Updated: Feb 8
Image credits: the economist
There’s a strange geopolitical alliance case between the Russians and the Chinese. This strange case is not new, it goes back to the times of the Czarist Regime in Russia and the Qing Dynasty in China. The border conflict between the two has been going on since then and has proved to be a lethal combination of local and international consequences.
The most important resource that separates these two goliath nations are the land and mineral wealth of the far east region. Playing along with this is the local tribe and community of the far east. Demographics play a large part in the region as well. With a scarcely populated Russian region and the densely populated Chinese region of the east, we are going to see seismic changes in the region in the upcoming decades. This frenemy alliance case between Russia and China is about authority, control, resource, power, geopolitics, economics, and the new world order.
The Russians and the Chinese may look like two big allies, but they have more differences and things to worry about than to cheer about each other. Since the Soviet Union times, there has been a sense of suspicion, power struggle and global authority conflict between the two. Now when the Dragon is breathing fire and the Ice is melting, it is giving the bear a new place to reign from - the Arctic. It is this geopolitical shift in the region that will define 21st century Russia and China’s future. We examine the strange alliance of the frenemies in today’s piece.
WHO IS THE BIGGER BROTHER
Playing the role of the younger brother - the Chinese, came up slowly during the time of the Cold War. After taking the technological know-how, political support, diplomatic positions and economic support from the Soviets, the Chinese started their nation-building race. This support of the Soviets was much needed and of great importance ideologically and geopolitically for the Chinese. In their budding years, the Chinese needed a powerful elder brother to feed them in a time of great struggle. Hence, the Soviets proved to be a pillar for the Chinese. But this very relation was surrounded by conflicts when the Chinese backfired at the Soviets due to Mao’s hyper-nationalism. This was the very nationalist behaviour of having control of the region, especially the border region of Zhenbao Islands and eastern areas.
Mao was clear that the Soviets had taken over the region which belonged to the Chinese. This resulted in a limited conflict and heavy strain on the relations. Leading to the SINO-US Rapprochement, although the US and China remained limited partners. The relation between the Soviet and the Chinese never came back from the point of suspicion. From elder brother USSR now the Chinese were looking for becoming the elders themselves. This is the reason why the Chinese started to open up as they saw that the 'elder' brother was now an 'old' brother.
Chinese began the transition from completely closed China to phase by phase opening, starting in the 1970s after SINO-US Rapprochement. Chinese began to implement their own model of state-backed capitalism. This model led to a boom in Chinese economic credentials and made China what it is today - An Economic Powerhouse. This powerhouse has made China - the Elder. China today has immense economic weight in the entire world and is the top trading partner for almost all the nations in the world, even the Russians. Giving the enormous Chinese command and control in the arena of economics, diplomacy, politics, and culture, China has not been shy in making it clear that it will use its economic domination to trap and overpower nations for its own advantage. China is now concentrating on its naval and military advancement to keep its authority in the South China Sea and the upcoming challenge in face of the USA and the Arctic.
Space is another area where China is gaining the Elder status. Mars and the Moon are two areas along with space military technology where China has recently launched missions like Tianwen-1 and Chang’e, respectively. These missions have led to the new space race and recreated anxieties in the West and Russia about space domination. Russia’s downgrading relations with the West has led to it getting into China’s orbit, but Russia still remains a level up in Space technology and know-how. China, with its economic power, is a win-lose partner for the Russians. Win in the case of investment and mission pace, and loss in the case of technology and gaining the upper hand in future. This race of the Elder brother is right now in the hands of China and for the foreseeable future, China's world prowess remains absolute. There’s no doubt that Russia is the junior partner in this strange alliance.
THE GAME OF THRONES IN THE FAR EAST - LINK TO THE ARCTIC
Ask me Vladimir Putin’s greatest fear and I will tell you to look at the Far East rather than at Alexei Navalny or the USA. Putin very well knows that the Chinese are an upcoming expansionist threat in the Far East region and he is gearing up, but numbers are not in Russia’s favour. The Far East is demographically a disaster in making for the Russians as the Chinese are beginning to increase their ethnic Han presence in the region. Many Chinese are migrating to the Far East. This is raising alarm bells in the Kremlin. Russians don’t have any population leverage against the Chinese. The numbers are with the Chinese.
The Far East is enormous in area and importance. When it comes to the area - Russia’s 6.2 million square miles land mass is in the Far East. The geopolitical importance is of the administrative capital, Vladivostok, which the Chinese have their eyes on for further Arctic Circle control. The mineral wealth of the Far East is as follows - extracts 98% of Russian diamonds, 80% of stannary, 90% of borax materials, 50% of gold, 14% of tungsten, and 40% of fish and seafood. About 1/3rd of all coal reserves and hydro-engineering resources of the country are here. This explains the importance and value of the Far East. For the Chinese, it is not only economically driven to take over the Far East someday, but emotionally and geopolitically.
The Chinese want to control and gain uninterrupted access to the Arctic Circle. This Circle is going to be important for their trade supply routes in the near future with Europe. The Arctic Circle is also filled with mineral wealth which the Dragon has its eyes on. This is a bone of contention between the two powers. While the common Western threat brings them together, suspicions like the Far East and the Arctic Circle draw them back to square one. Dragon has other ambitions too, the Belt and Order and the Sister City agreements are giving it infrastructural and cultural leverage to systematically change the Far East region and get it in its Orbit. The Chinese want to bring the Far East phase by phase and by soft means for now rather than the hard means. The Far East will be China's Arctic doorway in the future.
HARD POWER, ECONOMIC AND DIPLOMATIC POWER IMBALANCE
As of now, the Russians clearly score more in the Military-technological and Hard power numbers against the Chinese. The Dragon needs the Russian Military might and know-how to project its Military-technological superiority; from the Sukhoi to the S-400 and many other military pieces of equipment. The Russians have supplied the Chinese and helped them in gaining substantial Hard power. This same help is now backlashing. The Russians are being hacked and their military technology is being stolen by the Chinese. China is reengineering these pieces of equipment and using them.
The Chinese are catching up real fast and this is a worrisome condition for the Russians. The Russian Nuclear Arsenal and capabilities far exceed that of the Chinese which the Chinese are very well aware of and are building up their capabilities in the nuclear arena. The Chinese still need the Russians to counter the Western Alliance in these fields and hence, the Russians are the elder partners for some time in this area. It is the economic imbalance that has kept the Kremlin in tight hands.
More than 15.5% of Russia’s trade happens with the Chinese which gives China an enormous say in Russian economic matters. This is a great imbalance and in the world where economics drives everything, Russia is losing. Since the sanctions in 2014 on the Russians, they have moved more towards the East and especially towards the Chinese. This has led to many concessions being given to China for economic favours like diplomatic and military favours, giving the Chinese a sizable say in the Far East too. In the case of diplomacy and political say in the world, China has got an added weight with the Russians on its side due to the common apprehension against the West.
China has got recognition with its economic success too and to this Russia adds with its permanent seat in the UNSC. This gives the Chinese a power partner in the diplomatic front and double diplomatic and political say to change the current world order and the rules-based system. Something on which both the nations agree upon.
WAY FORWARD FOR THE FRENEMIES
Even after having many differences among each other, it is the political and diplomatic arena in which both agree upon the need to counter the West and change the system dominated by the post-war era and this could only happen when both the nations leave aside their differences and come together.
The Russians will remain suspicious of the Chinese and vice versa, but won’t stop them from moving forward with their agenda of changing the order. On the other hand, as the Americans and the Western Alliances get more and more apprehensive and the relations deteriorate, even more, the Russians and the Chinese will only come closer and be stronger together in their commitments to partnership-based diplomacy and will also exert their political influence together.
We won’t see any formal alliance as both will have major concerns and differences, but the combined military and economic power of the two nations will prove to be effective if executed with the proper mechanism.
BY HARSH SURI
CO-FOUNDER THE GEOSTRATA