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Russia’s biggest danger is China, not the West

Friend or foe? Credit: Getty

April 24, 2024 - 3:15pm

As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in China today, hoping to dissuade Beijing from its support of Moscow, he seems to be forgetting one key thing: the Sino-Russian alliance is actually much weaker than it appears.

This has been made clear by none other than the Chinese themselves. One year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China’s Ministry of Natural Resources issued a directive for the reinstatement of historical Chinese names for territories it once held, including those located in neighbouring nations such as in Russia’s Far East.

For example, following this directive the city commonly known as Vladivostok will be rechristened “Haishenwai” in Chinese documents, its name for the period when it was under Chinese control which ended in 1860 with the Convention of Peking. In contemporary China, the Convention is considered part of the so-called “unequal treaties”, describing forced concessions to Western powers at a time of Chinese weakness. Revising and correcting this humiliating part of history has been a stated goal by the Chinese leadership, and while the current cooperation with Moscow might serve short-term interests, there is an expiration date to the Sino-Russian love affair marked by looming territorial conflicts.

Any realist assessment shows a genuine potential for conflict between the two nations. The threat to Russia from the West pales in comparison to the emerging geopolitical struggle for hegemony in Central Asia, as well as the increasingly unsubtle Chinese territorial claims on Siberia and Russia’s Far East. For all the friendly gestures, there is already an ongoing tug of war between Beijing and Moscow for securing the loyalty of Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Both powers are aware of the strategic value and the natural resources located in the region.

Commenting on the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, the late Henry Kissinger said that “it is a pity both sides cannot lose.” In the proxy war between the West and Russia, Beijing is about to accomplish what Kissinger viewed as impossible in the Middle East. Both sides can lose, because the Ukraine war is not only draining Western resources but also increasing Moscow’s dependency on China, leaving Vladimir Putin defenceless if Xi Jinping decides that simply renaming Russian territory is not enough. After all, if the Russian President can invoke history to justify the annexation of Ukrainian territory, why wouldn’t China be tempted to use the same playbook in Siberia and elsewhere?

There are no signs that the situation in Siberia will become less difficult in the future, with increasing waves of migration from China into Russia’s hinterland. It is not inconceivable that a de facto annexation could eventually become a de jure annexation. While the issue is currently being cautiously avoided, Russian analysts have not failed to notice that a slow colonisation is taking place to the east of the Urals. Should Beijing decide to follow Moscow’s example and distribute Chinese passports to those in Siberia deemed in need of protection, Russia would, ironically, fall victim to the very policy it has been practicing in eastern Ukraine and the Caucasus regions for several years.

These geopolitical realities defy the popular narrative of a unified Brics alliance acting as a counterweight to Nato, for both the “C” and the “R” components have a whole array of possible future conflicts between them. At the moment, cooperation between Russia and China is an alliance born out of convenience, but even Putin must know that the longer this relationship endures, the more leverage he is handing Xi.

Questioned several years ago on whether he was putting “too many eggs in the China basket”, the Russian President said that “we have enough eggs, but there are not that many baskets where these eggs can be placed.” Since then, other available baskets have dwindled while the “China basket” has only grown. Taking into account the long historical memory on which both countries base their foreign policy, there are almost no indicators pointing towards a long term — much less permanent — alignment of Russian and Chinese interests.

For the West, there is no point in appealing to Putin’s better angels and hoping that his aggression towards Ukraine will stop if he is simply begged enough. Pointing out to him, however, that the true threat to his dream of rebuilding the Russian empire comes from the East and not the West could be a more promising strategy. As demonstrated by his interview with Tucker Carlson, the Russian President is trapped in a 19th-century worldview which explains both his obsession with Ukraine and his neglect of the Far East.

In reality, though, conquering Ukraine would not be as beneficial to Russia as losing the Far East would be harmful. Far from the West being the main provocateur, it is China which has been openly pursuing a slow-motion incursion into Russian territory. Russia’s present regime is a paranoid one. Yet it seems to have underplayed the real threat on its doorstep.

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
28 days ago

In 1860 Russia was a rising expansionist power and China was a declining power, with a ruling elite whose pretensions did not match its diminished status. Their respective positions are now almost exactly reversed.

Liakoura
Liakoura
27 days ago

“After all, if the Russian President can invoke history to justify the annexation of Ukrainian territory, why wouldn’t China be tempted to use the same playbook in Siberia and elsewhere?”
Simply because Putin’s invasion of Ukraine seems to have benefited no one other than western arms manufacturers.
And very recent news from the USA seems to have confirmed that.
https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-preparing-1-bln-weapons-package-ukraine-officials-say-2024-04-23/#:~:text=WASHINGTON%2C%20April%2023%20(Reuters),officials%20told%20Reuters%20on%20Tuesday.
However if China decides to pursue a slow-motion incursion into Russian territory, it will do so in a way it has done in many of its own provinces, by inviting its entrepreneurs, who have honed their skills over thousands of years, to show how wealth can be achieved.
Just look at Xinjiang – it’s 19th out of 31 mega cities and provinces. I doubt it populace will be complaining.
https://www.google.com/search?q=Xinjiang&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

Peter B
Peter B
27 days ago

Finally a sensible and realistic article on geopolitics in UnHerd. About time.
Correctly exposes all the fantasies about some “BRICS alliance” for exactly what they are. China is in it for itself. And has no real allies. Not saying that’s good or bad – it’s simply how it is.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
27 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Agree. If in the 1970s Nixon and Kissinger allied with China to contain Russia then the 2020s equivalent would be to ally with Russia to contain China. It would be no more shocking. Perhaps a “grand bargain” with Russia could also provide an acceptable route out of the currrent Ukraine impasse.

R S Foster
R S Foster
27 days ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

Better option would be to advise the Chinese that we Will defend Taiwan…but don’t give a damn about Vladivostok…

Arthur G
Arthur G
27 days ago

The only thing that may save the Far East for Russia is China’s imploding population. Otherwise, it’s as good a s gone.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
27 days ago
Reply to  Arthur G

One can imagine Russia giving up the Far East knowing they can go south and perhaps west eventually, while China takes the east and all the Pacific. Years down the line of course, once the Western world has reached a suitable point of decline.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
27 days ago

This is ridiculous, as the author knows, aside from the hopeful power of suggestion. Cue for more of the same in the media.

William Brand
William Brand
27 days ago

Putin is an idiot. He should be joining Nato or else he will pick up a ruined province in Europe and lose the eastern 2/3 of Russia.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
27 days ago
Reply to  William Brand

He tried and was rebuffed.

Peter B
Peter B
27 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Zero chance now.
And probably zero chance in the past. There are entry criteria to be met. Not least because you need a minimum level of trust once you start sharing military technology and secrets. I don’t believe that trust ever existing with the Soviet Union/Russia since at least WWI. They were stealing from us even during WWII when officially our allies. It’s just what they do.

Martin M
Martin M
26 days ago
Reply to  William Brand

The whole point of NATO is to keep Russia in its place. If a time ever comes where Russia doesn’t need to be kept in its place (say in 200 years’ time), there will be no need for NATO.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
27 days ago

I would agree that it’s unlikely Russia and China would ever enjoy a long-lasting love match but it just may be that they’ll both be happy enough with a ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement.
I think there are two issues that will influence the nature of Russia-China relations going forward and they actually don’t involve them directly. The first is who wins the POTUS sweepstakes in November and the second is whether or not the West will finally give up the search for the Net Zero unicorn.
If Trump wins it likely mean more domestic US oil and gas production at the expense of heavily subsidized renewable schemes. It wouldn’t be surprising if he put the brakes on the Ukraine cash and arms flow and told the EU to clean up the mess in their own backyard. That would be a popular move especially if he used that money to plug the leaky southern border. If the pushback against Great Reset socialism in the West continues then Net Zero targets will likely get scrapped or simply ignored. Would that steer the Russian petro supply back to the EU market instead of backstopping Chinese energy security in a potential Taiwan showdown with the US?
Not Zero would be a big economic hit for China since they’re setting up to be the single biggest supplier of all things renewable. Also don’t forget that India is part of BRICS+T. What would a move to Not Zero affect them? Modi was looking for $1T in Western contributions to “meet targets”. What if there are no targets anymore?
I like Schoellhammer’s articles but there are too many unknowns to confidently predict that a Russia-China divorce is either imminent or even certain.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
27 days ago

Very true. Putin became Xi’s b*tch as soon as he looked for help after the blitzkrieg on Kyiv failed two years ago.

JĂŒrg Gassmann
JĂŒrg Gassmann
27 days ago

Mr Schoellhammer is absolutely correct! We are seeing a return to the future.
Just like Catherine the Great took advantage of political chaos in Germany to import farmers and entrepreneurs, so today Russia will revitalise the economies of the New Oblasts with economic refugees from the brilliant and far-sighted policies of economist savant Habeck and Scholz.
Mackinder’s dream will finally come true: A fusion of German industrial entrepreneurship and Russian raw materials and policy. If somewhat differently than Mackinder imagined.
The future looks bright.

j watson
j watson
27 days ago

I think Author knows that the US State and Defence depts fully aware of the fragility in the Russia-China dynamic and will be happy to nudge those tensions where it can.
Putin is in a hole though and has little choice but to beg Xi for assistance. It has suited Xi to a point that the West distracted by Ukraine, and more recently Israel-Gaza. But the fact these have stirred a sleeping giant, stimulating a regeneration of our defence industries and defence policies, as well as sending Western nations hurrying towards additional alliances – both in Europe and in the Far East, probably something Xi was hoping would not occur.
India will also be watching closely how China handles Russia and taking lessons. Other BRICs too. Aligning more with China comes with a significant cost will become increasingly apparent.

Michael Clarke
Michael Clarke
26 days ago

The US will pull every lever they can to force Putin out of Ukraine, not because they give a damn about Ukraine but because a defeat for the US there would have huge geopolitical repercussions. China knows that and would probably be willing to postpone any confrontation with Russia until the US has been defeated in Ukraine. Or maybe not.

Martin M
Martin M
26 days ago

That is an extremely heartening story. It has cheered me right up.