Dean Chen is a Chinese first-year BA International Relations student at King’s College London.
In his recent visit to Russia on March 11th, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China is ‘fully confident’ in her relations with Russia, while his Russian counterpart stated that cooperation with China is the Russia’s major foreign policy orientation. This demonstration of optimism seems to indicate that China’s threat perception of Russia is a false proposition—indeed, Sino-Russian relations is classified as the only ‘comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination’ (the highest tier of inter-state relations in China’s foreign policy). According to official interpretation, ‘comprehensive’ means Sino-Russian cooperation encompasses all realms: economic, political, cultural, and military. ‘Strategic partner of coordination’ implies that the two countries not only cooperate, but also coordinate their stances in international affairs and mutually support each other. 
In all aspects, China-Russia relationship seems to be in a good state. Diplomatically, China vetoed three UN resolutions about military intervention in Syria in conjunction with Russia, while Russia is one of the few countries that shows support for China’s claims over the South China Sea islands. Economically, Russia exports large amounts of crude oil and natural gas to China, while the two countries pledged to align China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) Initiatives with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) project. Politically, the two countries not only have close bilateral ties (the two presidents met each other five times in the past year), but also engage in close cooperation in multilateral international organisations such as the UN, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and within the BRICS framework (the recent establishment of the BRICS Bank is a good example). Militarily, the two countries hold the joint bi-annual military exercise ‘Peace Mission’, while China benefits from Russia’s advanced weapons systems and military technology transfers.
But this seemingly cordial relationship might not be as rosy as it seems. Although the importance and positive direction of Sino-Russian relations is commonly acknowledged among China’s policy makers and policy analysts, there has been frustrations about, and even caution and suspicion regarding this relationship. Despite the grandiose projects developed by the two governments, bilateral trade was worth merely an annual $90 billion by the end of 2015, while the investment amount remains at a minimal level. More importantly, hidden historical grievances still form a part of threat perception, and there are diverging interests and priorities between the two.
An often neglected fact is that not long ago, the two countries were bitter rivalries: starting from the late 1950s, China and the Soviet Union were embroiled in ideological conflict; the USSR withdrew all its aid to China in the 1960s and as tensions continued to escalate, armed conflicts broke out at Zhenbao Dao on the Sino-Russian border in 1969. Tracing history back to the 19th century, the Russian Empire forced China to sign a series of unequal treaties, resulting in the annexation of Chinese territories in the Far East and Central Asia. In the Manchurian crisis of 1931, the USSR recognised the proxy regime of Manchukuo (a Japanese protectorate) and sold the China Eastern Railways to Japan, which is seen as a ‘stab in the back’ against China. In the Yalta Agreement of 1945, Stalin reached a secret agreement with the US and Britain without consulting China: the USSR would declare war on Japan and send troops to Manchuria to help defeat the Japanese in exchange for the recognition of independence of outer Mongolia, which has been Chinese territory throughout most of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).
For China, Russia’s expansionism and bellicosity form a part of her memory of ‘a hundred years of humiliation’, an integral part of the Chinese government’s narrative of national rejuvenation: the Chinese nation suffered from foreign invasion and humiliation starting from the Opium War in 1840 to the end of WWII in 1945, and China is to be powerful and never submit to foreign suppression again. Russia, as a great power with the largest territory in the world that shares a 3645-kilometre-long border with China, is always, more or less, a pressure for China. Russia’s hegemonic behaviour and ‘betrayals’ in the past contribute to the shaping of the Chinese perception of Russia: caution and vigilance is always needed when dealing with this northern neighbour. Although China and Russia have settled their border disputes, this impression still exist among the Chinese people, which can be seen from time to time in opinions published on the media and discussed on Chinese internet.
In addition, competition between China and Russia exists alongside cooperation and coordination. Although both countries have the common interest of promoting multipolarity of the international system and containing American hegemony, they are competing for influence and leadership. This dynamic is evident in Central Asia. China has extensive economic interests in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, especially in terms of energy and infrastructure. Since 2009, China’s trade with the five Central Asian countries exceeded that between Russia and the Central Asian countries. Central Asia is also an important part of both China’s OBOR Initiatives and Russia’s EEU project. With different visions for the region’s future, this overlap might intensify the competition for influence in Central Asia between China and Russia. Russia’s approach emphasises more on a new form of regionalism in which great powers hold hegemonic control over their own exclusive spheres of influence. China, instead, seeks to promote the ‘Silk Road Spirit’: “peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit.” She seeks to deepen regional economic cooperation institutions that benefit all participating parties, which is to some extent in conflict with Russia’s vision of regionalism as ensuring spheres of influence. China seems critical of the EEU project for its exclusive nature and as a ‘cutting off China from Central Asia’. However, in May 2015, the two countries signed an agreement on cooperation between the OBOR Initiatives and EEU project, signalling Russian concessions to China, indicating that China’s strong economic advantage in Central Asia has convinced Russia to show cooperative rather than confrontational stance.
It is China’s interest to advance the “strategic cooperation partnership of coordination” with Russia. But at the same time, it is also important to ensure that Russia does not get overly powerful to the extent that can revive the threat that the USSR posed to China during the Cold War. With the current intensifying confrontation between Russia and the West, as well as Russia’s deteriorating economic situation, China is actually in a favourable position in Sino-Russian relationship. Russia’s present primary foreign policy concern lies within Europe and the US: she needs to ensure that NATO and the EU do not expand further in Eastern Europe, and confirm her status as an equal power vis-à-vis the US. In Asia-Pacific, it has to depend on China’s economic clout to alleviate pressure from western sanctions and cooperate with China to contain American power. In conclusion, despite historical grievances and competing international visions and policies, China does not perceive Russia as posing significant threat at least in the short term.
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