February 4 and February 24 stand as watershed moments in Russian coverage of relations with China, with spinoffs for discussions of India and Japan. In January, there was also unrest in Kazakhstan, which elicited commentary about China and even India. Yet the prospect of war in Ukraine and then the impact of the war and resulting sanctions put the spotlight in Asia on China to an unprecedented degree. As Meduza and other sources were closed down and some voices on Asia emigrated, the landscape was changing just in the course of the winter covered below.
In Rossiya v Global’noi Politike, Vasilii Kashin looked at China on January 26 and again on March 15. In between, in MKRU on February 6, he noted US fear at the results of the Sino-Russian summit two days earlier. On January 29 he was also extensively cited in Gazeta.ru for his views of China’s thinking in the Kazakhstan crisis. The day before Izvestiya had reflected on both China and India in Central Asia. Together, this set of writings gives a snapshot of mainstream thinking as events were unfolding.
Kashin’s first article focused on China turning inward. Along with the blow from the pandemic, it faced a sharp worsening in its confrontation with the United States. The US intensified its attempts to forge a single anti-China front in the Indo-Pacific region, as around the world. Military tension grew deeper around Taiwan and the South China Sea. Simultaneous internal and external crises and threats were unprecedented since1989 or 1979. China reverted to normalcy after decades of “reform and openness.” As had happened earlier in Chinese history, foreign ties are being sacrificed in favor of domestic stability. In the pandemic, e.g., painful limitations were imposed on the import of Russian frozen fish in fear that their packing carried the virus. Numerous protests did not matter. Similar problems occurred with trucks across the border, whether from Russia, Kazakhstan, or Vietnam. In 2020 the birth of “wolf-warrior diplomacy” also occurred. If some corrective followed at the end of the year, the new style largely stuck. This turn inwards is not reflecting well on China’s foreign policy.
Days later Kashin’s view of Russia’s quick dispatch of troops to Kazakhstan was contrasted with China’s typical wariness. Xi Jinping stressed opposition to external forces which are inspiring a “color revolution.” In 2021 trade with China had reached $17 billion, and half of China’s investments in Central Asia go to Kazakhstan. Kashin explained that the SCO is paralyzed with the addition of India and Pakistan; so China and others prefer to meet in the 5+1 format. Despite talk of China’s expansion in Central Asia, the events in Kazakhstan show how far it trails behind Russia’s role and how it cannot evaluate what is taking place and needs time to assess a problem, especially now when its embassy is on a special regime. Moreover, China to the moment of the protests kept treating the ex-president Nazarbayev rather than Tokaev as the leader. China’s influence in the region is greatest in Tajikistan and Kirgizia, China is lobbying for the opening of more Confucius institutes, even in closed Turkmenistan. Yet li has faced anti-China mass meetings against investments and Chinese enterprises. China is planning a second military object in Tajikistan with Afghanistan in mind. Russia will not send troops, but its interests are not affected. Kashin objects to the stereotype that China’s influence exceeds Russia’s in Central Asia. In Kazakhstan Russia is ahead in trade, export of labor, and, above all, regional security.
In the Izvestiia article, China’s promise of $500 million in help, 50 million doses of vaccine, and 1200 stipends for students was followed by India’s move to strengthen ties in the region. China needs to prevent the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, provide for infrastructure for transporting China’s exports, and assist in achieving energy security. India’s role is more limited to counter China, which includes countering rising ties to China. It will find difficulty competing with China in Central Asia. Its moves are just a formality as it can do little that is concrete. On the whole, Russia benefits from the influence of both India and China, but it is more complicated with China, which in economics is a competitor, striving to drive Russia out wherever possible. In military and political matters, they try to agree. India is more beneficial to Russia, but the possibilities are fewer.
Just after the Putin-Xi summit Kashin wrote that military cooperation not only benefits Russia and China but gives the US reason to fear. China is behind the US in the technical level of atomic submarines—its greatest weakness at present—and Russia is interested in electronic component, where China is well ahead of it. Russian forces, however, are skeptical of purchasing foreign arms, including Chinese ones. An exception may exist for some cheap items. Russia was also slow to take an interest in producing drones or buying Chinese ones, awaiting its “Orion,” which may now be superior. Uniting forces can switch to joint purchases, avoiding “techno-nationalism.” This does not mean an alliance, which would spoil relations with India, Vietnam, and others in Asia. China would see a sharp deterioration in ties with the EU and loss of technology.
On March 15, Vasilii Kashin in Rossiya v Global’noi Politike wrote about Sino-Russia relations in the Ukrainian crisis. Calling this the biggest shock to world politics since the end of the Cold War, Kashin calls China the winner, on the sidelines but now on a path to success in the confrontation with the US. China’s media do not call this an “invasion” or publish negative material on Russia or Putin, who is praised online. In China’s territorial disputes with India and in the South and East China seas, Russia does not support China’s position. No matter what the PRC government says, sanctions do negatively affect bilateral trade, and time is needed to find workarounds. Yet, new conditions due to improved relations can accelerate the shifts. Yet, the insufficiency of infrastructure can slow Russia exports, while China’s finished goods exports are easier to accommodate. Thus, the trade deficit for Russia will favor China, but that matters little in today’s circumstances. A benefit would be acceleration of the development of the Russian Far East, drawing on Chinese investments and companies. Also, the “force of Siberia-2” gas line “Soiuz Vostok” contract would be done with dispatch. China would be better protected from sanctions and attempts at a blockade. As for Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, which have supported anti-Russian sanctions under US pressure, Russia can shift production of cars, electronics, and industrial equipment home with help from China eager to replace others. In aircraft both China and Russia rely on imported technology, which is a problem. Given China’s need to diversify in the context of the clash with the US, Russia will not be subordinate, we are told. A new level of coordination of positions on territorial disputes with Japan can be expected. In this upbeat assessment, it is made clear that in the first months or year China will not be able to radically lessen the shock to Russia. But Russia will start a new model of economic development with great long-term promise. Negative influence on ties with India and Vietnam could be kept to a minimum until these countries are free of US games and of China’s priority pressure. When a Taiwan crisis arises, the PRC will be interested in Russia’s “nuclear umbrella” in order to prevent US intervention.
On February 16 Sergey Karaganov in Rossiya v Global’noi Politike wrote that Russia is at the beginning of a new epoch in its foreign policy, which he calls “constructive destruction,” which was presaged by Putin’s 2007 Munich speech. Karaganov insists that Russia is not thinking of attacking any country. Its prospects are favorable except for the expansion of NATO. Ukraine creates an unwelcome situation. The West is on a downward slide, leading it to cause a new cold war. Until it becomes a more constructive partner, Russia needs China for balance. As fast as possible, Russia should make the western direction secondary after Greater Eurasia. The feverish rise of China and de facto alliance with it are a great boon. Europe now sees Russia as strong. The period of “return to greatness” was completed in 2017-18, and Russia is in a plateau with the threat of slipping downwards. With China, Russia has a more favorable geopolitical position than the USSR, but it must not get distracted by worsening ties to the West from further turning to the East, especially through the development of Asiatic Russia, which lately has slowed. Limits on political freedom are necessary in opposition to the West, but this must not spread to the intellectual sphere, as occurred under communists. This is a plea against what would occur a week later, couched in support for Eurasia and fear that trouble in Ukraine would derail the agenda of “Turn to the East.”
On March 10, Vzgliad covered Japan’s view of Russia through the prism of China, leading to unprecedented steps damaging its relations with Russia. It accurately reported the accusations of Prime Minister Kishida and the steps taken from aid to the Ukrainian military to a desire to withdraw from all oil projects on Sakhalin to revival of old language on the claimed Kurile Islands. Uniqlo refused to leave the Russian market, insisting that its clothes are a necessity, but days later reversed course under US pressure—a further sign that this is not a fully independent government. Abe sough to modernize the armed forces, which requires US support. Russophiles under US pressure and radicals ready to fight immediately for the islands prevailed after Abe left and Kishida had no “personal chemistry” with Putin. Russia critically needs the support of China, having made its choice in 2021 with joint exercises between Hokkaido and Honshu, alienating Japan’s political class. For Tokyo, the world is now divided into two camps with Russia and China in one. Tokyo risks a mortal blow when Beijing exercises its hegemony over the South China Sea.
On March 15 in Vzgliad, another article on Japan was published, critical of the sharply risen ambitions of Tokyo in support of a “new world order” in the Security Council. Japan not only participates in the economic war versus Russia, it seeks to leap ahead of the US in complaining about Moscow at the Hague. Abe had sought to balance Moscow and Beijing and prevent their alliance. Now this alliance is greatly needed by Moscow, and Japan seeks to frighten China if it proceeds with its own special operation in the South China Sea and to make an alliance with Russia maximally “toxic.” Japan’s ambitions are to weaken, even destroy, Russia. Russians need to respond, together with their Chinese comrades, which Japanese fear most.
In RITM Evrazii on February 6 Sino-Russian relations were assessed by Dmitrii Rodionov, lauding the new epoch in international relations as showcased in the Putin-Xi summit, including for the development of multipolarity in general and cultural multipolarity in particular. The declaration was taken as proof of China’s support for Russia’s call for long-term, legally binding guarantees of security in Europe and rejection of NATO expansion. The article doubts the SCO and BRICS as well as those not sharing the exclusively Russian theme of reintegrating the post-Soviet space. It says that Russian elites are not fully conscious of breaking with the West, and in Russian society there exists deep fear of China for its territorial designs on Russia and an unequal relationship.
On February 22 MKRU asked how to understand China’s cautious reaction to the Ukraine special operation. It does not want a sharp conflict between Russia and the West. Leaders agree, to the same degree, that their states are targets of the US “cold war,” leading to coordination of actions on their respective fronts—Ukraine and Taiwan—to some degree. But concretely what have they agreed to? At a minimum, no participation in economic sanctions and maintenance of trade and financial flows are established; at a maximum, joint flights of strategic bombers over the Sea of Japan and new Russian forays into regions where the 7th fleet is based may be considered. Beijing does not want a sharp conflict between the other two, but increased tension to that level does not contradict its strategic interests. After all, the US will divert resources to Europe, leaving its Indo-Pacific strategy an empty slogan. The article links the two regional situations.
On February 21 Meduza asked if China would support Russia in the conflict with Ukraine, turning to Aleksandr Gabuev, who said that China has a quite nuanced position, reflecting its own interests and the slogan “never friend against friend, but not necessarily together.” If Russia violates international law, China does not actively criticize it. It will keep its important ties and somehow support Moscow, but it will try to avoid secondary sanctions and not draw too much attention to Sino-Russian relations. Given the border war memories, no return to the past will be risked. It would be a strategic nightmare to lose Russia as a friend. Thus for 20 years China has sought to mollify Russian xenophobic and skeptical attitudes toward China. Also, China is one of a few markets that buys a lot of Russian machinery, and there is a joint project to build heavy helicopters. The fact that both states are authoritarian favors this relationship too, as for Aleksei Navalny, and Putin is silent on rights in Hong Kong and camps in Xinjiang. Both states are in the same boat for the long term. What is most important is how China will deal with sanctions in case of a Russian invasion. Russian banks blacklisted by the US Treasury Department will be avoided, but others will be acceptable as after 2014. New, secret contracts could be signed. Much that does not use US technology could still be exported to Russia. We do not know how successful that would be. In the short run, China cannot compensate Russia for its losses, but it could minimize losses over time.
How will worsening Russo-US relations influence Sino-Russian relations? There is no need to worry about expansion to the Russian Far East, since an aging and soon-to-be-shrinking Chinese population does not lead that way. It is easier to find work in China than in Russia for a Chinese. Sino-US tensions will not lesson. The US strove to avoid war so it could keep the focus on China. In turn, China has no cause to try to influence Putin’s decision. It seeks confrontation without war, but it can use the momentum of war to its own benefit.
On March 10 in Nezavisimaya Vasilii Ivanov wrote about the new US Indo-Pacific strategy, the most critical region for security and prosperity. China is combining its economic, diplomatic, and military power to forge its own sphere of influence there and to be the most influential world power, is what the White House strategy insists. The Biden-Harris administration has had historic successes in restoring US leadership in the region and adapting to the 21st century. Alliances were modernized in 2021. China actively uses subterfuge to get access to ports and military objectives there. Sell of two submarines to Thailand may be blocked because Germany refuses to sell the corresponding engines to China. As tensions mount with the US and India, China may seek military bases in Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Thailand. Russia is not directly affected by the new US strategy in the Indo-Pacific. But the new strategy means drawing countries in the EU more into this region and widening the role of regional structures such as the Quad and AUKUS.
On January 30 in Nezavisimaya Aleksandr Lukin wrote about the upcoming meeting of the two leaders of the non-western world, which will symbolize an even tighter bond between their countries and mutual assistance in opposition to pressure from the US and its allies. An alliance would be possible only if the US caused a military conflict at the borders of both states simultaneously. Unfortunately, that is what has occurred in Ukraine and Taiwan due to the West’s ideological illusions.
Drawing close to China has advantages and challenges for Russia. The former extends from geopolitics to economics. It took time for China to agree to drop territorial pretensions, and in return, Russia agreed to ban organizations at odds with China’s sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity. In 2020 China surpassed Russia in GDP per capita. Already many inequalities in the relationship have been revealed: China denies freedom of distribution of Russian media; in almost all cities of Northeast Asia memorials to Soviet soldiers have been moved out of the center, and in China museums on bilateral relations are closed to Russians and other foreigners, Lately, Chinese terminology has spread in bilateral documents such as praise of Chinese democracy in December regarding the summit of the democracies, The new, self-confident style of Chinese diplomacy has spread to Russia, e.g., through coarse directives to Russian experts and journalists on what they should write about China. Chinese students interrupt classes if classmates from other countries speak “incorrectly” about their country. Abroad, China has begun to act as a typical superpower, as in building bases. Russian authorities, on the surface, try to ignore these phenomena, thinking they pose no threat. There has been a pseudo-sinification of Russian society, as Russia takes what is negative, such as centralization of the political system without regional financial autonomy or a system of powerful state companies without a base of small companies. This pattern resembles pseudo-westernization of the 1990s. Will this also prompt a backlash and a worsening of relations with China, much as we do not want that?
On February 2 in Nezavisimaya Iuri Tavrovskii called for synchronizing the actions of Russia and China. As Putin and Xi meet to discuss the explosive situation on the borders of both countries—on the Western and Eastern fronts of “cold war 2.0”—the two are extending the 20-year treaty by five years, which promises consultations with unpredictable results in the event of a crisis. Tavrovskii predicts synchronization of responses to the West with a possible secret agreement on what that would mean.
In Nezavisimaya on February 6 Vladimir Skosyrev wrote that the joint declaration exposed contradictions between Moscow and Beijing, which does not recognize unification with Crimea and wants to preserve ties to Ukraine. Thus, it is not accidental that the two sides make no mention of Ukraine and the South China Sea or the Sino-Indian border. Still, China took a clear position on European security and NATO in support of Russia and agreed to the signal that their strategic partnership has no limits. Aleksandr Lukin recognized the position on NATO as new along with opposition to US alliances in the Asia-Pacific. The absence of a formal defense pact leaves freedom to maneuver, which both sides desire.
On January 24 Konstantin Remchukov in Nezavisimaya asserted that China and Russia want to contribute to global order, but trade between the two has a colonial character. More than 70 percent of the imports from Russia are energy or mining related, including coal and natural gas both booming, as well as agricultural products. Exports from China are finished industrial goods and electronics, equal to 61 percent of the total. In August 2022 a new rail bridge will open.
In Kommersant on February 4 Aleksei Maslov discussed the place of China in Russia’s strategy of development, noting that Russia regards BRI with great respect but all the same is developing its own Greater Eurasian partnership project, which in some aspects is complementary and, in many others, competitive. Trade reached $147 billion in 202, but there now exists a big challenge of mutual support in more conflictual world and with both unwilling to live in a model of development set by others. Given that both give priority to state interests, there is potential for conflict in defending the interests of the state over the next couple of decades. Chinese experts see the history and culture of Russia as leaning to the West, not Asia. Yet, so far, the politicians and diplomats of the two are able to sidestep competitive thinking for the sake of global objectives and show no signs of worry.