Exterior solidarity, internal rivalry. Sino-Russian relations aren’t as healthy as many in the West like to portray. NY Times (Pool photo by Mark Ralston).
Observers were quick to point to Putin’s recent state visit to the People’s Republic of China as being indicative of a new strengthening of relations that should be of concern to the West. Burgeoning trade figures aside (China has now become Russia’s largest trading partner and the two nations hope to more than double bilateral trade by 2020), attention has gravitated towards their increasing military ties. Only recently the two nations participated in shared naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, which solidified a decades-old commercial relationship fomented by Russia’s massive arms industry.
Russia and China, along with most Central Asian states, have been developing strong military and anti-terror links in the past decade through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is seen by many in the West as being a counterbalance to NATO in the region.
Given recent developments, Western nations’ concern isn’t entirely unfounded. Military cooperation has corresponded with similar diplomatic cooperation. The destruction unfolding in Syria is just as tragic in its substance as it is tragic that the limp inaction by the UN Security Council serves only to prolong it. For the West, the latter is the brazen Realpolitik of Putin, defending Russia’s arms sales to Assad whilst at the same time looking to snub the interventionist approach previously taken to oust Gaddafi. The idea of a joint Sino-Russian behemoth has aroused Western anxieties for a long time; now that their links are solidifying, these sceptics have found that their predictions are becoming self-fulfilling.
But is this necessarily a correct view? Prying open their exterior stance to the world, one may find that the relationship is far less cosy. Putin’s aforementioned visit to China was much less significant than many- whether Russian, British or otherwise- like to portray; Putin visited both France and Germany before heading east. Medvedev, often assumed to represent the Kremlin’s friendlier face vis à vis the West, displayed little change in continuity as far as foreign visits are concerned. Both Presidents’ first official visits were to Kazakhstan (Medvedev) and Belarus (Putin) - countries which would form part of the proposed Eurasian Union. Clearly, Russia prioritises these states; so much so, that it was seen as the real reason why Putin didn't attend the recent G8 summit.
Soldiers of Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states performing an anti-terror drill in Kazakhstan, 2010. RIA Novosti.
Russia's relationship with China, too, is economic. Bilateral trade is booming, but it is still ultimately a trade of commodities. Resource-rich Russia is a supplier of, and China a consumer of energy. Consequently, energy pricing is something which has already been biccered about between the formalities and festivities. Decades-long Russian negligence of the Far East has allowed Chinese influence to penetrate. Chinese migrant labour is felt acutely in this scarcely-populated region, and clashes have already broken out between locals and Chinese. With a population of less than 7 million, the Russian Far East is acutely vulnerable to large influxes of migrant labourers.
Moves to rejuvenate the region by Russia can be mutually beneficial. Infrastructural projects in Vladivostok, such as the world's longest cable-stayed bridge, form part of a wider effort to ready the region for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in September. A Pacific-orientated Russia can be of benefit to China. But a conscious decision to strive to be both a Eurasian and a Pacific power has implications that place it in conflict with China's own emerging ambitions. As it stands, Russia and China aren't equal partners- much like the UK and the US aren't. A renewed Russian assertiveness in the Far East and Central Asia may rile those who see Beijing- and not far-off Moscow- as being the real dominant force in the region. The realisation of the Eurasian Union by as early as 2015 (this being Putin's target) might be in response to greater fears of Chinese encroachment in Central Asia. By establishing it in the next few years, Moscow can anchor itself in the region for the forseeable future without having to out-bid Beijing for political power- which is increasingly unaffordable.
This isn't the only time that relations have had strains beneath the surface. Whenever significant shifts in policy have been undertaken by one nation, relations tend to sour. From Stalin's death in 1953, when ideological parity between the two communist powers was broken, to the break-up of the USSR, abrupt changes have resulted in a cooling of relations. Many forget that the two powers engaged in a seven-month military conflict over borders in 1969. The West has occasionally tried to take advantage of these periods, most notably during the 1970s, when Richard Nixon visited an ageing Mao in an attempt to politically isolate the USSR. Britain and other nations that find concern in the flourishing Sino-Russian relationship only need to look at recent history to realise that consistency is certainly not a feature of the relationship.
Putin's new tenure in office would appear to signal consistency, but a renewed brazenness by the Kremlin will only be tolerated by Beijing whilst it serves its interests, and certainly not if it comes into conflict with them. On the international stage solidarity between them is useful, but closer to home tensions do exist, even if they are well-concealed. It would do Britain and other Western nations good to keep a watchful eye on events in Central Asia- influence there is a prize which neither Russia nor China will be prepared to share.