Further evidence is emerging of the opportunistic nature of Chinese relations with Russia despite the recent ostentatiously friendly visit to Moscow of President Xi Jinping. That evidence belies the recent surge in the apparent Sino-Soviet friendship.
The city of Aihui has recently changed its written Chinese name back to what it was called before 1956, when the old name was dropped by China in the interest of Sino-Soviet harmony. [Although the Chinese characters have been changed, the sound is the same so there was no need to change the Romanization].
For Russia the attention given to the Aihui name change should be the canary in the coal mine, a reminder that its territories in the east are vulnerable not only to Chinese military power and nearby populations but to the resurrection of the “unequal treaties” emotion which has instant appeal in a nation long fed a diet of selective history whose only constant is that China is the center of the world.
Aihui, which in Manchu and Russian is known as Aigun, just happens to be the name of a 1858 treaty by which a weakened Qing empire ceded area of land on the northern bank of the Amur rivers to the Russian empire and also parts of what was then Chinese Turkestan to the northwest of the present boundary of Xinjiang.
Previously the border had been set by the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk between the Russian Tsar Peter the Great and the Manchu Kangxi emperor. The twin cities of Aihui and Heihe now sit across the river from Russia’s much less populous Blagoveschensk.
The name change has been accompanied by many reminders of that pact as another “unequal treaty” forced on China and thus one eventually to be reversed. The Chinese nationalist narrative likes to forget that its empire expanded massively under the Qing, forcefully imposing itself on many areas not inhabited by Han peoples and for whom both China and Russia were oppressive expansionist powers.
Of course, the time is not yet ripe for revanchism vis-à-vis Russia. The nationalistic, semi-official Beijing based Global Times noted that “As China-Russia ties get warmer the move by the Heilongjiang provincial government has attracted a lot of public attention and even debate.” It could hardly have failed to do as the move had been given prime time national airing by the state broadcaster.
Global Times added that “considering power and the international reality, Russia could only choose to stay close to China”—and presumably vice versa. But there is all the difference in the world in accepting a current reality as long as it suits (just as Beijing accepted British rule of Hong Kong for decades after the Communists came to power) and accepting it as the long term status quo.
China has also not forgotten that a vast chunk of the Russian Far East, including Vladivostok, and of Mongolia, was ceded to Russia in 1860 via the same set of Beijing treaties that ended the so-called Second Opium war and by which China made various concessions to foreign powers which included ceding the Kowloon Peninsula to British-ruled Hong Kong. This was one the various treaties which China declared unequal and hence in principle subject to renunciation.
Likewise some 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 Senkaku/Daioyu Islands and hints that Japan’s claims over some or all of the Ryukyu island chain are suspect are reminders that disputes of this sort seldom go away forever.
Russians who stop to think beyond the Ukraine 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. Treaties between states are in fact never equal, they are compromises to end conflicts but China likes to set its own rules.