Posted by: Shaun | May 12, 2008

Russia and China: friends forever?

Dimitry Medvedev’s first trip abroad as President of the Russian Federation will take him to China (with a brief stopover in Kazakhstan). It seems that since the end of the Cold War, bitter memories of the Sino-Soviet split and the 1969 border conflict that left these two Asian giants on the brink of war have been set aside in order to forge a strategic partnership that has brought both states closer to one another than at any time in the past.

The two codified their budding friendship in 2001 with a “Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendship,” which pledged both to mutual nonaggression, support for their respective hot-button issues like Taiwan and Chechnya, and various forms of consultation. China and Russia regularly exchange state visits, such as the one on which President Medvedev is soon to embark, in addition to ministerial level talks on a range of issues. Each is an active member in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a multilateral grouping that facilitates economic and security partnerships in Central Asia. Then there were the national years, with 2006 dubbed “the year of Russia” in China and 2007 “the year of China” in Russia. Moscow has even seen fit to supply its neighbor with billions of dollars of advanced weaponry to fill the gaps in China’s ambitious military modernization program.

However, there are clouds on the Eastern horizon. China has a population of nearly 1.5 billion people and a GDP of about $3.4 trillion at official exchange rates, a value that grows by 8 to 10 percent a year. Russia has a population of about 140 million, one which has been declining in recent years, and a nominal GDP of $1.3 trillion which is growing, but is heavily dependent on energy exports. All this means that over the next twenty to thirty years, China will almost certainly exceed Russia in every measure of national power, except, perhaps, the size of its nuclear arsenal. This certainly does not portend conflict as a matter of course, but it is enough to make Russian strategists lose sleep over the future.

In a Moscow Times opinion piece, author Richard Lourie says as much, commenting on a lingering sense of “Sinophobia” amongst many Russian officials who are wary of the stirring giant on their southern frontier. Siberia is the source of their angst, according to Lourie:

Geography abhors a vacuum every bit as much as nature. The Russian Far East, which is two-thirds the size of the continental United States, has only 7 million people. On the other side of the Russian border, in the three northeastern Chinese provinces, there are 100 million people in an area one-eighth the size of the Far East.

The fear, fed in part by Russian xenophobia, is that those 100 million Chinese will spill across the border and submerge the sparsely populated, resource-rich lands of eastern Russia. Border areas are already marked by tensions between native Russians and Chinese migrant laborers.

Again, this is not a forecast of an inevitable Sino-Russian war; such a prospect is remote. I do, however, think that the geopolitics and geoeconomics of Northeast Asia cast doubt on the longevity of a Sino-Russian strategic partnership. Such a relationship remains valid only so long as the two are on a relatively equal footing and share mutual interests. The future of both these prospects is questionable at best.

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