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The Art of Tasseography: China–Russia Relations as Viewed from China

Analysis of Beijing's relationship with Moscow tends to focus on official statements and diplomatic behaviour. But what do Chinese experts have to say about the matter? And how might they be advising their government?

Behind the curtain: following Chinese academic debates can provide clues about how the country's leadership is reflecting on China's foreign relations

The dynamics of Beijing’s relationship with Moscow remain as opaque as the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, we rely on body-language experts to dissect every aspect of a handshake between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin to help confirm what we think we already know. Are China–Russia ties so plagued by mutual distrust that they are set for an inevitable weakening or even collapse? Or are they now so strong that they might develop into a formal alliance or lead China into providing military support to Moscow? Arguments continue to be made in both directions, some more convincing than others. Ultimately, however, we are mostly just reading the tea leaves, and this article will likewise attempt to do just that.

Security as China’s Main Driver

Since having frank and open conversations with Chinese government officials is almost impossible, following academic debates has become one of the few ways of gleaning hints about how Chinese leaders may be reflecting upon certain issues and the type of advice that they may be receiving. Zhao Huasheng (赵华胜), one of China’s most renowned Russia experts, may provide a few clues. In one of the more comprehensive analyses of China–Russia relations to have been published in China since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Zhao explains why he believes that his country should maintain its close ties with Moscow in spite of the drawbacks.

Unsurprisingly, he describes security as being Beijing’s foremost interest in its bilateral relationship with the Kremlin. ‘With China’s greatest strategic pressure coming from the sea’, he says, ‘good Sino-Russian relations can ensure that China has … a relatively stable strategic rear … This has enormous strategic benefits for China. The significance of this is invisible and seemingly unremarkable in times of peace, but its strategic relevance to China will be revealed were our country to be faced with a major upheaval [变故] coming from abroad.’

This goes beyond simply stabilising China’s 4,300-km-long border with Russia. On account of Moscow’s remaining influence in and around China’s neighbourhood, ‘good Sino-Russian relations can at the very least ensure the basic stability of half of Eurasia’, Zhao argues. Conversely, ‘a deterioration in Sino-Russian relations would plunge the entire Eurasian continent into a state of turmoil and uncertainty’. This would be highly detrimental to China’s ‘security and economic interests’.

With its hinterland stabilised, Beijing is able to focus most of its energy and military resources on its coast, the surrounding seas and – most importantly – Taiwan. The island, according to Zhao, ‘is the greatest strategic challenge facing China. In a sense, it is like the sword of Damocles hanging over [our] head. We do not know when it will fall, perhaps suddenly, perhaps in the more distant future. But in any case, China cannot [afford] not to prepare itself for all the possible changes [that might affect] the situation in the Taiwan Strait. If the mainland were one day obliged to reunify using military means, we can be sure that China would then find itself in an extremely difficult and complex international environment’. And although Zhao does not expect Russia to be ‘completely’ supportive of China (不期望俄罗斯完全支持中国) in the event of such a crisis – perhaps much like China’s stance over Ukraine – he does expect Moscow to maintain its ties with Beijing and to not take part in imposing sanctions on his country. Zhao reminds his readers that, ‘Among the major powers, Russia is probably the only one that is not opposed to China’. Were US--China relations ever to descend into outright confrontation (对峙), Moscow could well seek to play both sides. ‘But so long as it does not side with the US, this will be a strategic success for China’, he adds.

Perhaps more damaging to China than the war in Ukraine itself has been Beijing’s refusal to distance itself from the aggressor

Economically, Russia may only represent a small share (roughly 3%) of China’s foreign trade, Zhao says, but ‘in the event of a major international crisis, Russia would be the most important foreign source of energy – and [perhaps] even the only foreign source of oil – that China could conceivably continue to preserve’. Other scholars in China also highlight Russia’s important role in helping to achieve some of Beijing’s broader economic and financial objectives, such as the internationalisation of the yuan and the continued quest for a credible alternative to Western cross-border payment systems, with the aim of reducing China’s and the world’s dependence on the current US-dominated financial system. More broadly, Moscow is regularly portrayed as a key partner, if not Beijing’s most important partner, in what Zhao calls ‘China's push to build a new international order’ – in other words, an order that would be less dominated by the West and more in line with the interests of Moscow, Beijing and other members of the Global South. Losing the support of a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a key participant in such groupings as the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation would inevitably jeopardise such plans. Summarising the China–Russia relationship, Wang Xiaoquan (王晓泉), a Russia specialist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, remarks: ‘China and Russia are “half of the sky” [半边天] for each other’s security and development’.

The Positive and Negative Impact of the War in Ukraine on China

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came as a shock to most experts in China. Chinese academia has its fair share of Russia apologists who blame the war on both Washington and NATO’s eastward expansion. However, even they occasionally bemoan the adverse consequences that the war has had for China. To be sure, some see the conflict as having helped to push Russia further into China’s orbit and to accelerate the emergence of the desired new multipolar and less Western-centric world order, and even as having distracted – albeit temporarily – the US from its ‘containment’ of China in the Indo-Pacific. Yet, in these scholarly discussions at least, the negatives seem to outweigh the positives. As Chinese economist Xu Mingqi (徐明棋) noted last year: ‘The repercussions of the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine have been largely negative [for us] and I cannot see China benefitting from it … First, it has hindered the world economy's [post-pandemic] recovery; second, it has fuelled the ideological trend towards deglobalisation; and third, it has put global economic governance in jeopardy.’ Stability abroad continues to be key to sustaining China’s economic development, Xu adds. In that respect at least, the war in Ukraine has evidently run counter to his country’s interests.

But perhaps more damaging to China than the war itself has been Beijing’s refusal to distance itself from the aggressor. A few months after the invasion, Yan Xuetong (阎学通), one of China’s leading international relations experts, acknowledged that ‘refusing to condemn Russia has strained China’s relations with some of its neighbours and distanced Beijing from many developing nations’. Like many others in China, Zhou Bo (周波), a well-known former senior People’s Liberation Army colonel turned think-tanker, regrets the negative impact that the war has had on China’s relations with Europe in particular. In his words: ‘The last thing China wants is a deterioration in its relations with European countries. It is very important to us that Europe is not always on the side of the United States.’ Yang Jiemian (杨洁勉), another notable figure in China’s think-tank world (and brother of former top diplomat and politburo member Yang Jiechi), worries about the deep rift and growing hostility that has emerged between Russia and China on the one side and the West and its allies on the other (he blames this on Washington, of course). Like many of his peers, he is particularly concerned about the impact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is having on cross-Strait relations, with the West more intent than ever on providing diplomatic and military support to Taiwan. Instability, decoupling, confrontation and containment are written all over these assessments, and Ukraine is depicted as a major catalyst of this trend.

An Imperialistic, Messianic and Reckless Partner

Although censorship, self-censorship and China’s propaganda machine ensure that China–Russia relations are mostly portrayed as flourishing, disapproval of Russia’s actions does occasionally transpire even among China’s staunchest Russia sympathisers. Wang Wen (王文), for instance, who is the director of Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies and a former Global Times journalist, recently asked Russian intellectual Aleksandr Dugin (who is also nicknamed ‘Putin’s brain’ in China) ‘why Russia’s elite do not advise President Putin to do his best to avoid conflicts or to adopt approaches that might be better than [his] special military operations’. Also present in the writings and speeches of Chinese scholars are the occasional jabs at both Putin and Russia for their alleged imperialistic tendencies, messianic ideology and reckless behaviour. Feng Yujun (冯玉军), one of China’s most outspoken critics of Moscow since the beginning of the war and the director of Fudan University’s Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, stresses that ‘the imperial logic underlying both the rejection of Ukraine as a national entity and the overt claim to restore [Russia’s] traditional territories is alarming’. He describes Russian culture as suffering from a superiority complex and Putin’s conservatism as an empty ‘discursive bubble’, a mere tool for Moscow to advance its political interests and bolster its legitimacy.

Historical grievances against Russia run deep in China and regularly resurface even among ordinary citizens. As Yuan Gang (袁刚), then a professor at Peking University, once noted: ‘In recent times, China has had its share of invasions and abuse at the hands of the Great Powers, yet Russia's seizure of Chinese territories was the greatest scourge of all.’ Memories of betrayals, bullying and even aggression by China’s former Soviet brother are surely still very much alive, particularly among President Xi’s generation, which lived through some of the tensest moments of China–USSR relations.

Chinese scholars do not hesitate to point out that Russia’s vision of a new world order differs greatly from China’s

Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye’s (卢沙野) recent comments, which appeared to question the legal status of former Soviet states, should not distract from the palpable unease among Chinese intellectuals over Russia’s approach to national sovereignty – a concept that continues to be paramount for China. Shortly after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Yuan asked ironically: ‘Could China's Tannu Uriankhai consisting of 170,000 square kilometres of territory, which was seized by the Soviet Union under Lenin and [later] replaced

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