Russia China Relations: From Strategic Partnership to Regional Rivalry? (Part 3)

Scenario II: Sinification and Russia’s Far East

 The Chinese-Russian border has long been an area for concern between the two countries. The Cold War has witnessed border conflicts between China and the Soviet Union, including military build-up alongside the border and multiple frontier incidents (Hsu and Soong, 2014, p.72). But in 2008 a big effort was made to reduce future tensions by signing a joint agreement on the demarcation of their common border, ending the long-standing disputes (Hsu and Soong, 2014, p.77).

This agreement is exceptional not only because it eliminated the source for tensions which has strained the two countries’ relationship for a long time but also because it is uncommon for great powers. Furthermore, given the long list of unresolved border disputes China has with its neighbours and the still ongoing border conflict between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands, this agreement between China and Russia is even more noteworthy.

Nevertheless, there are still areas of concern regarding the common border and the bordering areas. Those concerns are based on the demographic and economic differences between Russia’s Far East on the one side and the Chinese province

of Heilongjiang on the other side. The Russian Far East is not densely populated, with only about seven million people living there, while the Chinese province of Heilongjiang has a population of 38 million. Additionally, while holding huge reserves of gas and oil, the Russian Far East is one of the poorest regions in Russia (Mankoff, 2009, p.223). The region has seen an increased influx of Chinese migrants and investment in recent years. While the region is underdeveloped and would need additional workers and capital, it also fuels xenophobic and nationalistic tendencies. Even though Russians view of China is in general positive (Bruce Stokes, August 5, 2015), Russian politicians and media voiced concerns and warned of a Sinification and a possible Chinese challenge to the Russia’s territorial integrity (Kathrin Hille, June 25, 2015). A poll from 2007 found that 62% of Russians believed that Chinese firms and workers in the Far East pose a danger to Russia (Mankoff, 2009, p.222). This view is shared not only by many ordinary people but also by Russian elites. To address these concerns a ministry for the development of the Far East was introduced in 2012 (Anatoly Medetsky, May 22, 2012).

Whether these fears of Sinification are justified is hard to predict, but an increased number of Chinese firms and workers involved in the region will nonetheless expand China’s „sphere of influence“. Even without directly challenging the Russian territorial integrity, China would have enough leverage in the region to exercise influence when its interests are at stake. In a worst case scenario, Russian authorities would fail to address the fears of its ethnic population appropriately, which could lead to increased repressions for Chinese firms, investors and workers. In the event that these xenophobic resentments would turn violent, China could be pressured by domestic nationalistic tendencies to protect ethnic Chinese people in Russia. China could also deliberately use this pretext to secure its interests in the Russian Far East, arguing that big parts of the Far East are historically part of China, that these parts where unlawfully incorporated by Russia after the „unequal treaties“ and that China has the right and the obligation to protect ethnic Chinese (Eder, 2014, p.31). Somewhat ironically, this argumentation would starkly resemble the Russian legitimation for the annexation of Crimea (President of Russia, March 18, 2014).

Fu Ying (2016) argues that the progress in Chinese-Russian relations experienced over the last two decades is going to continue. While she acknowledges that there still exist some differences between the two countries, she contends that those differences have a good chance to be managed without producing any fallout. This article did not seek to dismiss this possibility but rather to demonstrate that there exist other possibilities of how the Chinese-Russian relationship could develop in the decades to come. The argument presented in this article was based on the realist school of International Relations theory’s notion that states balance against power (and threat). Hence, the first part of this article sought to determine the distribution of power between China and Russia by analysing both countries’ latent and military capabilities.

The findings show that China has overtaken Russia both in terms of economic and demographic capabilities as well as with regard to military capabilities. The differences in power are most pronounced when it comes to economic indicators; however, the gap in military capabilities is going to increase as well. After comparing both countries’ capabilities, this article proceeded with identifying areas of potential tensions and introduced possible conflict scenarios. The first scenario dealt with Central Asia, a region where both states are highly involved but have conflicting interests in the long-run. Developments in Central Asia, as depicted above, could trigger conflict between China and Russia.

Scenario two argued that the increase in Chinese firms and workers engaged in Russia’s Far East could lead to tensions if combined with xenophobic and nationalistic tendencies in Russia and China. Altogether, the short-term chances for conflict between China and Russia are low, but will increase. Even if Fu dismisses the notion that China and Russia will begin to drift apart, she acknowledges that earlier attempts to form a partnership „proved short-lived, as each amounted to nothing more than an expediency be-tween countries of unequal strength“ (Fu Ying, 2016, p.97). Nevertheless, she fails to realize that the current relationship between China and Russia is not so different from previous attempts: a pragmatic rapprochement on the basis of overlapping security and economic interests, with the biggest difference being that China now is the stronger part of this expediency between countries of unequal strength.

Title picture source:,_BRICS_summit_2015_01.jpg



Alexander Gabuev (August 6, 2015), ‘Post-Soviet States Jostle For Role in One Belt One Road Initiative’, Carnegie Moscow Center.
URL: tle-for-role-in-one-belt-one-road-initiative/

Anatoly Medetsky (May 22, 2012), ‘New Cabinet Has Familiar Cast of Characters’, The Moscow Times.

Bellacqua, J., ed. (2010), The Future of China-Russia Relations, Asia in the new millennium, University Press of Kentucky.

Bruce Stokes (August 5, 2015), ‘Russia, Putin Held in Low Regard around the World’.

Eder, T. S. (2014), China-Russia Relations in Central Asia, Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden.

Edwina Gibbs and Michael Perry (March 9, 2014), ‘China’s Xi urges political solution to Ukraine crisis’.

Fu Ying (2016), ‘How China Sees Russia: Beijing and Moscow Are Close, but Not Allies’, Foreign Affairs 95(1), 96–105.

Hsu, J.-Y. and Soong, J.-J. (2014), ‘Development of China-Russia Relations (1949-2011)’, Chinese Economy 47(3), 70–87.

International Crisis Group (2002), ‘ICG Asia Report Nr.33: CENTRAL ASIA: BORDER DISPUTES AND CONFLICT POTENTIAL’.
URL: al.aspx

Kathrin Hille (June 25, 2015), ‘Outcry in Russia over China land lease’, Financial Times.
URL: 5-8201-cbdb03d71480.html

Li, C., Wang, J. and Whalley, J. (2014), China’s Regional and Bilateral Trade Agree-ments, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA.