The emerging Sino-Russian entente has rightly received a great deal of attention, but observers have missed the limitations to this entente and the first signs of problems to come. The entente is rooted in the aggressive foreign policy turn both countries took in the late 2000s. Watching the global financial crisis in 2008, Beijing decided that American decline had begun and it could abandon its mantra of “peaceful rise” and pursue its imperial designs in the South and East China Seas. China began to claim those waters by building artificial islands impinging on the rights of its neighbors and ignoring international law—a policy bound to challenge Washington. Perhaps a few years earlier, certainly by the time of the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Moscow set out on an explicitly revisionist policy course designed to assert its “right” to a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space despite its written commitment to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors in documents such as the Helsinki Act, the Paris Charter, the Belovezha Accords, and bilateral treaties with Ukraine. The consequences of this turn include Kremlin wars against Georgia and Ukraine. For Russian president Vladimir Putin, one attraction of this policy was the challenge to U.S. policy. This is the basis for the increasing cooperation between Russia and China.
China and Russia view the United States as a spoilsport. They chafe at the impediments to their imperial plans coming from the system of international law and institutions created by the United States and its partners over the past seventy-five years. The budding entente is facilitated by the peculiarity that the Kremlin, so ready to identify slights from Washington, is willing to accept junior partner status in its relationship with Beijing. Russian-Chinese cooperation is evident in various bilateral military and economic agreements, including coordination of positions at the UN, often in opposition to the United States, and joint work in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) bloc, the G20, and elsewhere. The Chinese-Russian temporary alignment of interests is unlikely to overcome the fundamentals of geopolitics. Centuries of contentious relations between China and Russia validate the truism that large, powerful neighbors are usually rivals. No one can predict when this bilateral relationship will return to its historical norm, but we can identify the issues likely to produce that result.
The places to watch are the Chinese-Russian border and Central Asia; at stake, are territorial control and projection of influence. Tensions are likely to result from overreach by China. The rupture will come when the Kremlin recognizes that China is a greater challenge to its strategic interests than the United States and its allies, who simply want Moscow to cease its aggression. Indeed, that security order will afford Moscow a measure of protection from Beijing’s designs. The world is already witnessing the first signs of renewed Chinese restiveness regarding the border between the two countries. From the Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) to the Convention of Peking (also known as the Treaty of Beijing),  the border between the two countries had been adjusted in Russia’s favor by what China has referred to as “unequal treaties.”
In theory, the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness (2001) and Friendly Cooperation resolved lingering Chinese resentment about the border as Russia ceded 340 square kilometers of territory and China dropped all additional claims. Yet China just gave the Kremlin reason to think that this issue is still live. Earlier this summer, the Russia Embassy in Beijing posted a statement celebrating the 160-year anniversary of the founding of Vladivostok. This prompted a response on state-owned China Global Television Network that Vladivostok sits on land ceded by the “unequal Treaty of Beijing” and that Haishenwai was the Chinese city replaced by Vladivostok. A Chinese diplomat at the Embassy in Islamabad made the same points on social media.
This is all low key, but China meticulously advances its claims with references to history and, also, with little fanfare at first. The Chinese invented the long game. They will try to partner with Moscow against Washington, and when that is no longer necessary, they will raise the profile of their territorial claims in the Russian Far East. Thus far the Russians have not reacted, but this is certainly on their radar screen.
Economic competition is also likely to be a friction point. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) poses a threat to Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), but so far the two powers have managed to deconflict their respective projects. This is true partly because Beijing has publicly accepted Moscow’s lead in dealing with security issues in Central Asia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Moscow has not objected to Chinese economic inroads in the region, even though in the long run, the BRI will undercut the EEU. Here, too, it is worth recalling that Moscow’s war against Ukraine was the result of a crisis which began when Moscow sought to block a trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU.
But more striking are Beijing’s two recent steps designed to enhance its position in Central Asia. Like the border issue with Russia, these are low-profile moves designed to establish a position to be developed later. Last month Chinese historian Chol Yao Lu wrote an article called “Tajikistan initiated the transfer to China of its land and the lost mountains of Pamir were returned to their true master.” The article claims that the Pamirs belonged to China until the unequal treaties of the nineteenth century that Great Britain and Russia imposed on China led to their loss. China only recovered a portion of this loss in its 2010 border agreement with Tajikistan, the article points out. The Tajiks have demanded that the Chinese government renounce the article to no avail. While there has been no public reaction from Moscow, Russian media have criticized the article as foreshadowing future Chinese demands for border changes. Needless to say, control of the Pamirs would greatly enhance Beijing’s capacity to project power into Central Asia, threatening Moscow’s role, still publicly acknowledged by China, as the principal security actor in Central Asia.
In April, Kazakhstan was the object of China’s “news article diplomacy.” An article appeared on the prominent Chinese website Sohu.com with the provocative title “Why Kazakhstan is eager to return to China.” The article claimed that the territory of Kazakhstan has historically been under Chinese control and that the leaders of many tribes there had pledged allegiance to China. Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry formally protested the article with China’s ambassador, and the Chinese foreign ministry responded that the article does not reflect the position of the government. This slighting of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty was quite minor compared with Putin’s 2014 description of Kazakhstan as an artificial creation, but it was part of a pattern establishing markers for the future.
None of this means that a Russian-Chinese break is imminent, but Beijing is taking small steps now that it will build on to advance its interests against Russia when the time comes.
John E. Herbst is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan. He tweets @johnedherbst.
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