China’s long game with Russia

Associated Press

The alliance between Russia and China is a major concern to the countries trying to support Ukraine.  President Biden tried to break that bond in a two-hour call with Chinese President Xi Jinping but without success. The Europeans also tried, but China’s response did not change.  

Xi quoted a Chinese aphorism to Biden that echoed the Russian view that NATO caused the problem: “Let he who tied the bell on the tiger’s neck take it off.” That answer also implies that China has no real interest in this conflict, but it doesn’t explain China’s perception of the situation. A Eurocentric analysis of Russia’s war in Ukraine focuses on the European history, the domination of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union and the possibility that this conflict will trigger a NATO confrontation with Russia.

China’s perspective is, by virtue of both history and geography, different. China, while rich in terms of productive capacity, is resource poor. It needs access to raw materials, industrial minerals and hydrocarbons. For the past decade, China has made expensive investments in the Indo-Pacific, Africa and South America. The prospect of having ready access to a treasure trove of minerals and hydro-carbons closer to home – in Russia’s Far East (RFE) – must be a temptation for Beijing . The RFE is that part of Siberia east of Lake Baikal all the way to Russia’s east coast. This underdeveloped region is rich in oil, natural gas, timber and valuable minerals, such as copper, diamonds, lead, zinc, bauxite, nickel, tin, mercury, gold and silver.

Russia has been unable to develop the region, but not for lack of trying. In 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to invest billions in the RFE. In an effort to populate the area, he offered free land to those who would move there. Nonetheless, the region’s population fell by more than 100,000 between 2012 and 2018. A survey of the region by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center found that 48 percent of the residents there want to leave the region.

Developing the riches of Russia’s Far East is a daunting challenge. The infrastructure is deficient. The winters are harsh. The tundra does not easily support roads. And it appears that Russians don’t want to move there. 

That may not be the case for China. The three Chinese provinces that border the RFE have a combined population over 109 million people. The total Russian population of the Far East Federal District is just over 6 million. Thus, the RFE offers both an abundant supply of industrial inputs and an outlet for demographic pressures.

For now, most observers are focused on the fact that Russia sees China as a lifeline against sanctions. They note that China’s primary incentive is to undermine the U.S.-led “liberal world order.”

While that may be true, it is clear to the Chinese that Russia is in deep trouble, which appears to tempt Chinese businesses. The South China Morning Post reports that many small Chinese firms are seeking ways to fill the “void” left by the exodus of western firms.

Russian banks have begun using UnionPay, a Chinese company, to issue credit cards to replace Visa and Mastercard, which pulled out of Russia. Russian banks are also turning to the Chinese International Payment System to replace the SWIFT interbank settlement system used by most Western Banks.

It is also quite possible that the Chinese are nurturing a longer-term opportunity by staying close to the Russians through this crisis. The Chinese fully understand that when Putin’s war in Ukraine is over, Russia will be weakened, isolated and desperate. At that point, Putin could be motivated to lease or even sell large parts of the RFE to China.  

Indeed, China once claimed large tracts of land in what is now the Russian Far East. Russia took the southeast corner of Siberia through the Amur Annexation in 1858. A military conflict broke out in March 1969 that included clashes over Zhenbao Island in Heilongjiang Province and on the border between China’s far western province of Xinjiang and the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. These incidents led to fears of nuclear war between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China.

Given China’s view that it is entitled to all of the territory, both land and sea, that it once controlled, Xi may not feel the need to pay for access to these territories. He could go so far as to demand that Russia cede control of parts of this region to China. It remains to be seen whether, when this war is over, China will be there to prop up Putin or to pick Russia’s bones.

Richard Holwill is a former U.S. ambassador to Ecuador and the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs’ ambassador in residence.

Tags Biden China China China-Russia relations Joe Biden NATO russia Russia Russia-China relations Russia-Ukraine war russian invasion of ukraine ukraine Ukraine US-China relations Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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