China must switch modes in dealing with Russia

By Cui Heng
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, August 1, 2013
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The Russian connection has always been one of China's most important foreign ties. To China, Russia is a big power and a neighbor, and like China it is also an emerging country; therefore, the Chinese people have always been concerned about China-Russia ties. This year Chinese President Xi Jinping chose Russia as the destination for his inaugural state visit. His visit pushed China and Russia closer together in terms of cooperation with some scholars even referring to China and Russia as "quasi allies." Though all may appear safe and sound, the seemingly close China-Russia ties might still have some negative side effects.

China-Russia ties are more of a relationship between two regional powers with global clout than ordinary bilateral relations. In developing its ties with Russia, China needs to consider its relations with Russia's neighboring countries: Ties with Russia that become too tight might negatively affect China's ties with other countries which do not have a harmonious relationship with Russia for historical or practical reasons. Here follow a recent example. Lithuania voted in favor of the European Commission's proposal to impose punitive duties on imported Chinese solar panels and Poland abstained. Eastern European countries such as Lithuania and Poland have no trade frictions with China and needn't stand on China's opposite side. Nonetheless, China's high profile relationship with Russia has inevitably offended the Eastern European countries as their relations with Russia are not equally sound.

Central Asia and Mongolia have adopted a "third neighbor" policy in the 21st century because they are worried that their two natural neighbors, China and Russia, might jointly dominate the region. China, on the other hand, merely wants to safeguard its border and has no political ambitions in Central Asia. Russia then cherishes the ambition for post-Soviet regional integration; an overly close China-Russia relationship will in turn give the impression of their intended joint domination of Central Asia. China should not have to pay for Russia's political ambitions.

China-Russia's "quasi-allies" relationship has always been criticized by the Western countries as being an "evil axis." Many Westerners also regard the two countries as authoritarian countries that share the same values, and believe China and Russia will be highly unanimous over security issues while neglecting China's interests. In order to show its agreement with Russia while ignoring its own interests, China in the past has at times deliberately adopted similar policies over important foreign policy issues. During the Libya crisis, Russia's several unilateral policy adjustments put China in a very awkward position and China had to swallow huge losses in Libya. The superficial coordination with Russia has weakened China's voice in such important international issues because Western countries believe they could simply deal with Russia alone.

Just like that the U.S.-Russia relationship is not as bad as it seems, the China-Russia relationship is not as harmonious as it may appear. This month Russia staged a military drill involving 160,000 troops, 1000 tanks, 130 planes and 70 ships in its Far Eastern Region. Although a great number of people said the drill was not targeting China, one couldn't help but question which country Russia is planning to counter in the east by using 1000 tanks.

Ten years ago, China had a strategic opportunity. Nevertheless, circumstances have changed and now offer a strategic opportunity for Russia. Europe, which has been battling the financial crisis, has no time to look to the East. The U.S. then has shifted its strategic focus to the Asia Pacific region and the attention of Asia Pacific regional powers has been occupied by territorial disputes. Russia is now facing the optimal external environment since the fall of the Soviet Union. China's rise has changed the international political pattern. As a rising power, China will have to face outside pressures that it has never met before. As a natural consequence, the changed conditions also require China to adjust its way of dealing with its Russian ties.

We need to learn from Japan in dealing with relations with Russia. Although Japan and Russia have remained on rather cool terms due to the Kuril Islands dispute, we can still see both countries have been able to realize practical cooperation. Japan has launched a large number of businesses including Mazda car assembly in Russia's Far East and Japan and Russia signed a deal to jointly explore and develop oil and gas fields in the Sea of Okhotsk; polls even show that Russians hold a good opinion of Japan. Japan's way to develop its ties with Russia is to keep a low profile and reduce propaganda, but gradually advance practical cooperation. On the surface, its relationship with Russia is not as close as the China-Russia ties, but Japan has no less obtained benefit from its ties with Russia without offending any Western countries.

My argument is not that China-Russia ties are not important, but that China needs to adjust its mode in dealing with its Russian ties. It needs to do less to exaggerate its relationship with Russia; less talk and more action.

The author is a student working on his doctorate at the Russia Study Centre of East China Normal University.

This article was first published in Chinese and translated by Zhang Ming'ai.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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