Beyond the Façade

China’s recent assertion of territorial claims against Russia, alongside its broader regional ambitions, puts its friendship with Russia under deep strain. Despite the settlement of border disputes in 2008, the persistent portrayal of the issue as unresolved accentuates the vision for a China-centric world order. As the world watches these developments unfold, questions arise about the implications for stability in Eurasia and the balance of power in the international arena

By Niranjan Marjani

Opinion

Russia and China have recently agreed to enhance their security cooperation in Eurasia. This agreement was reached following a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on April 9. Lavrov announced that President Vladimir Putin had proposed security collaboration between the two countries in Eurasia, leading to the initiation of a dialogue on the matter.

As Russia and China seek to deepen their partnership, it becomes essential to examine two critical factors. Firstly, it is important to assess whether the interests of Russia and China converge in Eurasia. Secondly, given the unresolved issues between the two nations, there arises a question regarding China’s reliability as a partner for Russia.

In the broader global context, the strengthening of Russia-China relations has been founded on their opposition to the United States and the perceived hegemony of the West. While the West views both countries as revisionist powers threatening the democratic world order, Russia and China perceive the West as decadent.

However, despite their shared worldview, Russia and China may China may not cooperate in every area and on every issue. Eurasia is one such region where the differences between Russia and China could surface sooner than later.

Eurasia, spanning across parts of both Europe and Asia, has historically been a battleground for competition between Russia and China. During the Tsarist era of the 19th century, Russian dominance prevailed over a comparatively weaker China, allowing Russia to extend its influence as far as Korea within the region.

Even in more recent times, during the existence of the Soviet Union, Russia exerted its influence over China as a strategic manoeuvre to counterbalance the dominance of the Western-led bloc. However, in the contemporary era, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and amidst China’s burgeoning economic and military prowess, Russia finds itself encountering resistance in Eurasia, including Central Asia, which it has long regarded as its sphere of influence.

Despite efforts to accommodate each other’s presence, with Moscow assuming the role of a security partner while Beijing positioned itself as an economically within the region, Russia has faced challenges in maintaining its influence. Russia adjusted to its role in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) which is a China-dominated forum. However, in the past about two decades, China has gradually over taken Russia with regards to engagements with Eurasia. Eurasia forms an integral part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).China’s ascendance has posed a significant challenge to Russia’s regional dominance.

Russia adjusted to its role in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) which is a China-dominated forum. However, in the past about two decades, China has gradually over taken Russia with regards to engagements with Eurasia. Eurasia forms an integral part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).China’s ascendance has posed a significant challenge to Russia’s regional dominance

In response to the BRI, Russia launched the Eurasian Economic Union, aiming to provide a counterbalance. However, Moscow’s economic capabilities pale in comparison to Beijing’s, limiting the success of this initiative.

Moreover, recent events such as the terror attack in Moscow, involving Tajik nationals, have exacerbated tensions between Russia and Central Asian countries. While Tajikistan cooperates with Russia in investigating the attack, the incident has led to backlash against Central Asian migrant workers in Russia. While Central Asian workers are an important part of Russia’s economy this incident could push Central Asian countries further away from Russia and closer to China, their primary economic partner.

These developments underscore the shifting dynamics in Eurasia, with China’s growing influence presenting a formidable challenge to Russia’s traditional hegemony in the region.

Unresolved Issues Between Russia and China

Despite their divergent interests in Eurasia, unresolved issues persist between Russia and China, which could surface in the future. The most significant area of conflict between them is the border dispute. While the two neighbours project their close friendship to the world, unresolved border disputes, some dating back to the 19th century, continue to be a source of contention.

In August 2023, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources published a National Map of China, considered the official document of reference regarding national sovereignty. In this map, China laid claim to Ussurisky Island, located at the Russia-China border. This island sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Amur and Ussuri, which flow along the Russia-China border.

Historically, Russia and China have clashed militarily over the border. After more than a century of struggle over the border, in 2008, Russia ceded half of Ussurisky Island to China, abandoning its military base on the island and further handing over the nearby Tarabarov Island. In exchange, China agreed not to claim any more territory from Russia. However, China has not honoured this agreement.

China’s recent claims on Russian territory come at a time when Russia is engaged in a war with Ukraine and battling economic sanctions imposed by the West. This incident presents China as an unreliable partner for Russia. Additionally, the border dispute highlights China’s indifference toward international law and bilateral agreements, further accentuating its vision for a China-centric world order.

A 2013 article, published by the Chinese news agency Zhongguo Xinwenshe, identifies six potential wars China may engage in between 2020 and 2060 to reclaim various territories, including one involving Russia. These conflicts include the unification of Taiwan, the recovery of islands in the South China Sea, the reclaiming of Arunachal Pradesh, the retrieval of Diaoyutai and Ryukyus, the unification of Outer Mongolia, and the recovery of territories seized by Russia

China’s revival of the border issue with Russia coincides with its territorial claims against neighbouring countries. These claims against Russia are part of a broader strategy aimed at reclaiming territories China believes are wrongfully controlled by other nations. This strategic approach was outlined in a 2013 article published by the Chinese news agency Zhongguo Xinwenshe, shortly after Xi Jinping assumed the presidency. It is speculated that the article was authored by hawkish officials from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The article identifies six potential wars China may engage in between 2020 and 2060 to reclaim various territories, including one involving Russia. These conflicts include the unification of Taiwan, the recovery of islands in the South China Sea, the reclaiming of Arunachal Pradesh, the retrieval of Diaoyutai and Ryukyus, the unification of Outer Mongolia, and the recovery of territories seized by Russia.

Despite the border dispute being settled in 2008, China has continued to treat it as unresolved, as evidenced by the 2013 article and the Chinese maps released in 2023.

Currently, Russia seems unlikely to challenge China’s expanding influence in the region it considers its backyard, given limited options for engagement at the international level. However, the enduring friendship between Russia and China could face strain in the future, particularly if the Russia-Ukraine war reaches a negotiated settlement and Western perceptions of the threat posed by Russia diminish to some extent. China poses a strategic threat not only to Russia but also to other countries worldwide. Should Russia find manoeuvring space within the Western world, it may lead to a reassessment of the actual threat posed by Russia, highlighting China’s role as a greater strategic concern globally.

-The writer is an Independent Political Analyst and Researcher based in Vadodara. Follow him on X: @NiranjanMarjani