Associate Professor of Asian Languages and Cultures Jinghao Zhou had an article published in the April 16 issue of Asian Times, regarding Xi Jinping’s first trip to Russia as the president of China. In his article, titled “U.S. misreads Sino-Russian affair,” Zhou explains: “Since the Cold War, the United States has been always concerned about the possibility of an alliance between Russia and China. Recently, Xi Jinping’s first trip to Russia as the president of China has once again raised American concerns about the implications of Beijing-Moscow relations.”
After explaining the relationship between China and Russia, he asserts, “It is groundless to predict that the two countries will forge an alliance in a decade. Even though Beijing and Moscow are on their honeymoon, in the long term they might have more potential conflicts than cooperation. Due to their historical complex and the potential for conflict, they could become rivals again. According to the Global Times, the Russian ambassador made it clear that Russia does not seek an alliance with China. If China unilaterally pursued that goal, the result would be poor.”
Zhou joined the faculty in 2001. He earned a B.A. from Nanjing University, a M.A. from Wuhan University and M.Div. from Union Theological Seminar. He earned a Ph.D. from Baylor University and has conducted various research projects on Chinese politics, religion, ideology, media, and women’s studies. Zhou has published more than 30 articles in English publications and more than 40 academic articles in Chinese publications. His most recent book is “China’s Peaceful Rise in a Global Context: A Domestic Aspect of China’s Road Map to Democratization.”
The full article follows.
U.S. misreads Sino-Russian affair
Jinghao Zhou • April 16, 2013
Since the Cold War, the United States has been always concerned about the possibility of an alliance between Russia and China. Recently, Xi Jinping’s first trip to Russia as the president of China has once again raised American concerns about the implications of Beijing-Moscow relations.
American media more or less implies that China’s motive of deepening its relations with Russia is anti-American. It is too simplistic to rush into any hasty conclusion. Moscow and Beijing are maybe on their honeymoon, but they do not necessarily take aim against the US.
In recent years, the US has been strengthening its alliance with China’s neighboring countries, including Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Afghanistan, and India. Other countries, such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Myanmar, are drawing closer to the US. By contrast, China is losing its neighboring friends while its economic power is rising.
The Chinese government views the regional tension as the outcome of Washington’s ”returning to Asia” strategy. Under this circumstance, on the one hand, China indeed needs help from Russia to avoid escalating confrontations with multiple neighboring countries; on the other hand, China’s initial move reflects that Chinese leaders lack confidence in dealing with potential regional crises alone.
Beijing and Moscow have common interests to work together. Beijing demands more oil and natural gas from Russia and needs more-advanced military weapons supplies, including submarines, warships, and aircraft. Russia wants more investment from China to speed up the development of the Russian economy.
Arguably, China does not really need military technologies from Russia. For example, the Chinese J-20 fighter is more advanced than Su-35, equivalent to Russia’s T50 and the US’s F-22. The purpose for China to purchase 24 Su-35s is not to bridge the gap between Chinese and US military power, but to show its sincerity to consolidate ties with Russia by offering economic incentives.
Will China and Russia be able to form a solid partnership? Superficially, the top leaders of the two countries can get along because their background is similar. However, their political ambition cannot be automatically translated into foreign policy. Chinese media gives much attention to the meetings between Vladimir Putin and Xi and highly praises the significance of the current Sino-Russia relations. Yet, Russian media only views China as a junior partner because it believes Xi has not come into the role of global governance. This implies that meetings between the two leaders are less than historic.
The Chinese foreign policy process is still in a dark box of a small elite group, divorced from public opinions to a certain extent. China’s quick move closer to Russia has received a lukewarm response from public opinion in China. In a historical perspective, Chinese people have reasons to doubt Moscow’s sincerity.
Russia occupied Chinese territories totaling more than 4 million square kilometers from 1689 to 1898, forced China to sign the Yalta Agreement recognizing the Outer Mongolia as an independent country in the 1940s, and stopped all financial and technological aid during the Chinese economic crisis in the 1960s. Finally, the Zhen Bao Island military conflict in Helongjiang Province broke out in 1969.
Although in 1991 Russia acknowledged the island belonged to China, tension between the two countries along the 4,000 kilometer long border remained high until Chinese military troops retreated 500 kilometers in 2008. In comparison with China-US relations, the US has never had a single territorial dispute with China, so the Chinese people have not had the similar historical complex towards the US.
Russian public opinion also does not believe China is trustworthy, in part because of the inconsistency of Chinese foreign policy. China aligned with Russia in the 1950s and with the United Sates in the 1970s, but implemented a non-aligned policy in the 1980s. The mutual distrust between the two countries partially explains why Chinese students do not enthusiastically choose to study in Russia.
In 2012, about 350,000 Chinese students went abroad, but more than 50% of them chose to go to the US. The list of other favorite destinations for Chinese students does not include Russia, but Britain, Australia, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore, and South Korea. As a result, Russian culture has little impact on Chinese society or on intellectual circles.
However, American culture is very popular in China and positively affects public opinion. The future of Sino-Russia relations will be tested by public opinion in both China and Russia. It would be difficult for the two to continue to move closer without the support of public opinion.
The restoration of friendship between Beijing and Moscow is mainly driven by their domestic pressures and regional security issues. A stable relationship between the two countries will greatly relieve the financial burdens in support of the hostility along the sizable border, allowing China to invest more in western China while continuing to develop the economy in eastern China, and deepen its relations with South Asia and Middle East countries, the so-called xi jin (China’s West) strategy.
It is worth noting that the trade volume between China and Russia is still much smaller than the trade volume between China and the US. In 2012, trade volume between Russia and China totaled US$8 billion, between China and the United States $50 billion, and between China and Japan $36 billion.
In this sense, the function of the current Sino-Russia partnership is more economic than military. The status of current Sino-Russia relations is not a full-fledged alliance, but a quasi alliance. Nor is it designed to challenge the dominant power of the US. At most, a close relationship between China and Russia could help China to get more leverage for bargaining with the US to smoothly solve its territorial disputes with neighboring countries.
China has no need to seek an alliance with Russia. The main theme of world development is peace regardless of some regional military conflicts. The US alliance is the by-product of World War II in response to Nazism. Nazi imperialism is over; the communist campus has collapsed; and non-aligned movement is dissolving. There is no evidence to suggest that World War III is coming.
In the nuclear age, the chance of conventional wars between big countries is rare. After the September 11 attacks, terrorism has become the most dangerous threat, mainly targeting the West. There is no immediate threat to China. Under these circumstances, it is not necessary for China to align with Russia.
It is groundless to predict that the two countries will forge an alliance in a decade. Even though Beijing and Moscow are on their honeymoon, in the long term they might have more potential conflicts than cooperation. Due to their historical complex and the potential for conflict, they could become rivals again. According to the Global Times, the Russian ambassador made it clear that Russia does not seek an alliance with China. If China unilaterally pursued that goal, the result would be poor.
Most likely, Chinese leaders will not distance from the US through overplaying the ”Russian card”. In order to fulfill Xi’s vision of restoring the order of post-World War II, the Chinese leader should carefully balance the triangle of relations between China and the United States and Russia. The goal of restoring the order of post-World War II is fundamentally different from the goal of challenging the US dominant power.
The new Chinese leaders have promised that China will never seek hegemony. In fact, China does not have such a capability to support such a pursuit nor will it have in many decades. Ample evidence suggests that China-US relations will continue to be at the top of China’s foreign policy.
When US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew visited Beijing in March, Xi assured him that ties with America were of great importance. Thus, the current Sino-Russia cooperation is largely symbolic, and its impact is more psychological than of substance. It is not necessary for the US to overestimate the significance of the cooperation of Beijing with Moscow.
Jinghao Zhou is Associate Professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. He is the author of three books: China’s Peaceful Rise in a Global Context: A Domestic Aspect of China’s Road Map to Democratization (Lexington Books, 2010, paperback edition, 2012), Remaking China’s Public Philosophy and Chinese Women’s Liberation: The Volatile Mixing of Confucianism, Marxism, and Feminism (Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), and Remaking China’s Public Philosophy for the Twenty-first Century (Praeger Publishers, 2003).
(Copyright 2013 Jinghao Zhou)