China and Russia: Common Interests, Contrasting Perceptions

Article excerpt

President Vladimir Putin's visit to China in March 2006 was in many respects a spectacular success. The Russian delegation was the largest and most diverse in post-Soviet times. The number of agreements, 29, represented a record in the history of the relationship. And the atmosphere was the most positive of any of Putin's overseas trips. Surveying the landscape of the relationship, there seems nothing not to like. The 4,300 km common border has finally been demarcated in its entirety; Moscow and Beijing agree on practically every regional and international issue of consequence--Chechnya, Taiwan, Iraq, Iran. Official trade has multiplied nearly six-fold during Putin's presidency; and the first ever Sino-Russian joint military exercises took place in August 2005.

**********

The future of the relationship looks bright. China's energy needs and Russia's desire to increase oil and gas exports point to further substantial growth in economic ties. The current international environment appears to offer abundant opportunities for Sino-Russian cooperation in countering American 'hegemonic' ambitions. Indeed, so warm is the bilateral climate that there is mounting speculation that the 'strategic partnership' may evolve into a formal political-military alliance.

And yet, scratch a little below the seemingly smooth surface and there is much to challenge the official optimism. The first indication that all is not quite as it seems is the evident concern in Russia about China's rapid rise as the next global superpower. The second point is that, notwithstanding all the fanfare, the Russia-China relationship is still relatively small beer compared to the two countries' ties with the West. Third, for two such apparently warm strategic partners, both sides are surprisingly suspicious and wary of each other. Although they retain many interests in common, Russia and China view their relationship from very different perspectives and in very different ways.

Nevertheless, for all its tensions the Russia-China relationship is a pragmatic, even cynical affair, in which common interests frequently compensate for the lack of shared values and perceptions. This makes it something less than the grandiose 'strategic partnership' advertised in official communiques, but also far from the fragile enterprise its critics disparage. It is, in sum, much like many great power relationships of the past-full of weaknesses, mutual suspicions and 'empty spots', but effective and mutually beneficial in many respects, and surprisingly resilient.

The psychology of the relationship

The Russia-China relationship is characterized by several fundamental dichotomies. Perhaps the most influential of these is the Russian notion of China as the embodiment of both the 'good' and 'bad' East. On the one hand, China is a valued 'strategic partner' whose rise challenges smug Western assumptions of strategic, economic and normative superiority. On the other hand, China represents to many Russians the most serious long-term threat to national security. For them, the question is not 'if' but 'when' Beijing will move against Russian interests.

The good/bad East dichotomy is also evident in another, very different form. Despite the dizzying pace of Chinese modernization over the past 30 years, many Russians still think of China as backward. This partly reflects the lingering influence of outdated Sovietera stereotypes, but it is also arises out of Russian perceptions of the Chinese military numerically massive but low-tech--and the more contemporary connection between Chinese border traders and shoddy consumer goods. Although these assumptions are being undermined by new realities, China is still seen as second-class compared to Japan and even South Korea. Developments such as the toxic spill of benzene in the Songhua River in November 2005, which briefly threatened the water supply of the Russian border city of Khabarovsk, only confirm such perceptions. …