Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Sino-Russian relations: Historical secrets and modern ambitions

Many Russians know that most Chinese know that in the 1860s, tsarist Russia acquired 1.4 million square kilometres of Chinese territory.

The PLA's 'Battalion of Honour' marched for the first time in Moscow's Victory Day parade in 2015 (Photo: Flickr/Dmitriy Fomin)
The PLA's 'Battalion of Honour' marched for the first time in Moscow's Victory Day parade in 2015 (Photo: Flickr/Dmitriy Fomin)
Published 4 Apr 2017 

This post is part of a debate on Bobo Lo's Lowy Institute Paper A Wary Embrace. Other debate posts can be found here.

The day will come when we Russians will get back into bed with the Chinese, and then we’ll screw you from both ends.

So said Yevgeny Rogov, Minister Counsellor at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, testing the sang froid of some senior DFA officers in 1981 and passing into DFAT legend. Three decades later we can appreciate how prescient Rogov was. But the Sino-Russian recoupling that has come about since Putin came to power in 2000 has seen a reversal of roles: for the first time in about 160 years, Russia seeks entry to China’s bed not as the senior but as the junior party. So who will do what to - or for - whom? And how might we be affected?

At first glance, the growing propinquity between China and Russia should be a cause for disquiet about its implications for Australia’s interests, strategic and economic. If two of the planet’s three nuclear-armed great powers - both with territorial claims, both with legitimating ideologies of historical grievance and victimhood, and both of whom see the US, and therefore its allies (albeit through different lenses) as adversaries, and would like to see their power eroded -  both seek (though to varying degrees) to refashion the global disorder - and are ready to use military force to achieve their goals – then it is hard to see how this does not have implications for Australia’s security. And to boot we now have the acute disarray in the US brought about by the election of a man manifestly unfit for high office.

Then there’s the complex question of Russia’s potential, given its stupendous natural resource endowment - but also the curse of its geography (much of its iron ore and coal cannot be exported without constructing new and hugely costly infrastructure)  -  to threaten and capture Australia’s markets in north Asia, including China, for our main commodity exports.

One the many virtues of Dr Lo’s Lowy Institute Paper A Wary Embrace is that it grapples with and offers judicious and succinct conclusions to such questions.

Lo comes across as a sceptical analyst, who follows the advice of the Book of Han to ‘seek truth from facts’ (实事求是) – actual as opposed to ‘alternative’ - and knows the right questions to ask. Just how close is the officially vaunted ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’? Are the things the partners share more important than what divides them? To what degree are a 'substantial degree of solidarity' and an 'underlying resilience' counterbalanced by contradictions and strains in the relationship? Lo concludes that the fulsome official rhetoric of ‘friends forever, enemies never’ cannot mask the reality that the Sino-Russian border is one of the sharpest cultural divides in the world; and that the tensions in the relationship preclude a genuine alliance founded in mutual trust.

But Lo gives due weight to the convergence of their respective perceptions of national interest. Not only are both countries authoritarian: under Putin and Xi they are becoming more so. Both exhibit the martial and social-control infrastructures that underpin authoritarianism, with massive armies (Putin recently decreed that the number of Russian ‘defence personnel’ would be increased from 1.88 million to two million) to deal with external enemies, real and confected; and huge police and para-military forces to deal with internal enemies i.e. anyone who opposes actively the authoritarian order.

Australia and Russia don’t have much in common but one thing they do share is a preoccupation with China. Australia’s economy is now so dependent on the health of China’s that Australian sovereignty has been eroded. The statistics of Russia’s commercial ties with China, in terms both of trade and investment, are not imposing: Sino-Russian trade turnover in 2015 was $US8 billion ($10.52 billion), while Australia-China was worth $160 billion; in the same year a tiny 0.7% of Chinese OFDI (outward foreign direct investment) was in Russia, and Russian accumulated investments in China were just $US1 billion (FDI data are notoriously problematic. These figures are from kommersant. V.Kashin complains about their imprecision in the Sino-Russian context here.)

But that picture is changing rapidly enough to prompt a fellow commentator in this forum, the leading Russian sinologist, Aleksandr Gabuev, to express concern that Russia might become China’s ‘little brother’ or fall into ‘China’s firm embrace’. Gabuev notes that the Russians have removed three key barriers to a close relationship: a truce in commercial rivalry in Central Asia; renewed arms sales; and ending the ban on China’s involvement in resource projects (A detailed survey of the economic dimensions of Sino-Russian relations can be found in this BOFIT Policy Brief: Heli Simola
Economic relations between Russia and China – Increasing inter-dependency?)

The East believes no less than we do in the most precious of our national traditions – autocracy. Without it, Asia would be incapable of its sincere affection for Russia and its painless identification with her.
- Prince Ukhtomski, in 1900 (cited in Russian Orientalism by David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, p.234)

Russia and Australia also share a deep ambivalence about China, and for similar reasons. In Russia’s case, the relationship stretches back to the 16th century at least, and is bound up with complex Russian notions of ‘the East’. The significance for the Russian political system of the legacy of the 230 years as a vassal of the Mongol empire is a flammable theme in contemporary Russian historiography (see for instance B Akunin's Istoriya russkogo gosudarstva, Vol. 2, Chast’ Azii, Ordyskii Period, pp.4-6). The Russians have been comprehensively defeated only twice, on both occasions by ‘eastern’ powers: Batu Khan’s Mongols; and the Japanese in 1905. Traditionally, the Russians look to their east with apprehension, rather as Australians do to our north. Officially disputes over the demarcation of Sino-Russian border have been resolved, but many Russians know that most Chinese know that under the ‘unequal treaties’ of the 1860s tsarist Russia acquired 1.4 million square kilometres of Chinese territory. The Russian Sinologist Larin relates that when a visiting Russian delegation asked a Chinese official whether he had visited Russia he replied ‘No, but I have been to Weishenhai’ – the Chinese name for Vladivostok built on land that was Chinese until the Convention of Peking in 1860 (interview with this writer, but see his Rossiiko-Kitaiskie otnosheniya v regional’nykh izmereniakh, Moscow 2005, especially p.378)

Russian anxieties are captured in that reliable barometer of social attitudes in authoritarian societies; popular humour. So, for instance, the witticism ‘All quiet on the Sino-Finnish front’. Or: ‘the Russian leader is awoken in the early hours by an aide who reports that a Top Secret Immediate cable has arrived from Peking. It contains bad news: the Chinese have landed on the moon; and good news - all of them.’

知之为知之 不知为不知 是知也: If you know, recognise that you do. If you don’t know, realise that you don’t – that is knowledge.
- Confucius

The reason we don’t know more about the Sino-Russian relationship is that both partners are highly secretive. Both would endorse Don Corleone’s operational principle of discretion: ‘Never tell anybody outside the family what you are thinking’. Officials assume that ‘transparency’ is stupidity, and possibly treason, and if so likely to be fatal (it’s presumably no coincidence that no Snowden or Assange has emerged in China or Russia).

Russia has been ruled for the last 17 years by an intelligence officer supported by a conclave of intelligence officers, whose business is secrecy. China has been a one-party state for almost 70 years, in which the ruling elite maintains control of the state, the military and society. ('Beneath the surface of China’s relentless rise', Dong Dong Zhang, East Asia Forum, ANU). China employs at least two million people just to monitor the internet. Both countries are good at safeguarding their own while acquiring others' secrets.

Lo is perhaps the sole Australian scholar who has followed closely the evolution of Sino-Russian ties for decades. His report shows that he knows virtually all that is to be gleaned from open sources about Sino-Russian relations. And more besides. Some may not endorse all of his conclusions but no-one can, in this writer’s view, credibly cavil over the depth and rigour of his argumentation. His report exemplifies the kind of dispassionate, rigorous and empirical analysis for which there is now so acute a need.

The judgements are the author’s but he wishes to acknowledge the help of Dr Stephen Fortescue in providing critical comment.

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