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It seems that Xi Jinping’s move to a more openly aggressive foreign policy is extending in every direction, not just to his Southwestern neighbor India, but to his Northern ally, Russia. The PRC is now claiming past (and hinting at proper present) ownership of one of Russia’s major Pacific port cities, Vladivostok (Владивосток), on the basis of Qing rule in the territory. (For those who are unfamiliar with Chinese dynasties, the Qing were the final emperors of China and ruled from 1644 until 1912, but the territory under question was annexed by Russia in the 1860 Treaty of Beijing and Han people, who constitute(d) the majority of China’s population, had long been banned from entry by their Manchu rulers. Additionally, the Chinese Empire was not the first or last territorial entity to claim or assert ownership in the region). What does this bode for Russia and China individually, and their mutual relations?
>As a disclaimer, I understand very little Chinese, basically nothing beyond the ability to politely navigate a grocery store/restaurant and introduce myself, so my analysis will mostly fall on the Russian side of the issue, where I have a far superior linguistic arsenal. But, let’s begin by situating this (maybe) surprising turn of events within a broader context. For the sake of some minimal amount of brevity, I’ll summarize the pre-1949 relationship by saying that it was a mixed bag at the official level (borders were not firmly set in the pre and early modern worlds, and even beyond then people at a local level generally continue to interact regardless of their government’s wishes), and by the late 19th century favored Russia as the richer and more Westernized/militarily superior power.
Skipping a bit ahead, relations between the PRC and the USSR were often about as cosy as the climate of the Russian Far East. Naturally, the two largest Communist powers in the world were allies, and the Soviets sent aid to Mao when he was fighting the Kuomintang, but even then Stalin was stingy in the amounts that he sent, and as the years went on he hardly became more friendly. Mao, when he visited Russia, was made to feel like a lesser entity in all of his meetings with Uncle Joe, something that was particularly damaging to relations when the Chinese despot had such singular control, and in general the Soviets did not hesitate in displaying a paternalistic attitude towards the newer members of the Marxist-Leninist camp, encouraging technological and educational exchange programs but also emphasizing their superiority as longer standing, stricter communists and a more advanced society.
This rubbed the Chinese wrong in almost every possible way. Although Mao declared eagerness to remake Sino culture, he also embraced Confucian sayings and traditional values/cultural forms when they conformed with his goals, and his (and many others) sense of Chinese/Han national pride was offended by such an attitude from the Soviets, a society that Imperial China had regarded as barbaric and backwards only a few centuries previous. A whiff of colonial paternalism, a great sin in the Communist handbook, was also in the air. With the death of Stalin in 1953, and Khrushchev’s denouncement of him three years later, Mao felt more at ease to go his own way. From then on, relations were often less than cordial between the two great powers, and they competed for ideological purity, allies, and, briefly in 1969, territory.
Since the fall of the USSR in 1991, a more ‘special’ relationship has emerged, with various treaties of friendship, mutual trade and infrastructure projects, and close cooperation in the political, military, and global arenas. In order to answer our overarching question of “how”, we first have to ask “why”, when things have been going so well. As with China’s actions on India, my estimation is that things taking a turn for the worse was a huge part of the motivation to move in this direction. Xi takes great pride in his inscrutable image in the West, much as Putin does his man of steel/175 IQ political master variation, but he is also an admirer of Mao, and a staunch Han Chinese nationalist. Mao often took bold action when the situation internally in China was very bad (famines, mass purges, etc.) and Xi sees an opportunity to do the same at a time when China’s image on the world stage is very poor, and there is much fear internally because of the virus and the economic and social upsets that it has caused.
In other words, make moves that will inspire enmity when the global perception is poor in hopes that they will be swept under the rug with the ‘bigger’ issue of the virus when the time for handing out blame comes, and China asserts its vast wealth and propaganda machine to begin to shift it. Xi is also at a certain disadvantage dealing with Russia that he might not be with more firmly Western powers, because it is a bit harder to make the charges of imperialism that often inspire submission stick. The Chinese love to bandy about accusations of imperialism and reprimands for past wrongs on the part of their enemies, but there is a two-fold problem with them in relation to Russia. (This would also be a good time to acknowledge that China has a long history of colonialism just as brutal as any Western power in East and Southeast Asia, and a history of race/color based discrimination that far predates the arrival of any Europeans. The assertion that racism began in China with the coming of Europeans is laughably degrading, and if you want proof or a greater understanding, I heartily recommend that you read Construction of Racial Identities in China And Japan by Frank Dikotter).
Firstly, the Russians can easily counter that they were just as much victims of, and pawns in, the game of Western imperialism in the 19th century, and that many of their own aggressive actions were based on a desire to survive and/or protect pan-Slav interests. In another direction, the culture and educational milieu of Putin’s Russia is not particularly interested in seeking forgiveness for Russian expansionism, and places national pride above any sense of modern relational ethics or culpability for horrific historical events. So simply guilting based on imperialism won’t get them very far. Another push behind Xi’s move is a simple desire for revenge. China feels that it was badly treated by Russia, both in its imperial and communist forms, and wants to extract retribution by either making Russia look less powerful by handing over the city, or conflictual by refusing to negotiate. Xi made a power play similar to Putin’s current one with the nationwide constitutional referendum, when he managed to get the term limits of the presidency removed, and knowing that this made him more secure in acting just as he wanted to, seeing his ally do the same provokes fear. Minds that think alike recognize each other.
Smart as Xi may be, dictatorial leaders that preside over vast swaths of unhappy, oppressed citizens, no matter how many loyalists they may have, project paranoia both at home and abroad.
From this “why”, China’s hope of what this bodes, greater control in Eurasia and more security by the reduction of neighbors’ power and world image, is clear. On to Russia. Part of what motivated this spat to begin with were celebrations in Vladivostok of the city’s 160th anniversary, and a tweet from the Russian embassy in India celebrating how the city became a part of Russia. Just as Xi seems to be feeling threatened by Putin’s firmer grip on the reins of the Russian state, Putin looks to have his own fears regarding Chinese aggression and was egging India into continuing to oppose them. Naturally, Russia also wishes to have a good relationship with such a big, economically rising nation and if they can do it while pushing the Chinese out of a similar position, all the better. The origins of the conflict also likely reveal Putin’s response. Нет!
Putin’s power base in the Russian population, especially because he is distinctly unpopular with big percentages of the educated and monied classes, rests upon his reputation as a stellar Russian nationalist; Vlad (such a very Russian name) defender of the traditional territories, eager even to regain those that have been lost, a sharp rebuke to the ‘Western puppet’ Yeltsin in reestablishing Russia’s image as unbeatable and glorious all over the world. In no universe can Putin give up or compromise his status as a symbol of Russian pride and survive long term, especially when what is at stake is an important (albeit crime-ridden and depressing) port.
For China this is a chance for Xi to assert preeminence and Chinese hegemony, at least in its regional sphere, while for Russia and Putin it’s a window to live up to a reputation as great, national leader and maybe even make themselves look like the sympathetic aggressed upon, currying favor with some Western observers and rising third-world powers that feel threatened by China. The final part of the question was what this foretells for relations. Lacking some kind of magic crystal ball (I did take a very intensive IR class last year, and I mostly learned that I’m cut out for analyzing historical happenings, not predicting the future), I’ll explore possible avenues, and what they might foretell.
The most obvious would be for Putin to start, as he had steadfastly refused to do since the beginning of the pandemic, blaming China for the severity and spread of COVID-19, which has devastated Russia. Such a declaration, I think, would present a marked deterioration in national relations and probably permanently impact Xi and Putin’s relationship. For as long as they remain in power, full trust, such as that might have been, would never really reappear. Another possibility is that China could go beyond simply asserting that the territory was once their’s, and implying that it should be returned, by either making formal demands or beginning a border skirmish. As with the first option, a break down in association is inevitable. The chance that this might provoke Russia into large scale military action, or simply end up creating a conflict that China will find difficult to win, makes it unlikely, but President Xi hardly seems to be aiming for predictability nowadays. A less extreme reaction than either of the other two is a simple cooling of the countries’ relationship and a greater divergence in military and/or political objectives. Both countries, though, see a fundamental enemy in the US, and the NATO/Western-dominated world order, and that will always be a good cohesive principle.
There are a lot of lessons that can be learned here, but I think the most important for US policymakers and informed citizens, as well as allies of the post-WWII neoliberal order, is the exploitable weaknesses between allied autocratic nations. No matter how smart their leaders may be, paranoia that ruling a country where a significant portion of the citizens would either like to see you dead or obey out of fear rather than respect bleeds into foreign policy and the relationships between such power-hungry politicians. Pinpointing those fracture points, and increasing them while minimizing the chance for open physical conflict where possible, is a key way to decrease the credibility of those regimes in international eyes, and the view of their populations, and to begin destabilizing. Certainly, no two countries deserve to do this to each other quite as much as China and Russia.
*For the curious, a link to the video in question is here, and an article about the conflict in Russian state media here. Since I seem to write weekly/bi-weekly about Russia (consistency, thy name ain’t college student), I thought it would be fun to give this somewhat regular Russia centric report a name. Any ideas?Published in