CCP and the USSR, Mao Zedong announced in 1949, after defeating the KMT, the intention of the CCP and the Chinese nation to ‘“lean to one side” and follow the Soviet Path.’ (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004. p. 18). Essential to this subordination of the Chinese people was the proclaimed necessity to “learn from the Soviet Union,” while specifically referencing the USSR     in Confucian terms as “big brother” instituting a hierarchical relationship (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004).

The subsequent Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance Between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China, signed in 1950, committed the two states to meet aggression from Japan or its allies with mutual assistance. As part of this agreement, the Manchurian railway was to be given back to the Chinese in 1952, the Chinese were to administer the port at Darien and the Soviets were to pull out of Port Arthur (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004). During the 1950s thousands of Soviet technicians arrived in China with the blueprints for engendering 156 enterprises determined to be essential to industrializing and modernizing China according to Soviet dogma.

The power of Soviet dogma would not dominate Chinese thought for long as major ideological rifts occurred within the USSR as Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Joseph Stalin and China moved away from the Moscow mindset to a more culturally-appropriate socialism for the Chinese people. The split was formalized in 1960 by the publishing of “Long Live Leninism” in the Chinese Communist Party theoretical journal Hongqi (Red Flag) and solidified with the Soviet response a few days later in Pravda, the CPSU’s (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) newspaper. As a result of this intensifying ideological campaign the Soviet Union withdrew its technicians from China further exacerbating the economic crisis brought on by the crippling failures of the Great Leap Forward (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004).

As relations soured between the USSR and China, China returned to poignant complaints about Soviet encroachment onto traditional Chinese lands acquired by the Russians during the Qing dynasty a century before. The result was a massing of troops on both sides of the border and inevitable small-scale open skirmishes. Large-scale fighting broke out in March of 1969 around Damanskii Island (Zhenbao in Chinese) in the Ussuri River. “By some accounts, the Soviet Union seriously contemplated launching a nuclear strike against China as a preventive strategy” (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004. p. 19). It was this descent into enmity that elucidated the Chinese leadership’s need to reassess the nature of China’s geo-strategic position and the necessity of engaging the United States as a potential future ally against the “polar bear” to the north.

Subsequent leadership succession in both the USSR and China made repairing relations extremely difficult. In September of 1979 both states agreed to discuss their ongoing issues in efforts to normalize relations. However, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979, the Chinese suspended all talks. In a speech made at Tashkent, Uzbekistan in April of 1982 Leonid Brezhnev called for Sino-Soviet cooperation and talks resumed but without much progress. In November of 1983 at Brezhnev’s state funeral, the Chinese foreign minister, Huang Hua gave his Soviet counterpart,Andrei Gromyko, a list of three demands to be met if normalization of relations were to occur (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004.). The “three demands” were for the Soviets to reverse the troop build-up on the Sino-Soviet border, leave Afghanistan and encourage the Vietnamese troops to leave Cambodia.   

It wasn’t until Gorbachev made his speech in Vladivostok in 1986 announcing the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and a willingness to significant reductions in troops along the Sino-Soviet border that relations began to warm. The Vietnamese withdrawal of troops from Cambodia in 1989 removed the last of the three obstacles to normalized relations between the USSR and China. Mikhail Gorbachev made a visit to Beijing in May of 1989 to secure high level face to face engagement with the Chinese only to be met by the Tiananmen Square crisis and a hollow suit in the form of General Secretary Zhao Ziyang who inadvertently informed Gorbachev that Deng Xiaoping was the real leader of China, earning Zhao a swift purging (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004.).

Even as the respective leadership of these two communist states began to come to terms with each other, the world began to see the economic disintegration within the USSR and Russia and collapse of Eastern European communist states. The lack of a firm Soviet state with which to interact greatly impeded the continued normalization of relations between the USSR and China. The Chinese also had to focus on reasserting control of its population after the Tiananmen crisis highlighted the growing unrest with the status quo.

In the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly formed Russian Federation made cooperative overtones to China including the policy of “One China”. This statement, made by Boris Yeltsin on September 15, 1992, said that Russia wouldn’t formally recognize Taiwan and initiate interstate relations. This statement was made to counter the mistake of a confused bureaucracy in Moscow that facilitated the free-lance diplomacy of a member of Yeltsin’s inner circle to sign an agreement with Taiwanese officials to exchange representatives for conducting the business of bilateral relations (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004.).

Further progress was made in September of 1994 when Jiang Zemin and Boris Yeltsin held a second summit to discuss their relations, regional security and proclaim a “constructive partnership”. The four foci of this proclamation were political, economic, military and international concerns. These newly stated principals of interstate relations were not to be taken as alignment against any one nation, e.g. The United States, but to facilitate the emergence of a multi-polar world and a common desire to “permit no expansionism and oppose hegemony, power politics, and the establishment of antagonistic, political, military, and economic blocs,” (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004. pp. 28-29).   

Throughout the mid 1990s Russia and China continued to solidify their relationship with an eye to an expanding NATO that Moscow felt was meant to subjugate the Russian people to the will of America and its European allies. Meanwhile, China was feeling America’s and indeed international scrutiny over the missile tests timed to coincide with Taiwanese elections in efforts to intimidate the electorate into selecting a candidate more compliant with mainland China’s views and control. Subsequently, both China and Russia agreed not to criticize each others internal domestic policies. For Russia this meant Chinese support of the war in Chechnya and for China this meant Russian support of China’s sovereignty over Tibet and Taiwan.

As this strategic partnership formed so did the international institutions needed to make it work. The formation of the “Shanghai Five” was an effort to continue to demilitarize Central Asian borders via the Mutual Reduction of Military Strength in Border Regions agreement. This agreement between Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan was the antecedent to the current Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) formed in 2001 to address emerging issues of extremism, terrorism and separatism in the region. This newly formed consortium of regional powers is touted as a regional security instrument and not intended to signal the formation of an economic or military bloc with global reach. It cannot go without mention, however, that the principal member nations have considerable resources, economies and standing armies.

The ongoing economic crises in Russia throughout the 1990s further prevented equal footing in trade relations between China and Russia. The only thing that China needed that Russia could provide was increasingly sophisticated military hardware including jets and tanks that were newer and more advanced than the ones in the Russian arsenal. Prevailing Russian thought was that giving China a possible advantage in conventional arms was a small price to pay for economic stimulation in light of the enormous deterrence that is the Russian stockpile of nuclear weapons. The inability of Russia to maintain the desired 70/30 ratio of arms deliveries to technology transfer in the late 1990s was significant in revealing the weakness of the Russian markets and diminished political influence of Russian leadership (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004).

By the end of the 1990s the Chinese leadership had realized the need to secure their energy supply and approached Russia with intent to make arrangements for oil and gas. In February of 1999 the two nations signed agreements to conduct feasibility studies into developing  oil and gas pipelines from Siberia into northern China. None of the subsequent discourse proved productive as terms constantly changed. Vladimir Putin has increased the difficulty of resolving any cooperative energy concerns with China by insisting that any pipeline to Asia be open to other nations and not simply serve China, effectively putting China in the driver’s seat regarding pricing and competitive practices.

With the advent of energy supply as the premier instrument of Russian foreign policy both in Europe and Asia, it seems more unlikely that China will be satisfied with Russian promises and US assurances in its quest for energy security. However, the US declaration of an Axis of Evil in 2002 by George W. Bush effectively tightened Russo-Chinese relations and firmed their commitment to condemn “unilateralism and power politics.” It is this continued importance of balancing American power, in pursuit of a multi-polar world, that drives the convergence of Russian and Chinese interests in addition to the long-time understanding that peace between Russia and China is good for business. The principal nations of Russia and China have extended observer status to Iran, Pakistan, India and Mongolia in efforts to recruit more countries to their stated cause of preventing extremism, terrorism and separatism.

Russia faces the increasing problem of border security and immigration in its eastern provinces as 8 million Russians uninterested in certain types of labor live across the river from 200 million Chinese looking for work. Despite the closing of the borders at the request of the local oblast officials, many Chinese people simply ride across the border on tour buses which require no visa or immigration checks and disappear into the Russian economy. As the timeless concerns of border security & immigration, economics & trade balances, and competing ideologies meet with the emerging issue of global warming we are sure to see an intensifying of the relationship between Russia and China .

Similar to the situation China found itself in in the late 19th century, Russia’s population and economic strength in the border regions is waning leaving a vacuum that the Chinese people would gladly fill (Strategic Partners: Russian-Chinese Relations in the Post-Soviet Era. Jeanne L. Wilson. 2004). This natural tendency would be compounded by the increased scarcity of food and water predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As China’s Gobi desert expands in exponential fashion in conjunction with a loss of 20% of the arable land in China and a permanent loss of 80% of the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau glacier a critical water shortage for up to one billion Asians would ensue. China’s agricultural output of major crops including wheat, rice and corn would drop by up to 37% in the last half of this century (Combating Climate Change: China Goes On the Offensive. Ding Yimin, 10/04/07).

According to the IPCC’s reports on global climate change, Russia will escape relatively unscathed from the effects of climate change and even stands to profit in several ways. The melting of arctic sea ice is opening access to several northern ports year round, as well as making oil and gas exploration and exploitation possible. The arable land of Russia will increase, facilitating greater food production, with a mind to exporting this additional food to a starving Asia and the rest of the world. One cannot help but imagine the circumstances under which two wholly disparate nations with inherent antagonisms perceive common ground in dissuasion of American hegemony through expanded regional cooperation instead of conflict.

It is however, difficult to say which direction Russo-Chinese relations will take. The course determined should be based on rational, realist understandings of the nature of geo-politics in light of planetary evolution and scarcity and not necessarily the white elephant of US hegemony. However, the changing dispositions of power centers in each nation, as their respective populations react to internal & external pressures, will ultimately decide their fate. 

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