Many observers ponder Russia’s international isolation following its annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine and the increasing dependence on China – and are puzzled over not only Russia’s behavior but also about how close Russia and China could become.
Will China continue to assist Russia? Could China follow Russia’s path in Crimea to handle Taiwan and other territorial issues?
China does not have to pick a side in the Ukraine crisis. But China should take such questions and comparisons seriously – making it clear through public diplomacy that the country is not like Russia.
Just as the Russian intervention was intensifying, European countries worried about China’s historic territorial claims. During his first visit to Berlin in March 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping received a special gift from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the first precise map of China made by esteemed French cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville in 1735.
That year was the height of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when the Emperor Qianlong ascended the throne. The map of China includes the Island of Sakhalin to the northeast, now Russia; Taiwan to the southeast, independent of China since 1950; Ili River to the west, shared by China and Kazakhstan; Lake Baikal to the north in Siberia; and Hainan to the south.
Perhaps Russia's annexation of Crimea gave rise to Merkel's concern about the possible consequences of China's rejuvenation or recall China the Russian expansion threat. She conveyed complicated information by presenting an antique map depicting ancient China with all its inseparable parts in ancient times.
Merkel’s concern is understandable as once war-ravaged European nations remain sensitive toward boundary-related issues. Border changes have always been a worry in Europe, posing a lethal threat to its peace and stability and dragging regional stakeholders into frequent battles.
Europeans could not have missed the allusion to historical claims in official Chinese pronouncements. Soon after receiving the gift from Merkel, Xi delivered a keynote speech at the College of Europe in Bruges on April. 1, 2014: "For any country in the world, the past always holds the key to the present and the present is always rooted in the past. Only when we know where a country has come from, could we possibly understand why the country is what it is today, and only then could we realize in which direction it is heading."
Xi argued, “The relationship between China and the EU has become one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. To move the relationship forward, China needs to know more about Europe, and Europe needs to know more about China. For that, we need to build four partners for peace, growth, reform and progress of civilization, so that the China-EU comprehensive strategic partnership will take on even greater global significance.”
Three factors show the differences between Russia and China on territorial issues:
First, consider their respective cultural conditioning – the culture shaped during the development of the two nations distinguishes China from Russia. Russia began in the medieval state of Kievan Rus and then expanded from Europe to Asia to Siberia in the Far East, stretching across Eurasia, making it the world’s largest country in terms of territory.
In contrast, the vast grassland to the north, tributary states to the south, boundless sea to the east and the cloud-kissing Himalayas to the west have endowed China with a mentality of being a "Middle Kingdom." As Xi noted in his address for the College of Europe, “Of the world’s ancient civilizations, the Chinese civilization has spanned over 5,000 years and continued uninterrupted to this day.”
Therefore, it is temporal logic, not spatial, that has dominated China's culture. The nation values the natural appeal of its own culture, rather than geographical expansion, and this has historically suggested that China will not follow Russia’s path.
Secondly, from the perspective of their current economic positions, China and Russia differ in dependence on the rest of the world.
As the second largest economy in the world and a major participant in, beneficiary and builder of globalization, China relies on two engines, export and investment, to beef up economic growth. China's external dependence prompts it to cooperate with other nations in a peaceful way.
China’s economy is fundamentally different from Russia’s, the world’s sixth largest, which mainly relies on energy and arms exports. Half of Russian national income comes from the export of energy. The top three trade partners for Russia are China, the EU and Ukraine while China’s are the EU, the US and ASEAN. With less economic reliance on the West, Russia can offend the West, some of whose members though, must seek Russia's energy and diplomatic clout.
Finally. China and Russia differ on expectations for the future.
Though Russians also yearn for bright prospects, the Chinese are more optimistic about their future according to various opinion polls. And affected by the mentality of changing oneself and influencing the world, the Chinese people firmly view the Chinese dream as consistent with the dream of other peoples. The Chinese will not ruin the country's opportunities for strategic development with reckless ventures.
China has signed border agreements with almost all 14 countries it shares a land border with, the exceptions being India and Bhutan. Of course, maritime territory, rather a modern concept, has emerged as a major bone of contention with China’s Asian neighbors.
M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on Chinese strategy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has pointed out that China, which embraces political compromise over the use force, tends to solve border disputes through negotiations.
Thus China does not need to emulate Russia.
The Chinese people have learned from their experience in modern times that peace, development, cooperation and win-win progress are the most significant values in getting along with the rest of the world. Besides whether China will follow the path of Russia, another concern is how China took advantage of Russia’s isolation to strike a favorable bargain in the long-term gas deal and how it is in a driver’s seat as far as such economic cooperation is concerned.
As the long-time negotiation of the gas deal was signed in Shanghai last June, the question emerges over whether Russia’s isolation gives China greater leverage?
China is in no way obliged to follow Russia in confronting the West. Considering the historic memory of Russia’s annexation of China’s 3 million kilometers of territory, China’s leaders undertake a non-alliance foreign policy that prohibits China from coming too close to Russia. In particular, China is seeking to build a new type of great-power relations with the United States. The West, not Russia, is China’s major partner in overall opening of the economy and reforms. The West, not Russia, represents the future for most Chinese. How closely China can come together with Russia depends not on Russia’s need for China, but China’s need for the West. The “one belt, one road” – China’s new Silk Road initiative – will bind China and Russia together and not the sanctions from the West.
The author is director of the Institute of International Affairs and professor with the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China and senior research fellow at Chongyang Institute of Finiancial Studies, Renmin University . Reprinted with permission from the Yale University Institute for the Study of Globalization