China and Russia have one bed but different dreams

May 23, 2024
Beijing, China. 16th May, 2024. Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, is escorted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, to their bilateral meeting at the Great Hall of the People, May 16, 2024, in Beijing, China. Credit: Kremlin Pool/Russian presidential Press Service/Alamy Live News

Russian weakness has enabled China to emerge as Eurasia’s dominant power. But it also limits the partnership of the two.

Visits by heads of state to each other are cloaked in symbolism. But insensitivity to cultural or historical nuances can see the best of intentions go awry.

In March 2013, when Xi Jinping made his first overseas visit as president, to mark the occasion, President Vladimir Putin presented his guest with a specially reproduced front page from Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper, announcing on February 14, 1950, that the so-called Valentine’s Day treaty of friendship and cooperation had been signed by Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.

After having been kept for three months in Moscow by Stalin, Mao had to sign the treaty, which gave the USSR special access to Xinjiang, accepted Outer Mongolia was ‘‘independent’’ but within the USSR’s sphere of influence, and conceded more than a million hectares of territory in the far east taken from China by Imperial Russia with the 1860 Treaty of Peking.

Mao described these as ‘‘three bitter pills’’ he had been forced to swallow to secure Moscow’s economic and security support for his new regime. Later, during the height of the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, Mao said China had yet to present Russia with the bill for these territories. If Putin wasn’t, Xi most definitely would be aware of this history.

Putin’s brief two-day visit to China last week, included a day in Harbin in China’s far north-east, near the Russian border. Xi did not accompany him. Following the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917, Harbin is best remembered as a sanctuary for refugees rather than a symbol of Russia-China friendship. Saint Sophia church in central Harbin, in the Byzantine style from the early 20th century, is today a local museum and tacky tourist souvenir store. Far from being ‘‘little Moscow’’, Russian influence has long gone, except for its bread.

In the Russian Far East, Chinese immigrants are starting to arrive in significant numbers, worrying locals that they will seek to reoccupy land that they believe traditionally belonged to China. To add to these concerns, in 2023 the Chinese government declared that the names of eight Russian cities in the territory lost to Russia in the Treaty of Peking be changed on Chinese maps back to their original Chinese names, including cities such as Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.

Xi and Putin are said to have met 43 times since Xi took charge in 2012. Putin likes to boast about the special relationship between Russia and China based on their ‘‘friendship’’. Famously, in February 2022, just 18 days before Putin invaded Ukraine, they declared the friendship was ‘‘without limits’’. Beijing was blindsided by the subsequent invasion; just as it was when Putin invaded Georgia on the eve of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics.

Following Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the imposition of a limited sanctions regime, the Kremlin ‘‘pivoted east’’. As Xi’s anti-Western position hardened, Putin was a natural ally to push back against the US-led liberal international order.

China soon claimed this to be a model of a ‘‘new great power relationship’’, based on co-operation for the common good of the planet, rather than competition. Together, they increasingly sought to provide leadership to the global south. In Central Asia, this led to a ‘‘division of labour’’ between Russia providing security and China economic development, especially through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Over the past decade, however, China’s economy has continued to grow substantially faster than Russia’s. Meanwhile, Putin’s Ukraine folly has seen troops moved from the east to the western front. Russia’s military has underperformed; Russia’s claim to provide security for Central Asia carries less weight.

China has become more active in the security area, including opening its second overseas military base in Tajikistan. Beijing has also sought to assert itself politically.

In May 2023, it convened a summit of China plus the five central Asian states, without Russia’s participation. This will become a bi-annual process for economic and security co-ordination. A secretariat will be based in China.

China already hosts the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the New Development Bank. Use of the renminbi in trade settlements is becoming widespread. China has also broken ranks and unilaterally extended diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government in Kabul.

While public attitudes towards China are mixed, central Asian elites can see where their bread is buttered and are favourably disposed towards China. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has also raised fears of where the Putin Doctrine might next be applied, contributing to a broader questioning of both Russian and Soviet imperial legacies.

China has emerged as the dominant power in Eurasia. Putin therefore needs more than ever to stay close to Xi. China is not his only friend. India, which has bought as much hydrocarbons from sanctioned-Russia as China, is a bigger military customer. Despite India’s more favourable stance towards the US in recent years, Putin also needs it to help balance China.

Despite the superficial bonhomie of the visit optics, gone is the ‘‘friendship without limits’’ rhetoric. Significantly, no progress was made on the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline project, discussed for years and which Russia badly needs now to replace its European markets.

Fears in the West of a rising Chussia – a united China and Russia ‘‘axis of autocracies’’ – belies knowledge of their histories, approaches to security, and extent of economic integration in the global economy. The usual sour antipathy towards the US was in their joint statement; the strongest bond they share. Joint military and security exercises are to expand, but this is a long way from a mutual defence pact which neither wants nor even movement towards interoperability. The Chussia anxiety is much exaggerated.

Beijing’s biggest concern about Russia is regime stability. Failure in Ukraine could see Putin swept away by a colour revolution, although the possibility of that seems remote. Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s incandescent flame out across the political landscape would have horrified Xi. For better or worse, Xi finds himself now having to ride the tiger with Putin; regime survival in Moscow is in both their interests.


First published in the Australian Financial Review, May 22, 2024

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