Nearly three decades ago, I traveled as a reporter with a delegation from the Soviet Union seeking trade and assistance from China.
At the time, in January 1989, relations between the Soviet Union and China were improving after 30 years of hostility.
This was roughly two years before the fall of the Soviet Union, and officials from the two sides were negotiating to arrange a summit meeting between the Soviet leader Michael Gorbachev and China’s supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.
I met up with the 40-member Soviet trade delegation in Heihe, a small gateway city on China’s northern border along the then frozen Heilong River, where temperatures had plunged to 40 degrees below zero.
The Soviet delegation to China was led by Yuri G. Lyashko, mayor of the Siberian city of Blagoveshchensk, who was on his second trip to China.
Lyashko was looking among other things for help in developing Siberia, one of the world’s least-developed frontier regions.
But as we traveled for 15 hours by bus and train from Heihe to Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, the mayor quickly made clear to me through an interpreter that he was ambivalent about dealings with China.
I remarked to Lyashko that thinly populated Siberia needed additional labor in order to develop, and I joked that China could put 100,000 farmers to work for him on undeveloped land in Siberia within a matter of weeks.
Lyashko failed to respond. But his awkward expression said it all: For him this was no joking matter.
It was clear that the Soviets would have to set limits on how many Chinese came in.
An alignment without alliance
In the nearly three decades since that moment near the frozen border, Russia’s relations with China have improved to the point where a few analysts now speak of a growing Chinese-Russian “strategic alliance.”
But most would probably say that this description goes too far.
Sun Yun, senior associate at the Washington-based Stimson Center and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, notes that Western assessments of the relationship tend to reflect one of two extreme views:
The first view holds that Beijing and Moscow have formed an alliance that aims to overturn the existing international order.
The second maintains that the two countries are experiencing “a temporary meeting of minds” that can be dismissed as of little lasting consequence.
In Sun’s view, the current relationship can best be understood as “a genuine convergence of national interests despite powerful centrifugal forces.”
This “alignment without alliance” can endure only if “both sides agree to align themselves while maintaining a safe distance from each other, so that competitive elements of their relationship can play themselves out without derailing the partnership.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin “see the world through similar prisms…They both believe themselves to be at a strategic disadvantage relative to the United States and the West,” Sun says.
While Putin believes that the West has thwarted Russia’s great power ambitions, Xi sees the U.S. rebalance, or pivot, to Asia “as at best as a denial of access to the western Pacific and at worst an attempt to contain China.”
China may hold the upper hand
Some analysts argue that Russia needs China more than China needs Russia.
To begin with, China has a far stronger economy than Russia’s. The Chinese economy has been slowing down. In contrast, Russia’s economy is much smaller, under sanctions, less diversified, and seriously faltering.
China over the years has also developed closer ties to the global economy, having entered the World Trade Organization a decade before Russia.
As Alexander Gabuev, an analyst of Russian-Chinese relations at the Carnegie Moscow Center, recently told the U.S.-based National Bureau of Asian Research, “Russia is definitely the dependent partner.”
Adding to Russia’s distress are low oil prices, which have damaged an economy that has depended heavily on oil and gas exports.
According to the Financial Times, Russian officials began actively seeking closer relations with China after the U.S. and the European Union imposed economic sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis and the annexation of Crimea.
But according to Sun Yun in remarks prepared for a recent Brookings Institution event, “a major weakness in Chinese-Russian ties lies in economic relations.”
“While China is Russia’s second-largest export destination and the largest import supplier,” she says, “bilateral trade with Russia only makes up about 2 percent of China’s total foreign trade.”
A potential trouble spot in Chinese-Russian relations
In recent years, China has increased its links with Central Asia, a traditional Russian sphere of influence embracing countries widely known as “the stans”— Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Stratfor, a U.S.-based firm that provides strategic analysis and forecasts, said in a report earlier this year that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, “a new frontier” had opened up for China to its west in Central Asia.
“Central Asia offered Beijing new sources of raw materials and new markets—not to mention a major transit zone for exports…,” Stratfor says.
But China didn’t have the military power in place to bolster its economic position in Central Asia, says Stratfor, “nor did it want to upset Russia, a power wary of rising Chinese influence, especially in its former Soviet periphery.”
Instead, Beijing crafted a military and economic strategy for Central Asia that increased its military aid to these countries, including training, military uniforms, and communications equipment.
Moscow still has a military advantage over Beijing for now in Central Asia, Stratfor says.
But the research group predicts that in the long term, “China’s efforts will undermine Russia’s military influence..., potentially derailing the two countries’ strategic partnership in the process.”
China’s relations with Russia are attracting added attention at the moment because of the annual Group of 20 summit meeting of world leaders that will be held on Sept. 4-5 in Hangzhou, China.
Alexander Gabuev recently told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that China will give Putin special treatment at the summit.
As the host of the summit, he said, Xi will make efforts to show that Putin, despite current international sanctions against Russia, “is an active player and that he is not isolated.”
In a series of articles on the coming summit, the Morning Post said that a senior Chinese diplomat has made it no secret that Putin will be guest No. 1 at the annual gathering.
In the nearly three decades since Chinese-Russian relations began improving, a number of Russians still worry that Chinese migration could result in a takeover of Russian territory.
On the Chinese side, commentators and bloggers continue to note that Tsarist Russia had annexed nearly 600,000 square miles of Chinese territory in the late 19th century.
And some Chinese can still remember that at the end of World War II, Russian troops who fought the Japanese in Manchuria had carted off factory equipment and railroad tracks that rightly belonged to China.
But today it appears unlikely that such memories will obstruct the advance in Chinese-Russian relations.
Despite initial Soviet misgivings, thousands of Chinese migrants are now employed as farmers in vast and lightly populated Siberia and the Russian Far East. And many of them do work that most Russians would prefer not to do.
The Russian fear of uncontrolled Chinese migration that I sensed when meeting with a Russian trade delegation nearly three decades ago hasn’t completely disappeared, however.
The two sides have dealt with this by negotiating long-term lease agreements, which in some Russian locations has led to hard bargaining over how many Chinese will be allowed to come in to work the land.
Finally, some on both sides can still remember that in 1969 China and the Soviet Union came close to an all-out war during military clashes that lasted for seven months along China’s northeastern border.
But today it appears that none of this will halt the advance of Chinese-Russian relations.
Gone are the days in early 1989 when Chinese officials on the border had no telephone connections with the Soviet Union. They had to raise a red flag on the riverbank each time that they wanted to talk with someone on the Soviet side in Blagoveshchensk.
The Soviets would then display a red flag of their own before officials from the Chinese side could cross the ice to the Soviet side.
Today, exchanges between the two countries are nearly too numerous to count, while Xi Jinping is apparently ready to give Putin a starring role at a summit meeting of world leaders.
Dan Southerland, RFA’s executive editor, reported for The Washington Post from the China-Soviet border in early 1989.