Who are Russia's military allies?


Anastasia Vishnevskaya man

Anastasia Vishnevskaya man

To person

Dr. Anastasia Vishnevskaya-Mann studied international relations in Moscow and Berlin, specializing in Russian relations with the EU and especially Germany. She did her doctorate at the Free University of Berlin on separatism in Russia and China.

The history of relations between Russia and China is turbulent. What changes in conditions will the "New Silk Road" bring with it? How balanced is the cooperation between the two countries? And what future prospects can be identified?

The national flags of Russia and China side by side in Beijing. (& copy picture alliance / Wang Xin / Imaginechina / dpa)

But how deep are the Russian-Chinese relations after the annexation of Crimea?

The first bilateral relations between the Russian Empire and China were probably initiated in the 17th century. In 1689 they both signed the Treaty of Nerchinsk, which for the first (but by no means the last) time defined the border between the two empires. While Russia developed very dynamically after the reforms of Alexander II, the Chinese empire was weakening - both geopolitically and economically. This weakness enabled Russia to lease large pieces of land from China - which the Russian empire lost again in the course of the Russo-Japanese War 1904–1905.

Closest friends - best enemies?

After the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, the two socialist countries developed a close relationship. The Soviet Union helped the People's Republic of China (PRC) to rebuild the country after the civil war and the Japanese occupation: there was close military cooperation, and Soviet engineers helped build nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons.

But after Stalin's death in 1953, the Soviet-Chinese friendship was over: Mao saw himself as the successor of Stalin, while Khrushchev began working together on the XX. CPSU party congress turned against the personality cult around the dictator. In the 1960s there were even military clashes on the Soviet-Chinese border. At the end of the 1970s, relations sank to a new low: after the Soviet ally Vietnam invaded Cambodia to end the terror regime of the Khmer Rouge in 1978, China turned against Vietnam and declared its ally, the Soviet Union, "enemy number 1".

This hostility did not last long, however: relations gradually improved again since the mid-1980s. In 1991, Secretary General and President Jiang Zemin visited the USSR and signed a treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev that largely defined the border, but still held some items as controversial. The border issue was finally settled by Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao in a 2005 treaty. Russia handed over some islands in the border river Amur to China, a total of around 337 square kilometers of land.

The collapse of the Soviet Union came as a shock to the Chinese elite. Russia turned away from socialism and towards the west, neglecting its eastern neighbors. It was only when Yevgeny Primakov became foreign minister in 1996 that he put the eastern dimension of Russian foreign policy back on the agenda.

In 2001, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). At the same time, the rapprochement between China and Russia was recorded in the 2001 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. However, the focus of Russian foreign policy was still on cooperation with the West.

"Pan to Asia"

This cooperation was suddenly stopped after the annexation of Crimea: Russia intensified the "swing to Asia" proclaimed in 2012 and sought to compensate for the economic losses caused by the western sanctions.

Xi Jinping presented his Silk Road initiative back in 2013: a large infrastructure project that aims above all to achieve faster and safer trade routes between China and Europe. The new Silk Road will - like the old one - lead through Central Asia: a region that the Kremlin sees as its own geopolitical sphere of interest. But although the initiative also envisages greater influence by China in Central Asia, the Kremlin is demonstratively not worried about it. According to observers, the Kremlin is said not to have swallowed a bitter pill, but calculated as follows: China is concentrating on economic cooperation and the development of the region, while Russia remains a guarantee power and retains its political influence.

In addition, the Silk Road promised to attract mainly Chinese investments in Russia. In 2014, Gazprom and the Chinese energy company CNPC signed a contract for Russian gas supplies to China. When construction started on September 1, 2014, Putin named the pipeline project Sila Sibiri "the largest construction project in the world". China also bought Jamal SP - a company that is supposed to extract and liquefy natural gas on the Jamal Peninsula.

Many contracts worth billions, big words about the new Russian-Chinese friendship, new friendship between Xi and Putin, Xi's participation in the victory parade on May 9, 2015 in Moscow - in 2014 and 2015 it looked as if a new tandem of world politics was born would.

Missed opportunities

But not much has happened in the matter since then. Sila Sibiri was actually implemented and should go into operation in September 2019. Chinese money also arrived at Jamal, even if it wasn't until 2016. However, the Russian-Chinese partnership is neither comprehensive nor sustainable. The Chinese state banks occasionally make money for large projects, but private Chinese companies avoid cooperating with the Russian state corporations in view of the US sanctions. Sila Sibiri's profitability is questionable: some critics believe it will take 30 years for the pipeline to pay for itself. Bilateral trade has grown by around 26 percent since 2014, but its structure is not exactly flattering for Russia: 76 percent of Russian exports make up fossil fuels, while 57 percent of imports from China are machinery and transport. Russia's share of China's foreign trade is 1.9 percent, but China covers 15 percent of Russian foreign trade.

Asymmetries are also emerging on a symbolic level: for example, the construction of a bridge over the Amur river border took much longer than originally planned due to problems on the Russian side. For months the Chinese side of the bridge ended in the middle of the river, the image of this abruptly ending bridge went through newspapers all over the world and seemed to symbolize Russia's inability to tap into Chinese growth.

Even with the most important element of the Silk Road - the expansion of the railway line - Russia was left out. Its original expectation that the expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would use the Russian Trans-Siberian as a basis, was disappointed by China: Most Chinese trains now run through western China and Kazakhstan, they only get on the Russian rail relatively far to the west, in Kurgan Oblast. The eastern part of the Trans-Siberian, which is the least busy anyway, goes away empty-handed.

Inner-Russian projects should also be implemented under the BRI label. But even these falter and are sometimes shelved: Among other things, there should now be no express train connection between Moscow and Kazan.

Russia is only a junior partner

This asymmetry also continues in military and security cooperation. China has been one of the most important sales markets for Russian weapons since the 1990s. But through the (not always legal) technology transfer, it is producing more and more weapons itself, so it is unclear how long China will be dependent on Russian weapon systems.

With the establishment of the SCO, the countries intensified their military cooperation. During the military exercises Vostok 2018 Chinese military were there, for some experts it was "not yet an alliance, but closer cooperation" (see the article by Alexander Golz: https://www.dekoder.org/de/article/wostok-2018-militaermanoever-china) .

In fact, China is hardly interested in sustained military cooperation with Russia, and security policy cooperation within the SCO has been made much more difficult by its expansion to include India and Pakistan. In addition, India and Vietnam, both important sales markets for Russian weapons, are considered enemies for China. In addition, China has also expanded its military presence in those regions that Russia sees as their own sphere of interest: In February 2019, for example, it was confirmed that China operates a military base in Tajikistan from which it conducts patrols in Afghanistan. From a Chinese perspective, one might think that the new Silk Road does not need Russian protection.

"Yellow peril"

In addition to economic, military and symbolic asymmetries, the inner-Russian discourse also makes cooperation more difficult. Since 2005 at the latest, it has been increasingly characterized by terms such as "yellow danger" or "Chinese threat". There are regular reports in the media and social networks of tens of thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants in the Far East of Russia who would take their jobs away from the Russians. Reports of Chinese deforestation of the taiga and the dramatic pollution of the soil by immigrant Chinese farmers are also common.

The Russian elite also lacks knowledge of the opportunities and risks of working with China: The optimists see this as an opportunity to make Russian foreign policy and the economy more independent from the West. The pessimists warn that Russia would become fully dependent on China and that this would still be dearly, since China is primarily pursuing its own, non-Russian interests.

  • Urbansky, Sören (2015): Border in the river. China-Russia: The Echo of the Territorial Dispute, in: Eastern Europe, Issue 5–6.
  • Zuenko, Ivan; Zuban, Semyon (2016): Torgowlja meschdu Rossijej i Kitajem v 2018 g., In: Mirowaja ekonomika i meschdunarodnyje otnoschenija, No. 7, pp. 70-76.
  • Carlson, Brian (2018): Vostok-2018: Another Sign of Strengthening Russia-China-ties: Not an Alliance, but Defense Cooperation is growing, in: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik: SWP Comment, No. 47.
  • Djatlov, Viktor (2008): Ot "scholtoj opasnosti" k "kitajskoj ugrose": evoljuzija odnoj migrantofobii v Rossii, in: Larjuel, Marlen (ed.): Russkij nazionalism: Sozialnyj i kulturnyj kontekst, pp. 73-86.
The original of this article is available online at https://www.dekoder.org/de/gnose/russland-china-haben-sanktionen The editors of the Russia-Analyzes are pleased to have won dekoder.org as a long-term partner. In this way we would like to help secure the future of an important project and enable Russian quality journalism to have a wider readership. We thank our partner decoder and Dr. Anastasia Vishnevskaya-Mann for permission to reprint.

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The Russia analyzes are jointly published by the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen, the German Society for Eastern European Studies, the German Poland Institute, the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Development in Transition Economies, the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Research and the Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) gGmbH. The bpb publishes them as a licensed edition.