Over the past year, Vladimir Putin has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to reorient eastward and deepen political and economic ties with the Peoples Republic of China. So far two mammoth energy deals have been signed and rumors claim that more is yet to come. Still, cooperation with Beijing has not been sufficient enough to entirely substitute damaged ties with the West and justified historic and economic doubts arise concerning the bilateral interest of such moves. However, over the long-term Putin seems to be betting on the right horse: despite China’s “peaceful rise,” increasing conflict in the region, historic determinants, and geopolitical realities will most probably strengthen Beijing’s wish to team up with Russia.
"Rebuild the Chinese Nation”
Chinese foreign policy and regional perception are tremendously defined by historical remembrance, foremost the so called “hundred years of national humiliation”, a demotic term referring to the disastrous penetration of China by European imperial powers during the 19th and 20th century. This “vandalism” by foreigners led to a disgraceful weakening of China and eventually resulted in the shocking 20th century decomposition of the “Middle Kingdom.”
Under this, modern nationalism emerged as a result of this collective trauma and was embedded into an often exploited domestic legacy, pictorially shown by the engraving at the Summer Palace in Beijing calling the nation to “not forget the national shame” and to “rebuild the Chinese nation.” This century of subjugation ended with the victory of Communist forces under the leadership of Mao Zedong in 1949 and the following implementation of centralized, authoritarian power. Driven by “oppression and exploitation by foreign imperialism,” it was the Communist movement that ironically realized the nationalistic desire for a Chinese state and set in motion the reemergence of China as the predominant power in East Asia.
Consolidation by Sword
According to this national determinant, Chinese foreign policy is particularly tuned to realist assumptions grounded in national interest. After the civil war, the communist state protected itself against external threats through an alliance with the Stalinist USSR in the “Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance” of 1950, thereby securing its northern border and freeing up political and military assets to focus on Taiwan and potential British/Indian influence.
In June 1950, Kim Il Sung’s North Korea invaded the southern Republic of Korea. After occupying almost the entire Korean peninsula, the North Korean military was devastated by the US-led UN forces rolled back the territorial gains made by the north.
Perceiving that foreign forces under US-leadership would take the same “Korean route” to destabilize and ultimately invade China (as Japan did in the 16th and early 20th century) and alarmed by the dispatch of US naval forces to the Strait of Taiwan, Beijing intervened in the Korean War. After committing a one-million-man strong army, allied forces were forced back to the 38th parallel. After a two-year war of attrition, the fighting ended in 1953 with a return to the status quo between the two Koreas. While the conflict took a terrifying toll (aside from the millions of dead Korean civilians and military personnel, China lost around 600,000 soldiers), Mao considered the intervention a major geopolitical victory. North Korea was preserved as a buffer-state against a possible “Pacific threat," the willingness of the Chinese leadership to repel potential invasion has been clearly demonstrated, and the simultaneous violent takeover of Tibet in 1950 had consolidated China’s position as a great power in the region.
Cold War: Changing Realities, Changing Partners
In line with its realist approach to geopolitics, Beijing showed an overly pragmatic approach in its relations to other world powers throughout the Cold War. As a consequence of the both ideological and political rift with Khrushchev's Soviet Union during the 1960s, border disputes and increasing military tension led to a loss of the previously secured northern Chinese frontier. Additionally, China found itself trapped in isolation: with Communist forces in Vietnam favoring Moscow, Taiwan and Japan enjoying US support, and India developing its own regional influence, Beijing stumbled into what was a potentially devastating military conflict with the USSR in 1969. Again, the exchange of hostilities was based on the collective remembrance of China’s “hundred years of national humiliation,” when Czarist Russia forced China to cede roughly 230.000 square miles of Siberian land in the 1860 Treaty of Aigun – a factor recently rediscovered in Western commentaries on the allegedly unfavorable prospects of a Chinese-Russian alliance.
In the light of these developments China took an unexpected step to secure its national interests and gladly accepted overtures by the U.S. Nixon government. As a result, the enmity between both powers was significantly weakened and enormous pressure taken from Mao: the policy of recognizing Taiwan as the “sole legitimate representative of China” was officially dropped by Washington. Beijing was admitted to the UN Security Council and the “Nixon-doctrine” of restricted commitment in Asia provided China with a perceived geopolitical advantage vis-à-vis the USSR, Japan, and Taiwan.
Old Patterns Anew: Asian nationalism, territorial questions, and the pivot with Russia
Under the leadership of Dao Xiaoping, China instituted market reforms and eventually created the basis for its often-cited “peaceful rise” as global economic heavyweight. But as of 2014, this rather isolationist period of domestic development seems to be over: China has returned to a more active role in the international system and increasingly pursues a revisionist policy, refusing the prospect of a prolonged “New World Order” under the unipolar leadership of Washington. Again, the reasons can be found in China’s collective historical memory: through the Sino centric lens of an increasingly nationalist China, the global leadership of the West resembles the same imperialism of the last 200 years. This represents the first overlap of Chinese and Russian perceptions, with Moscow echoing similar support for a multipolar world order.
Though acting globally, China has an entirely different approach in dealing with fellow governments: moralistic or ideological aspects don’t play any role in decision making, as long as governments are willing to cooperate and can provide the resources Beijing seeks. In behaving this way, China has reduced the fear of the neo-colonial development of Africa and holds antagonistic positions with respect to Western counterparts, such as the Iran (where it has become a major oil and gas partner) and in Sudan, Zimbabwe or North Korea. This exceptionally self-centered orientation (which Robert Kaplan characterizes as “Uber-Realist”) however generates an increasingly conflict prone relationship with the US. Since confident unilateral steps in US foreign policy may damage Chinese economic interests in “rogue states” and recent US-China relations have been marked by informal currency wars, the likelihood of confrontation will continue to rise.
Security policy also plays an important role in determining Beijing’s future behavior. Advanced American military equipment and troops are deployed along China’s periphery, in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and recently the Philippines. Additionally, Washington promotes the political and economic rise of India, a nuclear regional rival, with whom Beijing shares an unsettled border dispute. At the climax of this highly unpleasant development however stand three concerning developments: the spark of nationalism, paired with dangerous island-disputes and a renewed arms race throughout East-Asia, the multilateral confrontation over the South-Chinese Sea, and the doctrine of "America's Pacific Century."
All three examples further reinforce Chinese fears and shape its foreign policy with a Sino centric worldview, intensifying its realism driven behavior in a globalized world. Yet given the current constellation in the region, Russia emerges as the least of these problems. With little interest in competing with China regionally, Moscow is more than ever in need of a partner and offers great opportunities to satisfy Beijing’s need for resources, safety, and weapons. Projects such as the planned Russian “Vostochny Cosmodrome” near the Chinese border provide further opportunities for prosperous cooperation. Unofficial historical claims on the Russian Far East however still remain, but the fear-riddled theme within China’s security calculus requires decision makers to balance its actions toward Russia. Spurning cooperation with Moscow would further strengthen undesirable developments throughout East Asia, while unnecessarily adding a northern front to ongoing territorial disputes. Turning against Moscow is unlikely to happen—not only would such a move ironically push Russia into Western arms, but it would deeply contradict national interests. However, China has also no interest in seeing Russia as an equal regional power in East Asia. With poor access to the Pacific, ongoing modernization of the Far East, and Russian perception as a great power within the Near Abroad, this is not a realistic concern for Beijing.
With this in mind, a convergence of interests between Moscow and Beijing is likely to evolve; a political alliance of which both will benefit according to their different fundamental interests. Russia is not a geopolitical threat but would rather serve Chinese interests, helping Beijing focus on perceived threats to the elsewhere. How much the Kremlin will benefit from this over the long-term depends on the details of such a compromise and is yet unanswered.