By Yining Su
Last week, Xi Jinping flew to Moscow and met with Russian president Vladimir Putin in his first overseas visit as president. Then, earlier this week, it was reported that China would be spending $3.5 billion on a deal to buy a fleet of military jets and some submarines from Russia, in the biggest arms deal between the two countries in over a decade.
The renewed cosiness is likely a result of the much-vaunted American “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region. Both China and Russia resent and are wary of American presence in the area.
The significance of Xi’s visit, and of the deal, which according to Reuters had been discussed for over a year, is disputed.
There are those who regard a closer relationship between Russia and China as a threat to global order. There are those who put the blame for this perceived threat on the Obama administration. There are the Chinese social scientists who wish to soothe everyone and insist that the the deals and the meetings don’t mean a thing.
A (very) short history of Sino-Russian relations
Before the 20th century, Russian settlers in the Russian far east frequently clashed with Chinese and Manchu forces. Russia was one of the foreign countries that were party to unequal treaties with China during China’s so-called “Century of Humiliation”.
In the first half of the 20th century, wars and and revolutions in both countries made them fair-weather friends, depending on who was in power when, and if they had any common enemies at the moment. After China became a Communist country in 1949, Russia became its close ally.
You would think that these two Communist countries would spend the rest of the Cold War as good friends, but as Russia was moving away from Stalinism China began doubling down on Mao’s cult of personality. Ideological differences between Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev resulted in the Sino-Soviet split in 1960. The two countries fought a short border war in 1969, as well as proxy wars in Cambodia, Vietnam, Mozambique, Angola, and other countries.
After Mao’s death, the relationship improved, but it wasn’t until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that relations normalised once again.
China is a desperately energy-hungry country, and Russia has oodles of crude oil and natural gas to sell. During Xi’s visit, Rosneft, Russia’s top oil producer, announced that had reached an agreement that will eventually triple the supply of Russian crude to China.
Meanwhile, Russia and China have been negotiating for the past decade and half over plans for Russia to sell China natural gas through a proposed pipeline that will run through Siberia. The plan is all but finalized. Only one detail remains: price.
Aside from the oil, gas, and coal, Russia has plenty of other things to sell China. Namely, other types of natural resources (including $1.3 billion of illegally logged timber).
As well as being metaphorically hungry for Russian energy, China is also literally hungry for Russian produce. Last year, 320,000 tons of fruits and vegetables passed through the border town of Manzhouli.
When Russians first began to settle the Russian far east in the 17th century, there were clashes with Chinese/Manchu interests in the region. Areas around Mongolia, the Amur River, and the Primorsky Krai, which is east of China’s Heilongjiang province, have passed through different hands at various points in history.
During the Sino-Soviet split, tensions were high in these region, with many secretive military outposts keeping close watch along this border. Now, Russia is less worried about Chinese military incursion into its territory, and more worried about its own people leaving its territory. Since the end of the Soviet area, the population of the Russian far east has fallen greatly, from 8 million to 6 million between 1998 and 2002. Meanwhile, cities on the Chinese side of the border have boomed.
As the Guardian illustrates:
Twenty years ago, Zabaikalsk and Manzhouli, which face each other across the border marked by a few strips of barbed wire, were settlements of about 15,000 people. But while Zabaikalsk remains a dusty border town, Manzhouli now has high-rise buildings, an indoor skiing facility, 3D cinemas and a population approaching half a million people. Russians flock to it for the shopping opportunities.
China and Russia are both permanent members of the UN Security Council, and tend to vote together against the three other permanent members, France, the UK, and the US.
In the Asia-Pacific region, each country is managing its own complex balancing act in its relations with other regional powers like Japan, India, and the US. The web of relationships between these countries resembles that of a group of middle school students (i.e. “Vicky and Jessie are best friend, but everyone nows that Jessie talks behind Vicky’s back, and Vicky is dating Aaron, even though Aaron really likes Chloe, even though Chloe’s kind of a slut…”, etc.).
At the moment, it remains to be seen whether if the relationship between Russia and China will remain quite so cosy. The gas pipeline that has been in discussion for so long still hasn’t been finalized. The arms deal, despite causing worry for rivals like Japan and the US, hasn’t been finalized either. In fact, some military experts say that China was premature to announce the deal.
Those problems, along with continued conflicting concerns and goals in regional affairs mean that the best friendship between the two countries is not so strong, and Russia and China may yet go back to being frenemies. On the other hand, as previous regional allies increasingly pivot towards America, China hasn’t got many friends left.