Can the Sino-Russian Lovefest Last?

The recent surge in apparent Sino-Soviet friendship may be of some concern to ASEAN countries fearful of a new axis that would make it more difficult for them to deflect Chinese ambitions for hegemony in east Asia. But they may not need to worry too much.

For effect, President Xi Jinping could not have done better than to sit next to President Vladimir Putin at the giant military parade in Moscow to commemorate the end of World War II in Europe.

Given that western leaders boycotted the event because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, here was a chance for the two powers to be seen as united in a common cause – quietly forgetting the fact that the Soviet Union did not declare war on Japan until after the defeat of Germany. It played no role at all in the fight against Japan until a last-minute invasion of southern Sakhalin island and northern Manchuria and Korea on August 9, 1945 -- after the US atomic dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the same as the Nagasaki bombing and only six days before Japan’s surrender.

Coming on top of a recent massive oil, gas and pipeline deal between the two countries and Russia’s sale of arms to China, the Xi-Putin embrace would seem well-founded in economic complementarity as well as mutual desire to face down the west, and the US in particular. Such an alliance may be worrying to those who see the future of east and Southeast Asia as closely bound to global strategic developments; they may see in this accord a revival of the Sino-Soviet entente that caused much anxiety least until 1961 when Beijing denounced the “revisionist traitors” in Moscow and a freeze descended on their relationship.

Shaky foundations

The basis of today’s friendship is unlikely to endure. Although China did not denounce Russian moves on Ukraine, the events were seen in Beijing as a challenge to the stability of post-World War II borders. It has been in China’s medium-term interest not to challenge these borders, even when it feels aggrieved that some derive from 19th century western imperialism and were at China’s expense.

China’s interest at least until recently has been in keeping a modest international profile, the “peaceful rise” of its propaganda machine. In 2008 Russia reached a land border accord, the last of several, with China over disputed territory on the Amur and Ussuri rivers, which had seen violent clashes.

But it is not forgotten in China that a vast chunk of the Russian Far East, including Vladivostok, and of Mongolia, was ceded to Russia in 1860. This was by the same set of Beijing treaties that ended the so-called Second Opium war and by which China made various concessions to foreign powers, including granting the Kowloon peninsula to British-ruled Hong Kong. This was one of many treaties China declared unequal and hence subject to renunciation, at least in principle. Treaties between states are in fact never equal, they are compromises to end conflicts but China likes to set its own rules.

Imposed borders

Likewise some of China's other borders including with Vietnam and Myanmar were the result of 19th century treaties with aggressive western powers. Vietnam partly rests its claim to the Spratly islands on those of its former colonial power, France. Even Sakhalin, until 1945 divided between Russia and Japan, was once viewed by the Qing dynasty as a subject territory.

These issues are not yet on Beijing’s agenda but its moves in the South and East China seas, its drum-banging over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and hints that Japan’s claims are suspect over some or all of the Ryukyu Islands are reminders that disputes of this sort seldom go away forever.

Russians who stop to think beyond the Ukraine and reflexive anti-westernism realize that eastern Siberia and the Far East are vulnerable not only militarily but also demographically. China’s own demography is now a declining asset but Russia’s eastern regions are still almost empty. The balance of trade with China – Russia exports raw materials, imports manufactures – is also a reminder of its economic weakness

Meanwhile Moscow must contend with growing Chinese interest, via natural resource deals, in the central Asian republics that were once part of the Russian/Soviet empire. These countries, like Mongolia, often resent both Russia and China, but money can usually overcome ethnic antipathies. China has more of it.

For now both Russia and China have a common enemy in Islamic fundamentalism allied to local nationalism. But question marks hang over the future of that whole Turkic central Asian region once Soviet-era strongmen such as Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan are gone and some see Russia aiming, Ukraine style, sooner or later to grab northwestern Kazakhstan with its large Russian population.

Walking the walk

Meanwhile Putin is proving a smart operator in Asia in a way which discomforts China. Moscow is sustaining its long friendship with Vietnam, which sees its relations with the US the Russia as complementary not competitive as its state companies continue to explore and produce oil in offshore waters claimed by China. Russian links with India have definitely withered while western strategic ones and Chinese commercial ones have increased.

But again Indians now see their relations with Russia and the US as more complementary than competitive and a good antidote to China’s massive backing for Pakistan. Likewise, Indonesia has every reason to want to get some attention from Moscow, if only as a weapons source.

Putin has displayed caution even toward Japan with the exception of the Kurile islands issue in his appeal to Russian nationalism. Whatever else he may feel about the US and its Asian allies, he needs some of them onside if Russia’s Pacific coast is not to be as vulnerable to Chinese revanchism as Ukraine was to Russia’s. In the sea between Vladivostok and the Malacca straits there are many players, and many possible combinations. Southeast Asia needs to think in multidimensional terms.