Tue, Aug 04, 2009 - Page 9 News List

China and Russia: friends for now

Two nations face each other across the Amur: the rising power that is China, and Russia, which has long dreaded an invasion on this frontier. But the Kremlin’s grip may be weakening as Beijing’s economic might increases


It was an unashamed display of military force, involving tanks, fighter jets and more than 3,000 soldiers. Last week China and Russia held their biggest joint military exercises ever — their battalions streaking across the plateaus and shimmering plains of Jilin Province.

The exercises come as Moscow and Beijing prepare to celebrate an important moment in history: 60 years of diplomatic relations. After long periods of frigidity during the Cold War, the two countries now claim to be enjoying an unprecedented strategic partnership.

But the military maneuvers — named Peace Operation 2009 — were not just about showing off, unleashing rockets at imaginary terrorist enemies or threatening the US. Instead, their aim was to send an unambiguous message to the Muslim populations of China and Russia: No dissent will be tolerated.

Both countries are now facing simmering Muslim uprisings. In China’s case, this comes from Uighurs, whose revolt in the western territory of Xinjiang this summer has been brutally suppressed. Russia, meanwhile, is facing an insurgency of its own in the north Caucasus republics of Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan.

But while China and Russia have much in common, including a mutual fear of separatism and Islamic radicalism, there are also significant differences. Despite last week’s exercises, and a visit to Russia by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) in June, politicians in Moscow harbor a deep-seated fear of China, and Chinese encroachment in particular.

Russian TV recently claimed that Beijing has drawn up a secret plan. According to this top-secret blueprint, China is determined to grab back Russia’s remote, but vast, far eastern region. China’s strategy includes persuading migrants to settle in Russia, marry local women and steal or co-opt local businesses.

A history of tension

Throughout much of the Cold War, Beijing and Moscow were enemies. However, Stalin encouraged and financed Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) revolution, recognizing his communist People’s Republic in October 1949. The partnership survived Stalin’s death and the early Khrushchev years.

In 1959, the two countries squabbled over which should lead the world communist movement, an ideological quarrel replicated in communist parties across Asia and Africa. Khrushchev’s decision to back down during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis also needled Mao.

In March 1969, tensions exploded when Russia and China fought a brief war in Russia’s far east over the disputed Damansky island (now known as Zhenbao), close to Khabarovsk.

Tensions continued in the 1970s and 1980s, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Detente only became possible after the Soviet Union’s demise.

Over the past two decades, relations between Beijing and the Russian Federation have improved, with booming trade, agreement on many international issues and growing military co-operation. In 2004, Russia settled a long-running border dispute with China, handing over Tarabarov island in the Amur river, and half of another large island, Bolshoy Ussuriysky.

China’s rise, however, is likely to place increasing strain on the relationship. Experts believe that as China becomes a world superpower, Russia’s influence will diminish — a fate the Kremlin is unlikely to accept.

Russia’s far east has always been the most strategically vulnerable part of Moscow’s fissiparous imperium, in what is the world’s biggest country. Some 6,100km and an eight-hour flight from Moscow, the far east is home to just 6.5 million Russian citizens.

Next door, across the Amur river in northeastern China, there are 107 million Chinese. Given this demographic imbalance, there is a primordial fear in the Russian imagination that China will eventually try to steal back the Europe-sized far east of Russia — a region rich in mineral resources, trees, coal and fish.

The salmon alone are an attractive target. A quarter of the world’s Pacific salmon spawn in the volcanic Kamchatka Peninsula. According to the Russian TV scenario, Beijing is furtively plotting to undo the Russian colonization of the Pacific coastal region, started in the 18th century by tsarist-era adventurers. The area’s original inhabitants were Chinese. These early nomads eked out a meager living while dodging the tigers that still haunt the Sikhote-Alin mountains.

In reality, the relationship is far more fascinating than the baseless fears of Russia’s nationalists. Over the past decade the number of Chinese migrants working in Russia’s far east has actually fallen. In Moscow, the authorities have recently shut down the capital’s enormous Cherkizovsky market, turfing thousands of Chinese out of a job. The huge bazaar was home to Chinese traders selling billions of dollars in gray-sector goods. (According to China’s Xinhua agency, losses from Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province alone amounted to more than US$800 million after Russian police confiscated their stocks.) Some 150 Chinese workers have been deported since the market was closed on June 29.

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