#35 event report: Closing the ranks against the West? China-Russia, an emerging Eurasian Pole


April 2oth, 2014, Bridge Café (Wudaokou)

Chen Yurong (陈玉荣) Senior Research Fellow and Director
Department for European-Central Asian Studies at CIIS, Secretary-General of the Chinese Centre for SCO Studies

Professor Chen began her speech by reminding the audience that Russian President, Vladimir Putin, had arrived in Shanghai that very day for an international summit and talks with China. The professor pointed out that Putin’s visit has drawn a great deal of attention as his first international visit after the Ukraine incident. So what is his intention – to close the gap and align with China against the West? Or something else?

Professor Chen, as a long-time observer of the Sino-Russian relationship, explained that this is actually a regular visit, planned a long time ago as the return visit for Xi Jinping’s first visit as President in 2013, which was to Russia. The intention is mainly to focus on developing a better relationship between the two countries, and sign some treaties to this end. Furthermore, the Shanghai forum is being attended by ten world leaders, so one of Putin’s main goals is simply to attend this.

Having discussed the current context, the professor went on to introduce the main part of her speech. ‘Today, my main purpose is to talk about the past, present and future of the S-R relationship’, she explained. ‘To cover this subject would take a week, but I only have 20 minutes. So here are the main points!’

Point number one on the Professor’s list: China and Russia’s relationship is a long one. The two have been neighbours for years. Throughout history, throughout the period of the Republic of China, they have always had a relationship. Before 1949, Russia supported China a great deal. After 1950, Chairman Mao and Stalin signed a very famous treaty – the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. According to Professor Chen, the key is that in the name was the word ‘alliance’. The USSR and PRC were of course Communist countries. But this relationship was as big brother to little brother, rather than a true alliance of equals, and didn’t last long. By the early 60s, the Sino-Soviet relationship had started to cool off. Then came the Cold War. During the Cold War, the border between the two countries was quite tense. On the USSR side, they had 1,000,000 soldiers. This tension lasted a long time throughout the Cold War, and cooperation between the two countries was brought to a halt.

In 1989, Gorbachev visited China, and had an important conversation with Deng Xiaoping, concerning the history between the two countries. Their conclusion – ‘the past is the past, now we must start a new beginning’. Then, after the USSR era, their relationship improved yet more. The professor sums it up as such: from 1992-6, the relationship went up in three stages – first, they were friendly, then they became constructive, then finally they had a strategic partnership. In 2001, China signed another historic treaty with Russia – the 2001 Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship, which has laid a good foundation for their future relationship. The professor pointed out that this treaty is intrinsically different from the treaty of the 50s. In the 50s, the two were an alliance. The new treaty means the two countries neither join as an alliance, but nor do they act as antagonists, and they do not interfere with a 3rd country. Since 2001, the Sino-Russian relationship in terms of economy, politics, and many other areas has developed rapidly. In terms of politics, the two countries have created a strategic partnership. And the leaders of both nations have devised this scheme of reciprocal visits, which has led to Putin’s presence in Shanghai today.

According to Professor Chen, all this means that China and Russia’s relationship has never been better. Politically, there is trust. And each treats the other as a priority when creating diplomatic relationships with other nations. Economically, China and Russia have been very good partners in terms of economic strategy. China is Russia’s biggest trading partner. Back in 2001,the revenue of this trade was 101 billion USD. Last year, it had reached $900 billion. With numbers alone, the development of their relationship is clear. The professor pointed out that although between two huge nations, these trading numbers are relatively small, what this means is that there is much potential for further development, with plans in place to reach 1000 billion USD by 2015, and 2000 billion by 2020. Many scholars who talk about their relationship say that in terms of politics it’s hot, in terms of economics, it’s cold. But the professor believes that over the next ten years the economic relationship will change dramatically.

Professor Chen then moved on to talk about the economy in more depth, calling it the main area for a breakthrough in Sino-Russian relations. The main focus in the future will be industry and investment, instead of trading. The professor noted a few potential growing points. One is energy. Another is basic facility development. A third is regional development. The professor talked about energy in particular, which will be a main focus of Putin’s current visit to China. Plans are underway to construct channels for Russia to export natural gas to China, both on the East line via the Volga, and the West line via Serbia. Though talks concerning this project have been in place for some time, the reason no agreement has yet been signed is simply price. Russia wants the same price it receives from its European clients; China however has been buying gas from many countries and wants a competitive offer. However, the professor’s prognosis is that even if no agreement is reached this time, it is inevitable in the near future, due to historical trends between the two nations. China needs a large quantity of natural resources. In particular, the government needs to access cleaner energy, as the pollution crisis is becoming worse by the day. Natural gas would largely replace traditional coal heating. For Russia’s part, exporting natural resources is one of the main pillars of its economy, but as it is currently facing sanctions from Europe in the wake of the Ukraine debacle, it is realising the need to diversify its market and look towards Asia. As such, the contract and collaboration between China and Russia is, in the professor’s view, mutually beneficial.

One final goal for Putin’s visit is maritime cooperation between China and Russia. Currently, they are having joint naval manoeuvres that will last until the 25th of May. Despite alarmist voices saying that ‘China and Russia right now are re-forming a military alliance’, Professor Chen notes that these drills have been going on for quite a few years now, with the purpose of building trust and familiarity so as to be prepared for future crises, creating a foundation for regional stability. Although this collaboration is relatively significant, a Sino-Russian military alliance is, in the Professor’s view, impossible, because of the prior treaty of 2001 stating that they will neither align nor oppose each other.



A recurring theme in this month’s Q&A was the Ukraine crisis. The first question referred to Russia’s actions in the Ukraine, comparing them to previous actions in Georgia, and historically in China, where territory seemed to be a primary goal – did the professor think Russia would ever demand territory in exchange for its new relationship with China? In answering, Professor Chen acknowledged the troubling existence of the Unequal Treaties in Russia and China’s past, but was firm in stating that looking forward is the foundation of world peace. This has been the attitude of both countries since Deng Xiaoping. As for the Crimean situation, the Professor did note that it was more complex than Georgia, which could be more simply laid at Russia’s feet.

The second questioner wondered how Russia’s support for independence movements in China’s outlying regions affected their current cooperation, and how the ability to accept an independent Outer Mongolia gels with China’s refusal to accept separatism from other regions. Professor Chen responded by stating that the very foundation for the current Sino-Russian relationship is to respect each other, be independent, and exist as complete, separate entities. Russia as such will recognise China as an independent, full and complete country, and not interfere in domestic issues.

The third question also addressed Russia’s actions in the Ukraine, wondering whether this could set a precedent for China regarding Tibet; a follow-up question was also posed as to how the growing competition for natural resources in Central Asia will affect Sino-Russian friendship. The professor answered similarly that the issue between Ukraine and Russia is an issue between two countries, or indeed an international issue, whereas Xinjiang and Tibet are domestic problems. As for the competiton for resources, the professor pointed out that many western countries built the BTC channel in order to bypass Russia. China’s intentions are not to oppose Russia but simply to pursue its own economic development.

Another question asked about the causes of the Sino-Soviet split in the 60s. Professor Chen answered that this was because Russia was acting as the parent, when China wanted equality between the two nations.

In response to an audience member who asked whether Sino-Russian military manoeuvres do in fact have a message to Japan, the U.S., and maybe even to Ukraine and Europe, the professor replied saying that these manoeuvres are taking place against a background of a still existing Ukraine situation, with media and scholars saying that it’s a message. Another background is that more hotspots are arising in the Asian theatre, including Japan’s plans. From this latter perspective, Japan feels that a message is being sent to them. Professor Chen likened this to an example given by a professor from Tsinghua, who has said that the psychology of the Japanese government is like a thief watching the police trying to catch them.

The final question asked whether China and Russia’s trade reaching the levels of Russia and the EU prior to the Ukraine will make sanctions less effective. The professor answered that while she cannot predict when trade between the two will reach that level, currently Europe is one of China’s largest trading partners, as is the USA – for Russia to catch up will take a long time.

Report by: Cloirle Magee