Country Report: Russia (September 2022)
Russian coverage in the late summer of East Asia centered on Sino-Russian relations with some interest also in North Korea and Japan. The impact of the “special military operation” in Ukraine permeated the writings. The decision in North Korea to change its policy on use of nuclear weapons reverberated in comparisons about Russian use, anticipating comments by Vladimir Putin shifting Russian policy. The energy fallout in Japan from the change in Russian policy toward Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2 was treated as a serious blow to Japan’s energy security, a price it was bearing for becoming an “unfriendly country.” Above all, China’s responses to the late June revised NATO strategy statement and to the visit of US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan reinforced the message that China is also hostile to the West and on Russia’s side. In mid-September, however, the SCO summit news resulted in a less confident analysis of China’s backing for Russia. As in the past, Yury Tavrovsky championed the view that China has led the way for Russia, while faulting past mistakes by Khrushchev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin for damaging relations. In contrast, an occasional author finds a way to raise indirectly some doubt about China or Sino-Russian relations. But for the most part, such doubts have been silent.
Russian publications were heavily motivated to depict China as strongly behind Russia’s “special operation” in Ukraine and unavoidably caught in a deepening conflict with the United States, which drove it to Russia’s side. In response to the late June NATO summit and the early August Nancy Pelosi visit to Taiwan, they were heartened to see these depictions supported. In mid-September, however, the Putin-Xi Jinping summit in Samarkand raised some doubt about this narrative. Below we trace the responses to these events in chronological order, while seeking to distinguish the mainstream, hardline views from occasional, sober analyses of the prospects for the Sino-Russian relationship in this period.
In July optimism was widely conveyed that China shares the grievances toward the US and even welcomes Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Coverage of the NATO summit reinforced this viewpoint. Yet, the very limited number of articles on China and Sino-Russian relations still bifurcated, particularly in response to the Pelosi visit. On the one side were those who insisted that China’s growing anger toward the United States meant that Russia had the partner it desired. On the other were a few who warned that China was not inclined to go nearly as far as Russia desires and hinted that Russia was more isolated than is being openly admitted. Comparisons of the arguments of Iury Tavrovsky and Vladimir Skosyrev demonstrate this sharp division.
Tavrovsky wrote repeatedly of Russian studies of China, the internal situation in China, and the Sino-Russian-US triangle. In Nezavisimaya Gazeta on July 26 he argued that Russia had often begun a “turn to the East,” led by ordinary people who crossed the Urals and reached the Pacific and beyond. Among tsars, Peter I, Catherine II, Alexander III, and Nikolai II had a special interest. The academic foundation for studies of Russia in Asia and “Asianism” was built by Prince Ukhtomskii in the 1890s-1910s. In the 1920s Russians in Europe changed “Asianism” into “Eurasianism.” On July 26 Nezavisimaya Gazeta published Tavrovsky’s chronology, including his praise of Stalin’s activities to develop the eastern regions of the USSR and assistance in helping Sun Yat-sen against Chiang Kai-shek creating conditions for the PRC and leading to full-scale support to China in the 1950s. Far-sighted policies enabled Moscow to conduct a war on two fronts against Germany and Japan and strengthen the potential of the socialist camp in the early period of the Cold War, assisted by the strong intellectual support of Soviet China specialists.
Cooling relations from the beginning of the 1960s can, to a notable degree, be explained by Khrushchev’s “voluntarism,” rooted in hatred of Stalin. The study of China suffered, forced to serve political needs, but fundamental science persisted in all-around study of Chinese civilization, which shot ahead with normalization, which was decided in the framework of Gorbachev’s “new thinking.” Working in the ideological division of the Central Committee from 1986, Tavrovsky participated in preparation for that “turn to the East.” In 1989 many in the leadership sough to correct Gorbachev’s course, taking into account the successful experience of China’s “reform and opening.” Serious China specialists were aides to Gorbachev and hoped for results from the Gorbachev talks with Deng Xiaoping and Zhao Ziyang. Weakening elements of party authority tried to overcome remnants of ideology and propaganda tied to confrontation. If packets were prepared in advance of Gorbachev’s visit, Tavrovsky and others were surprised when leaders tossed them into the garbage, i.e., Gorbachev did not respect the opinions of specialists, not always following their advice during his visit, even replacing texts of two talks with his impromptu remarks. The collapse of the USSR brought hard times for Chinese studies, but some in the Foreign Ministry began to attract Yeltsin’s attention despite the pro-West figures surrounding him. Yeltsin’s visits to China were healthy, and the concept “strategic partnership” entered into official documents. The article values the beginning in the 1990s of a new approach.
The real “turn to the East” and closeness to China began after the 1990s under Putin, who showed growing interest in the East, especially in China. Preparing to visit China in 2012, Putin resolved a complex of strategic questions in the economy, internal and external policies. He declared that Russia needs a prosperous and stable China, and China needs a powerful and successful Russia. Precisely in 2012 we see a new “Turn to the East.” Tavrovsky has nothing but praise for Putin, who listens to China experts, although no names are introduced in the article.
Now, before our eyes, Russia and China have become two fronts in the new cold war of the West against undesirable states. Yet, among Russian China specialists and Chinese Russian ones there were very untrustworthy people, agreeing with the leadership’s words but disavowing them in their work and presentations. This includes young scholars and diplomats, who arose in the epoch of orientation to the West, studied in Western universities, and received grants from Western research centers. Demand for cadres is growing rapidly. They need language and area expertise, but also clarity on today’s spiritual life in China filled with pride and success. Again, no names of the phony experts who lack clarity on what fills Chinese with pride are introduced.
This Tavrovsky article confuses three themes: the history of turns to the East, the history of specialized study of China and its impact, and the evolution of Russia’s relationship with China. All are distorted to convey a simplistic message: Stalin’s legacy in each area is the most positive; the two leaders who led Moscow astray were Khrushchev and Gorbachev; the turn is to China and the rest of the East can be set aside; expertise on China means positive views leading to closer relations; and the West should be shunted aside in favor of the East, where greater expertise is now needed. This distorted view of history serves to reinforce a growing Sino-Russian alliance.
In Nezavisimaya Gazeta on September 15 Vladimir Skosyrev wrote that China sympathizes with Russia but is not offering direct help, and that it sticks to neutrality over the conflict in Ukraine. In February, prior to the start of the special military operation, Moscow and Beijing declared that their friendship has no limits, but each side has its own agenda. For Russia, as a result of failure on the battle field and sanctions, solidarity with China is very important. For China, open support for Russia would lead to sanctions. Also, Chinese media remark that American media call on Beijing to draw lessons from the troubles Russia is experiencing. This appeal is absurd, says Skosyrev, aimed at driving a wedge in the Sino-Russian relationship. Yet, Global Times insists that China’s position has not changed: it is not a participant to the conflict. It always respects sovereignty, territorial integrity of all countries, and peaceful resolution of disputes. Thus, both the Russian and Ukrainian sides have expressed satisfaction with its objective, unbiased position. It will avoid being drawn into the conflict, especially against the backdrop of Russian troubles on the battlefield. Expressions of sympathy from China do not help Russians. The sharp increase since April in purchases of energy products help a little, but not in the military sphere.
China cannot allow its main partner in an authoritarian alliance to suffer defeat, but it would risk its own economy, which is slowing, by assisting Russia economically or militarily, Skosyrev writes. China’s leader must strike a balance, secretly preferring that Russia, one way or another, ended the conflict. What matters most is that the “Turn to the East” does not shift to the West. In Samarkand, Putin and Xi discussed the rising level of bilateral trade, now heading to $200 billion and with the leader of Mongolia three-way economic ties, although it remains unclear if they discussed the “Power of Siberia” gas pipeline through Mongolia. Removed from reality, the G7 countries try to argue that Russia and its leadership are isolated diplomatically, but they ignore the fact that Putin is conducting a masterclass on how to construct a multipolar world, as seen at the SCO summit, which is changing the rules of the game. This article conveys reservations about China’s support but concludes with a contradictory finding on the SCO summit’s success.
On September 12, in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Sergei Tsyplakov wrote in an overview of Xi Jinping’s first decade, that China is reexamining its approach to many critical problems. Arguing that Xi’s “new epoch of socialism with Chinese specifics” had replaced more than three decades of “reform, openness, and socialist modernization” associated with Deng Xiaoping, he noted that it should last until mid-century. The new epoch’s first decade, especially its second half, came at a time of world transformation unseen for 100 years: the Sino-US trade war as a prologue to global confrontation of the two powers and the pandemic with its economic and social impact. These were catalysts for the Chinese leadership to reexamine many key problems of politics and ideology, the main vectors of which are clear. In politics, the 1980s’ mechanism of regular rotation of the top leadership and the system of collective leadership have been replaced, as Xi has used various “leading groups and Central Committee committees” to concentrate in his hands ever more power, purging real or potential opponents. Xi has also strengthened control over the army and power centers and severely tightened censorship of the mass media while repeatedly intensifying propaganda campaigns devoted to himself. State structures have largely become outposts of party organs, losing an autonomous role. Ideology has shifted to the left, reviving ideas characteristic of the Mao era, including ideological campaigns to inculcate devotion to Xi. Yet, negative evaluations of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution are retained in the resolution on the 100-year anniversary of the CCP founding, as are Deng’s framing of the “beginning stage of socialism” through the entire period of modernization, economic reform, and opening to the outside world. Deng’s intrpretation of the ideological legacy of the Mao era, however, has been replaced, including in the sphere of party interference in all spheres of life.
Deeply entrenched now in the subconscious are historical impressions of China’s civilizational and cultural superiority over other nations, arousing nationalist emotions. This is a side effect of the anti-Chinese direction of the policies of the US and some other Western countries, trying to interfere in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang or to lay exclusive blame on China for the pandemic with racist terms such as the “Chinese virus.” Moreover, the “zero tolerance” policy and official propaganda for fear before the virus have strengthened xenophobia, worsening relations with foreigners. Officially, it is said that the CCP successfully created a new form of human civilization, opening a new path to modernization for developing countries, but this is interfering with the need to resolve problems linked to slower growth and to overcome the consequences of earlier policies of economic stimulus, which left heavy debt burdens. Over the past five years two serious blows have hit China’s economic development: the trade war with the US, leading to sanctions and decoupling; and the pandemic, which hurt small and middle-size firms and weakened internal demand. Raising doubts about China, this article remains vague.
This article by Tsyplakov avoids the panegyrics of authors lauding China’s future, while leaving unclear the danger China is facing from recent economic and political changes. It calls out Chinese xenophobia, while blaming it on US incitement and only hinting that it applies also to Russians, among all foreigners. Xi Jinping’s cult of personality is addressed with no reference to Stalin’s legacy, but Russian readers will know what comparisons to make. Such analysis counters the prevailing media optimism about China and how it will serve Russia’s interest.
On August 2 Vladimir Skosyrev in Nezavisimaya Gazeta explained that Beijing and Washington were not ready to go to war over Pelosi. The upshot of the piece is that Russians should not be making a big deal about the ongoing tensions and, by implication, assume that Beijing is ready to join Putin in the crusade he is waging against the US. Xi Jinping is still counting on peaceful reunification of Taiwan, although the article does add that in response to the US provocation Beijing could strengthen support for North Korea and Russia. Alexander Lukin is cited as saying that the Pelosi trip violates various agreements signed by the US and China, since this is an official visit. Pelosi also gave offense by speaking of the “nation of Taiwan,” as if the residents are not Chinese.
In RT on July 10, Aleksandr Karpov and Alena Medvedeva wrote of the image in Russia of the SCO as countries with which Russia maintains good relations and do not support the US on anti-Russian sanctions. US efforts to isolate Russia only speed unification of an international order opposed to the West. The report added that the war in Ukraine has accelerated recent polarization into blocs and that since the contradictions between China and the US are similar to earlier ones between the Soviet Union and the US, there will be no peaceful coexistence. The ideologically driven US could not accept it. China is not a threat because of any expansionist intent but just because its rise would change the world order, listeners are told. Indeed, it is said that China is ready to compromise if its core interests are not at stake. Yet, however inevitable the crisis between East (China and Russia) and West, it is not coming now. Given proof that it is being targeted at the late June NATO meeting, China needs to draw closer to Russia.
The RT report argued that when in early July in Cambodia Wang Yi met Tony Blinken, the US criticized China for supporting Russia in Ukraine and spreading Russian propaganda about it. Earlier, Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns had called on China to stop blaming NATO for the war. The report added that after a Putin-Xi phone conversation in mid-June, where Xi told Putin Russia’s actions were just and it was just defending its core interests, according to a Russian source, Washington began to blame Beijing for directly supporting Russia. Using the US as a foil, the report tells Russians that China is supporting Russia, actively resisting US pressure.
Vzgliad on August 2 argued that Nancy Pelosi has finally turned China to face Russia. No longer will China listen to the opinion of America regarding Russia. This conclusion points to earlier disappointment over China’s lack of support for Russia and optimism that a decisive turning point has been reached. Since the Sino-US relationship is broken, showing the futility of dialogue, it follows that the Sino-Russian relationship will be upgraded. If Beijing were to sit still for this humiliation, its reputation among its Asian neighbors would suffer. A full-scale blockade of Taiwan is possible.
Four days later another Vzgliad article affirmed that China had chosen Russia for joint confrontation with the West. The readout of the Chinese foreign ministry of talks between the foreign ministers was reported to be that the two states should confront the hegemony of the Western world together. According to experts, this meeting was unlike others, raising relations to a higher level. The meeting in Cambodia had Wang Yi calling for cooperation on regional development, including providing real security in Eurasia. Beijing sought again to draw the BRI and the EEC closer for tasks in the Great Eurasian Partnership, the article observed. It cited Aleksandr Lukin’s view that the meeting was “’completely new’ more emotional and open.” More eager to seek anti-American partners, China is described as supporting Russia on all questions, especially on Ukraine. If it had been restrained from fear of secondary sanctions, e.g., in banking and exporting electronic chips, now it will show more enthusiasm, said Lukin, whose view was backed by Andrei Ostrovskii. The article added that in order to develop economic ties, there should be maximum participation in BRI, which would permit building infrastructure on Russian territory and raise the percentage of cross-border trade from 15% of total trade. New bridges need to be built across the Amur River. Trade should switch to rubles and yuan. Mention is made that when the Japanese foreign minister spoke, both Wang Yi and Sergey Lavrov left their seats. Thus, the impression is left that China is changing course, joining more closely with Russia, including over Ukraine. Nothing is said about why Russia has been wary of joining the BRI or opening the border, given China’s demands to use its own labor and for integration.
On August 14 Iury Tavrovsky in MKRU reported that China has shown the first version of its “peaceful liberation of Taiwan” and linked that to the assertion that to drive a wedge between Russia and China is now practically impossible. He added that any new provocation leads to the next phase in the confrontation and to blocs, as Beijing’s answer grows harsher and more systematic. Instead of a full, armed conflict, China is planning an economic blockade. The US failed in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, but it has one more hope to slow China’s development: to provoke a civil war over Taiwan. It provokes Russia into the Ukraine crisis, and it seeks to do the same with China to get it to react too sharply without the necessary preparations. Yet China is much cleverer and patient that Washington expected, using the US mistake for improved readiness and national unity. Biden’s scenario is to gradually weaken China by stimulating separatist attitudes among the ruling elite in Taiwan leading to a decision to separate and confrontation.
To mid-November no terrible outcome should be expected, while Beijing begins its second phase of “peaceful reunification,” preparing for an economic blockade. Chinese aircraft carrier groups will more often sail near Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and the Philippines, while joint exercises of the strategic forces of China and Russia grow more frequent. Moscow does not need Chinese volunteers in the Donbas. Much more important is the existence of a “second front” for Russia, as it is for China in facing Taiwan. This way we tie down our common enemy. Demonstrating an alternative to the American model of global structure, we can expand the SCO and BRICS. A useful signal would be the presence of Xi Jinping at the Eastern Economic Forum conversing with Putin. Tavrovsky seeks a show of camaraderie and of force in the Sea of Japan, assuming that China is fully on board with Russia’s actions in Ukraine since it plans the same in Taiwan.
In MKRU on September 6 Iury Tavrovsky wrote that the main dream of the US is collapse of the CCP and that while Deng Xiaoping was a leader, Gorbachev was not. The mass media of the West and its brain trusts seek to storm attack the ideological and organizational unity of the country and its leadership, aiming first at the Kremlin and the power elites, while sending a signal to cut longstanding strategic ties with this unstable leadership. The idea of the collapse of Chinese elites holds special sway among US China specialists working for the Biden administration. The state department, CIA, and other centers of decision making consider China’s authority hierarchy similar to the Soviet one, which means it too could suffer a fatal blow. Beijing too understands the genetic kinship of the CPSU and CCP and has learned its lessons. Among the causes of the breakup of the CPSU and USSR was the low intellectual level of the successors of Stalin, some physically decrepit and others weak-willed. They lost the party traditions of Lenin and Stalin, CCP closely studies the negative experience of Gorbachev and those around him. Watching a Chinese crisis unfold before his eyes, Gorbachev altered the course of reform, leading to collapse. Deng was a leader ready to use forceful measures. Gorbachev was not. China was lucky to have the person it needed at the right time, and now Xi Jinping has shown he is a leader on an historical scale, as a communist and a nationalist, filling the spiritual vacuum. No matter how hard Washington and those who abet it try, the CCP remains a powerful and effective instrument to realize the aspirations of the Chinese nation.
Konstantin Asmolov on September 14 discussed the new DPRK nuclear doctrine in RSMD. Its nuclear weapons are for defense of sovereignty and the core interests of the government or for the preservation of global strategic stability. This fully corresponds with Russia’s position on deterrence, readers are told. The article takes seriously the need in Pyongyang to have this means of defense. It also equates first use by it and by Moscow in case an attack is nearing, and given the limited information available to it, 100 percent confidence is not needed by it. The more the DPRK develops, the more the challenges from imperialism are repeated, readers are told.
RSMD on September 13 said a nuclear conflict by 2025 is a real possibility. A “big war” has resumed being a variant for resolving international disputes. Therefore, discussion of a possible nuclear war has begun. Emperor Hirohito said that the use of nuclear weapons, not entry into the war of the USSR, explains Japan’s capitulation. In 2022 attitudes changed toward the spread of nuclear weapons, at least concerning the DPRK. This was followed on May 26 when Russia and China vetoed the US sanctions resolution—a totally new trend. Once, a new tranche of sanctions would follow from a new launch or nuclear test. Old rules do not work any longer. Now the US is obliged to consider how to resolve the problem of the DPRK without use of force. The reaction of Moscow could be that North Korea has the right to use in its own defense nuclear weapons.
In Meduza on July 17 Fedor Tertitskii reported that North Korea had just officially recognized the independence of the republics of the Donbas after Russia and Syria. Wary of excessive dependence on China, it saw the progressive candidate in South Korea as the furthest left of the candidates for president who had run, and his lost left only Russia as a target for support, the more so given its isolation due to the war in Ukraine. It has taken symbolic steps: supporting at the UN and in its press and now with this recognition in the hope of receiving economic assistance in exchange. Deeper analysis of its press, however, shows that support is quite limited. In Rodong Shinmun the word Ukraine has appeared only twice after February 24, both brief and related to congratulations to Kim Jong-un, with no mention of the war. Indirectly, the issue appears in transmitting a Russian official attack on NATO, in also transmitting a May 9 speech of Putin, including mention of “Russophobia” in the West, and in a June 12 note of congratulations to Putin. A column on the third anniversary of the 2019 Kim-Putin summit was more detailed on “Korean-Russian friendship,” noting that a busy Putin had gone all the way to Vladivostok to meet Kim and that Kim’s grandfather in the 1930s had defended the Soviet Union with arms. The piece noted steps taken in the face of unprecedented sanctions and “[North Korea’s] total support and solidarity in its just struggle in defense of sovereignty and security of the country, in defense of national interests.”
On the one hand, Pyongyang hopes for an economic payoff; on the other, it does not want to trouble people with stories of war, particularly of a big country against a little one. No bonus can be expected, adds the article, given that Russia follows China, as in UN votes, with the exception in 2017 of insisting that the deadline for deporting North Korean workers be 2019, not 2018. The best outcome for the DPRK would be a split between China and Russia, no sign of which exists. Pyongyang recognized the DNR first, perhaps since it borders the sea and could be used to evade sanctions, as in the case of recognizing Abkhazia on the sea but not two other areas Russia had helped to gain independence and recognized.
In Izvestiya on July 18 Ambassador Aleksandr Matsegora described the motivation to recognize the DNR and LNR in Donbas, according to Natalia Portyakova. No talk of receiving something in return occurred, said the ambassador. No country can influence the DPRK’s independent foreign policy. It only follows its conscience, he explained. The prospect of considerable cooperation exists, including Korean builders who could reconstruct infrastructure and machine parts from old Soviet factories in the Donbas to rebuild North Korea’s industrial base. Even in conditions of sanctions, there is a real possibility that these economic ties could be developed. readers learn.
On August 8 Japan’s energy shortfalls were highlighted by Sergei Stokhan’ in Kommersant. The focus was on the uncertain state of the participation of Mitsui and Mitsubishi in Sakhalin-2, energy from which Tokyo seeks to preserve after a change in its operators. However, on August 3 no such guarantee was offered by Russia. Japan’s new cabinet in August is facing multiple problems: sanctions against Russia, sharp price increases on energy and food, unimagined electricity deficits; a security crisis over the confrontation around Taiwan, and the assassination of Abe. Kishida is not ready to make the sharp changes needed, readers are told. He has kept Hayashi Yoshimasa as foreign minister and Hagiuda Koichi at METI as well as Kishi Nobuo at defense, indicating that the policies of closeness to the US and the West, containment of China, and maximum pressure on Russia tied to the special operation in Ukraine remain unchanged. A real threat exists to Kishida’s “new capitalism” from loss of energy resources from Russia Despite its packages of sanctions, Tokyo counted on keeping cooperation in Sakhalin-1 and Sakhaline-2. Even after August 3 when Russia named a new operator of Sakhalin-2, the Japanese government asked Mitsui and Mitsubishi to keep their share in the project. If the firms declare this intention, Russia must decide if it will agree or will their stake be sold. On August 5 Putin ordered that by the end of this year dealings in Sakhalin-1 be stopped with unfriendly countries. Increased use of coal may be on the horizon, which the UN secretary general warned would be a blow to clean energy plans. The article shows that Japan is paying a price for its Russia policy.