Given the way the Western media talk, one could be forgiven for thinking China’s main geopolitical rival is the United States. Sure, that bilateral relationship is now one of the world’s most important, especially considering their economic ties. But Continental United States sits out of reach thousands of kilometers over a very large, wet buffer called the Pacific Ocean.
What really keeps central planners in Beijing talking and worrying at night is Russia. China’s geostrategic calculation, as with any nation sharing a landmass with rival powers, is to ensure its own safety from any country able to simply drive tanks or march troops over a connecting border.
To be clear, China and Russia are not coming to blows, nor are they in any hurry to quarrel. There are far easier and richer spoils to be gained through cooperation than antagonism.
A Moscow-Beijing alliance stretches back decades. Chinese leaders from Jang Zemin to Hu Jintao and now Xi Jinping each shepherded their own agreements with Russia concerning contentious border and land issues. As even a modicum of recent news consumption might reveal, China isn’t easily deterred from border disputes with neighboring nations, so a largely amicable cooperation over this issue in the last fifty years is somewhat remarkable.
Moscow and Beijing generally see eye-to-eye with international politics, agreeing on contentious issues ranging from Libya, Syria, Iran to human rights, press freedoms, and arms control.
China is also the hungry recipient of Russian natural gas and oil. Russian pipelines to Europe are not under any real threat, either politically or militarily, so Kremlin-controlled energy companies don’t have to worry about short-term sales. But dozens of booming Asian countries present Russia with a whole new market to gather more obscenely high cash flows.
However, some intriguing splinters in the old alliance have formed over the past few months. Not only is the Chinese push for greater dominance of the Asia-Pacific region conflicting with Russia’s own plans for this part of the world, the events in Ukraine have teased out a particularly ironic fracture, right down at the core of the relationship.
No matter how friendly a partnership, there is always a worry one of the partners might become stronger. It may only be a feeling easily suppressed on most occasions, but it always pays to be vigilant, especially between nations sharing borders.
This particular concern of relative strength is gripping Russia. Russia is simply not happy about China being the world’s number two power. That is a mantle reserved for a superpower, but it has been a long time since Russia could claim that title and China is not quite there yet. No matter which way it’s cut, China is further along that route today than Russia can claim to be.
That might not be so bad if China’s rise wasn’t due in part to Russian technology advances. A large portion of China’s power and ability today comes straight to China, ironically, courtesy of the Russian military factories, via Former Soviet Union states.
For years China gambled on forging a direct strategic relationship with Ukraine because it knew it could never get access to high-end Russian military equipment from Moscow. Not that it could do a lot of good (nor did it in the end), but in return China would offer Ukraine a “nuclear umbrella” against invasion, seeing as Ukraine relinquished its own nuclear weapons after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The China-Ukraine relationship netted China hundreds of working Russian Sukhoi 27 fourth-generation fighter aircraft, which the People’s Liberation Army promptly cloned into a Chinese version called the J-10 and J-11 fighters. China also purchased its flagship aircraft carrier from Ukraine as well as multiple Zubr-class hovercraft which it used in recent military exercises simulating invasions of small islets and islands.
China has also been keenly purchasing fertile agricultural land in Ukraine. A controversial land privatisation scheme, which many in Ukraine suspect is actually a sell-off, has been high on China’s state-owned farming organisation’s list of things to do.
Unfortunately for these exploits, the recent Russian intervention in Ukraine turned Beijing’s gamble into a bit of a debacle. Any hopes China might have to create a competitive triangulation between the three nations is now very unlikely. Russia considers Ukraine to be firmly under its, not China’s, regional influence and nuclear umbrella.
Unfortunately for China, it may not only have lost a bond with Ukraine, it could have severely damaged its relationship with Russia. China cannot do anything about the situation in Ukraine. Beijing fails if it denounces the interim government in Ukraine just as much as if Beijing endorses it. Lucrative contracts could disappear or it could anger its “strategic partner” Russia even more. Neither option is desirable.
China is now facing a lose-lose situation of its own making as the Ukraine situation heats up. If China backs any Russian move into greater Ukraine, it can forget fulfilling its economic goals in the country no matter who controls it. But if Beijing doesn’t get behind a Russian move, then the arguably more important Moscow-Beijing relationship could be scuttled indefinitely.
One wonders how the central planners in Beijing sleep at night as China is once again pushed into international irrelevancy and beaten at the game of geopolitical intrigue by an admittedly far more experienced player.