As tensions rise between China and the United States, many commentators are taking this rhetoric at face value and warning about a growing kinship between the United States’ top two rivals. But it’s not so simple.
To begin with, Moscow has more to fear from Beijing than Washington. Like the Philippines, India and Bhutan, Russia is vulnerable to Chinese territorial encroachment. China has supplanted Russia as the most influential nation in Central Asia — Moscow’s traditional geopolitical backyard — and has uncomfortably large influence over Russia’s economy. Despite the countless irritants in the U.S.-Russia relationship, all this means that there is now space to enlist Moscow as a silent but meaningful partner in the global campaign to curb the pernicious aspects of the Chinese Communist Party’s international influence.
The biggest reason for Moscow’s fear is territorial. While there is no good polling in both countries on sensitive issues such as territorial integrity, some Russians fear the Chinese want to invade Siberia, while some Chinese feel that parts of eastern Russia actually belong to China. In 1858 and 1860, early in what the Chinese Communist Party calls the “century of humiliation,” the Chinese and the Russians signed treaties that ceded huge swaths of lands around Lake Baikal to the Russians. Some Chinese want that land back. “Hong Kong and Macau have returned,” to the motherland, the history blogger Yuan Zaiyu lamented in March 2020. “Why not Vladivostok?”
Russians in the country’s sparsely populated Far East fear and resent Chinese immigration and influence. The governor of Russia’s Jewish Autonomous Oblast, which borders the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, has improbably claimed that 80 percent of the land in his region is now “controlled by Chinese.” The Chinese presence in Siberia, said Svetlana Pavlova, the chief editor of a Siberian news website, is like “a red rag to a bull.” (As the pandemic spread in early 2020, Russia became the first country to shut its land border with China.)
Perceptions can create reality. Chinese frustrations with Russia — most Chinese alive today came of age in an era of frosty relations between the two nations, from the Sino-Soviet split in the mid-1950s to the 2001 Sino-Russian strategic and economic treaty — could easily push China’s foreign policy to be more aggressive toward its northern neighbor. Russian analysts watched the June 2020 border clash between India and China that killed at least 20 Indian soldiers closely — and not just because Russia is India’s most important weapons supplier.
These tensions are becoming especially visible in Central Asia, an area that has long been within Moscow’s sphere of influence — and now finds itself more firmly within China’s. Xi first announced his vision for the global strategy now called the Belt and Road Initiative in Kazakhstan in September 2013, an important symbol of Beijing’s designs to further enmesh the region in Chinese trading patterns. Russia used to be the region’s largest trading partner; it’s now China. Russia’s largest overseas military base is in Tajikistan; China opened a (secret) military base there several years ago.
Russia is inescapably the junior partner in the relationship. China is Russia’s largest trading partner, while Russia isn’t even in China’s top 10. Moscow’s greatest card in the relationship is its defense technology. But even there the Kremlin is running up against the same kind of predatory mercantilism that countless firms across the world have faced. “China alone,” the chief of intellectual property projects at Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec said in December 2019, “has copied aircraft engines, Sukhoi planes, deck jets, air defense systems, portable air defense missiles, and analogs of the Pantsir medium-range surface-to-air systems.”
Where does this leave Moscow? Putin knows perfectly well that Xi is not his “best friend.” Some Russian analysts have suggested adopting a stance like India’s, which resists being tied into alliances. A closer relationship with the United States is possible. In 1969, the Soviet Union and China fought a border skirmish that both sides feared could lead to nuclear war. Moscow asked foreign governments how they would respond to a preemptive strike against China, and in October 1969, Mao Zedong was so worried about a Soviet nuclear attack that he temporarily fled Beijing. This fear helped impel Mao to reach out to the Americans, and, in the 1970s and 1980s, the two sides actively worked together against the Soviets.
When President Biden meets Putin in June for the first in-person summit between the two leaders, one hopes he will keep this history in mind.