During his state visit to Russia in June 2019, President Xi Jinping of China effusively hailed President Vladimir Putin of Russia as his “best friend and colleague.” Putin, not to be outdone, replied by affirming his personal respect for Xi, and suggested that Sino-Russian relations had progressed not only to an “unprecedentedly high level” in recent years, but were now increasingly based on a “truly comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction.”
But whatever Putin meant by “strategic interaction,” and despite the undeniable progress in Sino-Russian relations over the past decade, it is easy to fall into the trap of exaggerating what some fear as the emerging Sino-Russian ‘axis’ in world politics. Notwithstanding the Xi-Putin friendship and the growing congruence of both countries’ interests in undermining the U.S.-led international order, relations between Russia and China remain at core as brittle and prone to mutual suspicion and distrust as they have in the past.Embed from Getty Images
It is, after all, only a short 50 years ago since the two Eurasian giants nearly stumbled into a cataclysmic war following a series of unprovoked Chinese attacks on Soviet troops garrisoned along the then-contested river boundaries in Russia’s Far East. Although Moscow stayed its hand from an all-out military assault on China in self defense, the border clashes of 1969 continue to rankle historical memories and military thinking in Russia to this day.
Such territorial jostling as the 1969 border clashes and mutual enmities, in fact, has defined Russo-Chinese relations historically, and will continue to do so in the future.
And therein lies the existential rub, especially for Russia: from a Russian strategic planner’s perspective, a China with nearly a billion-and-half people not only dwarfs Mother Russia in population, national power and economic might, but, more worryingly, has become a near military equal prone to intimidate and throw its weight around its periphery at will – witness, for example, Beijing’s brazen conquest of the South China Sea, the unrelenting pushing and probing into Vietnamese, Philippine and Japanese maritime spaces and, in the west, to the currently ongoing incursions, stand-offs and aggressive territorial claims against India’s northern Himalayan regions.
None of these acts of Chinese belligerence will have escaped the notice of Russian planners who, despite the paradox of Russia’s shared strategic interests with China to counter America’s power and influence in world affairs, are nonetheless bound to view China’s rapid and inexorable rise into the front rank of global powers with acute consternation.
Despite any apprehensions that Moscow may quietly harbour, Russo-Chinese relations in the short term, however, are likely to remain in harmony, mainly because Putin’s carefully tended relationship with Xi enables him, among other things, to maintain the pretense of Russia as a great power, attract Chinese investment and, more generally, project an image of himself as a world-class statesman.
And Xi, although leading an immeasurably more powerful country than Russia except in offensive nuclear firepower, tactfully grants Putin the appearance and status of an equal through elaborately choreographed summit meetings, the bestowing of high level state and friendship awards, and personal respect, in order to secure at least tacit deference by Moscow to a Sino-centric Eurasian geopolitical order currently being hatched in Beijing.
Yet, beyond the apparent bonhomie and geopolitical dalliance between Xi and Putin, the historic and atavistic tensions deeply rooted between the Slavic and Han civilizations represented by Russia and China are bound to emerge again, and most probably in violent form, in this decade.
In fact, signs already abound of Russian nervousness as China relentlessly pushes its ‘silk road’ initiatives, coercive economic practices and diplomatic blandishments deep into the entire former Soviet space in Central Asia. Although the Chinese have so far refrained from asserting military-strategic rights in the geopolitical arc spanning Russia’s southern peripheries, it can only be a matter of time before some hyper nationalist politician in Beijing does so, and the Russians in that event can be relied upon to react with unrestrained fury.
But what will certainly drive Russia to a defensive war with China before this decade is out is the growing probability of Chinese territorial encroachment into Russia’s sparsely populated Far Eastern regions bordering the Pacific.
The Russian territories north of the Amur and east of the Ussuri rivers in Russia’s southern Siberian regions, which currently demarcate the agreed boundaries between the two countries, are lands historically and insistently claimed by China. Chinese military maps even show these areas as Chinese territories.
These territorial claims, combined with sheer population disparities – over 130 million people live in three Chinese provinces bordering Russia’s Far East, where population is estimated at less than 8 million – and the need to secure long term access to living space and natural resources, will likely compel Beijing to sooner or later demand revisions to what it calls “unequal” borders treaties with Russia dating back to mid-19th century. And although the Russians will undoubtedly resist, it is not inconceivable that the Chinese army at some point will simply march a few hundred kilometres across China’s north-eastern border into Vladivostok, Russia’s only warm water access to the Pacific, to stamp China’s historic claim and rights to the entire region.
It is not clear at this juncture how Russia and China can step back from a violent conflict in this decade. But as China appears unlikely to relinquish its expansive territorial claims against all its neighbours, including Russia, the onus for deterring China from seizing Russian territories will fall upon Putin, or his successors, in the coming years.
But whether China can be deterred as its power and reach grows unabated across Eurasia remains an open question. If the current Xi-Putin bromance fails to tamp down Chinese expansionism, expect a war between the two nuclear armed states in the 2020s.
Pravin R. Jethwa is a consultant on defense and international security in London, U.K.
An earlier version of this article was published by the Daily Sabah in July 2019.