French Perspective

"Sino-Russian Relations"


China-Russia Partnership: Perceptions in Beijing and Tokyo

According to Beijing and Moscow, relations between China and Russia have never been better. One could argue, however, that the solidity and future of the “global strategic partnership” between Moscow and Beijing can be questioned. In spite of a series of common interests on the global scene, there is a fundamental lack of strategic trust between the two. More than the reality of the partnership, what also matters a great deal for international relations in Northeast Asia is how it is perceived, in China of course, but also in Japan. Freed from the Soviet, then Russian, threat, which remains one of the most important objectives of the partnership, the Chinese regime could turn to new targets on its eastern flank, particularly in the East and South China Sea, who better match its ambitions and the strategies of legitimation of the regime. In that sense, the mere fact that the PRC, after a few years of uncertainties following the fall of the Soviet Union, achieved a good working relationship with Moscow plays a significant role in the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, particularly vis-a-vis Japan. This perspective remains foremost, even though, as indicated below, doubts are pronounced. On the Japanese side, there is greater ambiguity, as Russia has not been seen as a positive force, but its potential as a force strengthening China’s hand or helping to balance China is highlighted.

For the PRC, in the context of the US rebalance strategy towards Asia, which is perceived as a direct challenge, not so much to China as a nation, but to the strategy of legitimation of the Communist Party, based on nationalism and a stronger assertion of China’s influence in its periphery, the strategic partnership with Moscow should limit the overall influence of the United States. It is, thus, one element of the strategy of “soft balancing” that the PRC is attempting to implement, by strengthening regional blocs against the United States and the West, in the framework of the United Nations and its Security Council, where Moscow and China share a veto, and at the bilateral level. Actually, for the PRC, this ambition is the real structuring pole of the Sino-Russian relationship. This pole is essential to Beijing, where some analysts, close to the more extreme nationalist circles, defend the principle of a “quasi-alliance” (fei meng zhi meng) with Moscow, the only power daring enough to oppose the United States and Western hegemony.

In international forums, Beijing and Moscow have strengthened their coordination, and long shared a common position against sanctions and military interference, on issues from Iraq, to Kosovo, as well as Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, and Iran. They have acted there in concert on North Korea as well.

At the bilateral level, military cooperation and arms trade have also long been one of the most important structuring elements of the Sino-Russian relationship that contributed to significant changes in the balance of power between China and its neighbors. Thanks to massive acquisitions during the 1990s and early 2000s, the PLA could improve or build its air, naval, air refueling, detection, and targeting capabilities as well as air defense. From 2006, the Sino-Russia arms trade dropped sharply, essentially due to lax interpretation of intellectual property rights by the PRC. In spite of this, the military dimension, in the eyes of Beijing, remains one of the major markers of strategic partnership, a signal to the United States and its allies in the Asia Pacific.

While arms sales decreased, military cooperation kept its momentum, with the multiplication of visits of the Chinese navy to Russian ports, high-level meetings and participation in joint exercises, in a multilateral and a bilateral framework (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation). Moreover, in April 2014, during the Ukrainian crisis, the Russian press announced agreements on the sale of S-400 missiles, six Lada submarines, and an unspecified number of SU-35 planes. This demonstrates that, in spite of its ambitions, China still relies heavily on Russian technology in a hierarchical configuration that does not match the image that China’s leadership wants to project to the outside world, but also to its own population. This persistent asymmetry, which belies the official discourse on China’s capabilities and successes, is for the PRC a cause of frustration, deepened by the lack of a shared strategic outlook on international relations in the neighborhood of China, extending across East and South Asia.

Beyond official declarations, there is a lack of a common strategic vision between Beijing and Moscow. At the last Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Anatoly Antonov, vice defence minister, supported the Chinese position on interference and “democratization of internal relations.” At the same time, he insisted on the Asiatic dimension of Russia’s power, as if to demonstrate to his Chinese “friends” that Russia would never accept being excluded from a region of vital importance to Moscow because, among other reasons, of the vast emptiness of Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. Moreover, as Prime Minister Abe Shinzo did in his remarks, he also mentioned the necessity to strictly respect international law.

In Asia, while China’s ambitions in the East and South China seas have profound destabilizing effects for Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, and led to tensions with all its neighbors. Russia, on the contrary, has close relations, including in the sensitive area of military cooperation, with almost all of Beijing’s neighbors in spite of tensions with China. On the Russian side, there is a strong desire to keep the game open with other partners, despite the strategic partnership with Beijing. In Southeast Asia, Moscow moved closer to ASEAN, becoming a member of the East Asia Summit, with the United States, in 2010. Beijing criticized the contribution of Russia to Vietnam’s effort to upgrade its naval capabilities, with the purchase of six kilo-class submarines in 2009. The PRC also asked without success that Russia renounce a 2012 agreement for oil exploration with Hanoi. Russia remains a key partner of India, and its second supplier of arms—after the United States—amid unresolved tensions between Beijing and New Delhi. And, last but not least, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly expressed his desire for a rapprochement with Abe’s Japan, in contradiction with the position of his Chinese “strategic partner.”

Putin met Xi in Sochi, but he also greeted the Japanese prime minister, to whom he expressed his interest in accelerating the peace treaty negotiations. Moscow apparently refuses to give support to Beijing in its conflict with Tokyo. On the one hand, Putin has agreed to hold a commemoration ceremony with China to celebrate the end of the Second World War. On the other, despite the territorial dispute with Tokyo, Moscow refuses to take sides on the issue of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. These reservations have led to mixed reactions on the part of Chinese analysts who denounce the “game” played in Asia by Russia, “who seeks to use Japan ‘against’ China.”

For Beijing, this lack of a strong strategic choice in its favor on the part of Moscow, limits the confidence that can be given to Russia; indeed Chinese analysts regularly denounce “Russia’s double game.” Only a few weeks after Putin’s state visit to China, the two leaders met again at Fortaleeza for the BRICS Summit. Significantly, Xi Jinping in his declaration said that the partnership was “True inward, resolute in deeds” as if to contradict a reality which is not as flamboyant as it may seem.

This lack of trust is also a result of the ambiguity of the relationship between Russia—and China—and the United States, despite rising tensions between Beijing and Washington on the one side, and Moscow and Washington on the other. If the PRC officially always rejects the concept of the G2, which endorses the emergence of China as the second power in the world behind the United States, this concept, in reality, exerts a real appeal in China, as confirmation of China’s prestige and emergence, which can be contrasted to Russia’s reduced position on the world stage.

At the same time, China remains wary of “Russian betrayals” and wonders about the scope of a strategic partnership that could be, for Moscow, only a “tactic” in the service of Russian power. But the lack of strategic trust is also based on the fact that Russia, contrary to what China had hoped in the years that followed the collapse of the USSR, cannot be regarded as a tributary state, dependent on a rising Chinese power. Thus, for Beijing, the relationship with Russia remains difficult—a useful partnership, but one that remains awkward and ambiguous.

In Tokyo, the ambivalence of Russia’s position vis-a-vis China, and the limits of the Sino-Russia strategic partnership are closely observed. In reaction to China’s assertiveness, Tokyo seems to be ready to pay much more attention to strategic issues in general and more specifically to the geopolitics of balance of power. In that new context, the position of Japan regarding Russia has changed considerably in recent years, and this evolution has been possible also because the relative perception of China and Russia as a threat has also changed, including in right wing circles, where the “Northern Territories” issue has been largely replaced by the “Shinakai” issue.

Indeed, before the Ukrainian crisis erupted, an acceptable solution to the Kuril Islands issue, and the consequent signing of a peace treaty between Moscow and Tokyo almost 70 years after the end of the war, were deemed possible. After the Ukrainian crisis, Japan agreed to impose some sanctions on Russia, under strong pressure from Washington and the EU, which, on this issue, some Japanese see as lacking a “strategic” point of view. In spite of these sanctions, however, Putin’s trip to Japan this autumn has not been cancelled and Tokyo remains interested in a rapprochement, in order to balance the PRC in an increasingly volatile region.

This perception is matched by the same uneasiness in Russia concerning the PRC’s emergence and ultimate objectives, particularly in the Russian Far East. As a consequence, there is a significant “pro-Japan” school among analysts and politicians, strongly in favor of closer economic and security cooperation with Tokyo. In economic terms, post-Fukushima Japan is also perceived in Moscow as a natural client and major investor in Russia’s LNG sector.

In Japan the mainstream position among analysts seems to be that the partnership between Moscow and Beijing is more tactical than strategic. On the contrary, most Japan’s analysts seem to consider that the causes of defiance between Russia and the PRC are much more important than the factors of rapprochement. In Central Asia, Tokyo sees a budding and poorly hidden rivalry between the two. At the economic level, trade is still limited compared with the size both of China and Russia. Border trade—official and non-official—is much more dynamic, it leads, however, to feelings of uneasiness in Russia regarding Chinese migrants role in eastern Siberia.

The main factor for Japan’s foreign strategy today is obviously China’s aggressive stance, whereas Tokyo does not feel threatened by Russia’s own assertive policy in its periphery on the European side. As a consequence, Tokyo is and will be reluctant to be “trapped” into a dilemma where it would have to choose between its Western “democratic” allies and “authoritarian” Russia. This is an element that the Western powers, particularly in Europe, will have to take into account in dealing both with Moscow and Tokyo: strategic priorities in Tokyo are not the same as in Brussels.

The EU’s margin of manoeuvre is low, particularly as its security role in Asia is almost nil and not a priority for most member states. Moreover, the problem lies in a lack of correspondence between the strategic priorities in Europe—particularly for the new EU members from Eastern Europe—and in the Asia-Pacific. When in Europe, the priority—for understandable reasons, particularly after the tragedy of the Malaysian airline flight in Ukraine—seems to be to contain the return of Russian power; in Asia, for Japan, the most pressing objective is to balance the Chinese regime’s aggressive strategy and ambitions. A united front of democracies against Vladimir Putin’s Russia might be a very good thing on paper, and help to boost the EU’s sense of being a significant power on the world stage. More pressure on Japan to severe its budding ties with Russia, and any strategy that may have, as a result, a closer partnership between the PRC and Russia, might, however, have negative effects on the strategic stability in Asia—a region far from the EU’s immediate strategic preoccupation, but whose future stability is of tremendous global importance.