President Vladimir Putin of Russia recently made an interesting observation on his country’s growing diplomatic and military ties with China. At the Moscow-based Valdai Club meeting in October 2020, he suggested that it was possible to conceive of a military alliance with China. “It is possible to imagine anything,” Putin averred, in response to a question. “We have not set that goal [of military pact], but in principle, we are not going to rule it out, either.”
Whatever Putin meant by his reference to a possible military pact with China – a signal undoubtedly aimed atNATO and the United States – it is easy to fall into the trap of exaggerating what some fear as the emerging Sino-Russian ‘axis’ in world politics. For despite the growing congruence of both countries’ interests in undermining the U.S.-led international order, Russo-Chinese relations remain at core as brittle and prone to mutual suspicion and distrust as they have in the past.
It is, after all, just over 50 years ago since the two Eurasian giants nearly stumbled into a cataclysmic nuclear war following a series of unprovoked Chinese attacks on Soviet troops garrisoned along the then-contested river boundaries in Russia’s Far East. Although Moscow stayed its hand from an all-out military assault on China, the border clashes of 1969 continue to rankle historical memories and military thinking in Russia to this day.
Such territorial jostling as the 1969 border clashes and mutual enmities, in fact, have defined Russo-Chinese relations historically, and will continue to do so in the future.
And therein lies the existential rub, especially for Russia: from a Russian strategic planner’s perspective, a China with nearly a billion-and-half people not only dwarfs Mother Russia in population, national power and economic might, but, more worryingly, has become a near military equal prone to intimidate and throw its weight against neighbouring countries at will.
Witness, for instance, Beijing’s brazen conquest of the South China Sea, the unrelenting pushing and probing into Vietnamese, Philippine and Japanese maritime spaces, and, in the west, to the currently ongoing incursions, stand-offs and aggressive territorial claims against India’s northern Himalaya regions.
None of these acts of Chinese belligerence will have escaped the notice of Russian planners who, despite the paradox of Russia’s shared strategic interests with China to counter America’s power and influence in world affairs, are nonetheless bound to view China’s rapid and inexorable rise into the front rank of global powers with acute consternation.
Yet, despite any apprehensions that Moscow may quietly harbour, Russo-Chinese relations in the short term, however, are likely to remain in harmony, mainly because Putin’s carefully tended relationship withChinese President Xi Jinping enables him, among other things, to maintain the pretense of Russia as a great power, attract Chinese investment and, more generally, project an image of himself as a world-class statesman.
And Xi, although leading an immeasurably more powerful country than Russia except in offensive nuclear firepower, tactfully grants Putin the appearance and status of an equal through elaborately choreographed summit meetings, the bestowing of high-level state and friendship awards, and personal respect, in order to secure at least tacit deference by Moscow to a Sino-centric Eurasian geopolitical order currently beingplanned in Beijing.
But, beyond the apparent bonhomie and geopolitical dalliance between Xi and Putin, the historic and atavistic tensions deeply rooted between the Russian Slavic and Chinese Han civilizations are bound to emerge again, and most probably in violent form, in this decade.
In fact, signs already abound of Russian nervousness as China relentlessly pushes its ‘silk-road’ initiatives,coercive trade practices and diplomatic blandishments deep into the entire former Soviet geopolitical space in Central Asia. Although the Chinese have so far refrained from asserting military-strategic rights along Russia’s southern borders, it can only be a matter of time before some hyper nationalist politician in Beijing does so, and Moscow, in that event, can be relied upon to react with unrestrained fury.
But what will eventually drive Russia to a defensive war with China, the casus belli, is the growing probability of Chinese territorial encroachment into Russia’s sparsely populated Far Eastern regions bordering the Pacific.
The Russian territories north of the Amur and east of the Ussuri rivers in Russia’s southern Siberian regions, which currently demarcate the agreed boundaries between the two countries, are lands historically and insistently claimed by China. Chinese military maps even show these areas as Chinese territories.
These territorial claims, combined with sheer population disparities and the need to secure long-term access to living space and natural resources, will likely compel Beijing to sooner or later demand revisions to what it calls “unequal” borders treaties with Russia dating back to mid-19th century. And although the Russians will undoubtedly resist, it is not inconceivable that the Chinese army at some point will simply march the short distance across from China’s north-eastern borders into Vladivostok, Russia’s only warm water access to the Pacific, to stamp China’s historic claim and rights to the entire region.
It is not clear at this juncture how Russia and China can step back from a violent conflict in this decade. But as China appears unlikely to relinquish its expansive territorial claims against all its neighbours, includingRussia, the onus for deterring China from seizing Russian territories will fall upon Putin, or his successors, in the coming years. But whether China can be deterred as its geostrategic ambitions grow unabated across Eurasia remains an open question. If the current Xi-Putin bromance fails to tamp down Chinese expansionism, expect a war between the two nuclear armed states in the 2020s.
An earlier version of this article was published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, in Israel, in July 2019.
The writer is a consultant on defence and international security in London, U.K.