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China-Russia Relations

The end of the long-held animosity between Moscow and Beijing was marked by the visit to China by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989. After the 1991 demise of the Soviet Union, China’s relations with the Russian Federati on and the former states of the Soviet Union became more amicable. A new round of bilateral agreements was signed during reciprocal head of state visits. As in the early 1950s with the Soviet Union, Russia has again become an important source of military matériel for China, as well as for raw materials and trade. Friendly relations with Russia have been an important advantage for China, offsetting its often uneasy relations with the United States.

Russia's foreign policy toward China generally has had two goals: to preserve a counterweight against United States influence in the Pacific and to prevent Chinese regional hegemony and a Sino-Japanese alliance that could exclude Russia. This balancing act appeared in Russia's 1993 foreign policy concept in its call for weighing the benefits of increased Russian arms sales to China against the danger of re-creating a Cold War arms race in which the respective proxies would be Taiwan and China. Accordingly, the concept endorsed neighborly and substantive relations with China while ensuring that "third countries," such as the United States or Japan, would not be able to use China as an ally against Russia.

In the early 1990s, relations got a boost from China's interest in renewed weapons imports from Russia and other forms of military cooperation. In 1992 an exchange of visits by high defense officials established defense ties and included the signing of a major arms technology agreement with a reported value of US$1.8 billion. In 1993 another series of defense exchange visits yielded a five-year defense cooperation agreement. A strategic partnership, signed in early 1996, significantly strengthened ties.

In December 1992, Yeltsin went to China and signed a nonaggression declaration that theoretically ended what each called the other's search for regional hegemony in Asia. Another treaty included Russian aid in building a nuclear power plant, the first such provision since Sino-Soviet relations cooled in the late 1950s. Chinese party chairman Jiang Zemin visited Moscow in September 1994 and concluded a protocol that resolved some border disputes and generally strengthened bilateral ties. During Yeltsin's visit to China in April 1996, both sides described their relationship as evolving into a "strategic partnership," which included substantially increased arms sales. At the April meeting, new agreements made progress toward delineating and demilitarizing the two countries' 3,645 kilometers of common border. Although border security and illegal Chinese immigration into the Russian Far East were controversial issues for Russian regional officials, Yeltsin demanded regional compliance with the agreements. Russia respected China's claim that Taiwan is part of its territory, although Russia's trade with Taiwan increased to nearly US$3 billion in 1995 and Russia planned to open trade offices on the island in 1996.

In 1994-96 China emerged as a major market for Russian arms, having bought several dozen Su-27 fighter aircraft and several Kilo-class attack submarines. Russia also had a positive trade balance in the sale of raw materials, metals, and machinery to China. A series of high-level state visits occurred in 1994 and 1995. Both countries pursued closer ties, in each case partly to counterbalance their cooling relations with the United States. In March 1996, Russia announced that it would grant China a loan of US$2 billion to supply Russian nuclear reactors for power generation in northeast China, and further cooperation was proposed in uranium mining and processing, fusion research, and nuclear arms dismantlement.

China and Russia's joint perception of shared external threats drove warming relations. These threats include concerns that the they overtly sought to counter: terrorism, separatism and extremism. Russia actually perceives an expanding NATO as its primary external threat, and sought to use closer ties with China as a counterweight. China in turn sought to use this to counter U.S. military cooperation with Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia. Sino-Russian cooperation in slowing down the push for additional sanctions against Iran was an example of a joint Chinese-Russian desire to counter the United States.

It is no coincidence that Dmitri Medvedev chose China [and Kazakhstan] for his first trip abroad as Russian president in May 2008. During the past eight years, Russia-China trade increased seven-fold, reaching $48-billion last year. The balance of trade is very much in China's favor. Russia basically exports oil and timber and precious metals to China. Russia supplies natural resources for Chinese industry, while China exports consumer goods and also increasingly industrial equipment, manufacturing goods. It's a very, very unequal relationship. And the Russians are not very happy with the fact that they seem to be almost, what they fear to be a raw materials appendage to the growing Chinese economy. The relationship in trade terms is almost acquiring a neo-colonial tinge to it.

By 2008, with the two countries' "strategic partnership" a decade old, China and Russia regularly emphasized the positive in relations between the two countries. Premier Wen Jiabao during his 05 November 2008 visit to Moscow declared that Sino-Russian ties are at their "best in history." Wen was celebrating the closing of the "Year of China" in Russia, which followed 2006's "Year of Russia" in China.

From the early 1990s until 2006, Moscow was Beijing's leading weapons supplier, averaging one-to-two billion dollars a year in sales. Top items included the Sukhoi SU-27 jet fighter, "Kilo" class submarines, missiles and destroyers. But analysts say that after 2006, arms sales had dropped. In 1992, China bought Russia's Su-27 fighter jets. Fifteen years later, Beijing unveiled J-11B aircraft which Moscow labeled as a copycat version of Su-27. Russia also accused China of producing cloned versions of Su-33 fighter jet, S-300 air defense system, the Smerch multiple rocket launcher and the Msta self-propelled howitzer in violation of intellectual property agreements.

What the Chinese had been essentially doing was reverse-engineering the Russian aircraft and destroyers, and they've stopped buying them now. And Russia is concerned that basically China has stolen the copies and now are going to put them in production and not buy Russian equipment. So after 2005, arms sales were stagnant. Russia was worried that that they had essentially sold out all of their know-how and technological expertise to China, and China had essentially committed copyright infringement and was building their own.

PRC military buyers have largely replaced Russian-made goods with domestically produced equipment due to rapid increases in quality in the Chinese arms. By 2008 the PLA was so impressed with the quality of Chinese-made arms that they no longer viewed Russian arms as important to their military procurement. In fact, the PLA was increasingly complaining about the quality of Russian-made arms China had previously purchased.

China and Russia shared common goals of limiting U.S. influence in Central Asia, maintaining political stability in the region and avoiding another color revolution like in Ukraine or Georgia. While China and Russia enjoyed political and security cooperation in Central Asia, the two countries competed economically in the region, particularly on energy issues. China was very interested in multilateral economic cooperation on cross-border infrastructure and transportation projects, while Russia was concerned that multilateral economic cooperation in Central Asia would primarily benefit China.

Despite China and Russia's public statements about the importance of their strategic partnership, neither country viewed its bilateral relationship as its top foreign policy priority. The main barriers to better relations between China and Russia were the lack of trust on both sides and the difficulty both countries faced translating the principles of their strategic partnership into concrete measures. Building good relations with Russia was China's second most important foreign policy priority after improving relations with the United States. Russia viewed relations with China as less important than its relationship with the United States, the European Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

China's close official ties with Russia were not reflective of Chinese officials' true views of Russia. In spite of PRC public support for the Sino-Russian "strategic partnership," many Chinese officials privately view Russia as "irrational, aggressive and untrustworthy". Chinese concerns about Russian aggression, as well as China's proximity to Russia, necessitated a careful, low-key approach to dealing with Russia. China's relationship with Russia was the best embodiment of China's foreign policy dictum of "hiding one's capacities and biding one's time".

China-Russia relations could experience big changes after 2012, as power passed from President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao to a younger generation of leaders led by Vice President Xi Jinping and Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang. Hu and Wen had come of age during the honeymoon period of China-Soviet relations in the 1950s and still felt affinity for Russia, whereas Xi and Li's generation had had relatively little exposure to Russian culture and had few good feelings about Russia. These younger leaders' personal attitudes about Russia could affect bilateral relations, particularly if tensions were to arise over energy or other issues.

In March 2013 Beijing and Moscow signed two arms-sale contracts in which China will buy Russian fighter jets and submarines. The deals, for 24 Su-35 fighters and four Lada-class submarines, raised concern among some regional players and media. Chinese observers said the reaction was "unnecessary" because the purchase is not directed at any third party. The purchase deals were signed before President Xi Jinping's visit to Russia. The purchases represented "the first time in nearly 10 years" that China had bought large military technological equipment from Russia.

Li Hong, secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said the recent purchases and joint building plan serve as an indicator of the evolution of the overall Sino-Russian strategic partnership. "It is the natural, well-deserved fruit of bilateral defense cooperation, and both sides have made it clear that the bilateral strategic partnership is not targeting anyone," Li said.

The enhanced agenda of bilateral defense cooperation also saw Xi, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, visit Russia's Defense Ministry. Xi is the first Chinese head of state to have made the tour, and he said the idea of visiting the ministry was proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The world is still unequal, unbalanced and tumultuous, with challenges of both "traditional and nontraditional" threats, as well as the further spreading of turmoil in some areas, Xi said. China and Russia, in the face of complicated international situation, should strengthen their coordination, and work with the international community to deal with all kinds of challenges and threats, he said.

Chang Wanquan, Chinese State councilor and defense minister, said during a meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that wide-ranging and multilayer defense cooperation has become a cornerstone of the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership. "Given the complex international scenario today, China-Russia strategic cooperation and coordination will not only benefit the two peoples, but also help promote world peace and stability," he said.

In Russia, a sharp intensification of propaganda, "turning to the East" in 2014 led to the formation in a large part of society of ridiculous hopes on the progress of bilateral relations. As expected, they were replaced by an equally absurd "disappointment" in 2015 with the spread of absurd rumors about the "actual accession of China to the sanctions," and the absence of any progress in Russian-Chinese cooperation. One problem is especially disastrous in Russia against the background of well-known features of the Russian state propaganda, which ballyhoo d political plans as soon as they begin to acquire at least a vague outline. The formations are exaggerated, deliberately creating unrealistic expectations in order to gain short-term political payoff, which will inevitably lead to disappointment in the project and to discredit it. This in Russia in recent years has ruined the reputation of countless important reforms, economic and technological programs, which, strictly speaking, the actual point of view, could be regarded as a complete or partial success.

The June 2016 Sino-Russian joint statement on strengthening global strategic stability starts with a reference to "dangerous trend", associated with the desire to "certain states and military-political alliances to achieve determines the military and political superiority" in order to use force and the threat of force to advance their interests. Further declaration accusing "some countries and alliances" in the care of the dialogue on cuts the weapons that "are considered by them as a means to ensure military superiority." Russia and China refuse to consider strategic stability as a purely military category from the scope of nuclear arms. Russia and China clearly indicated that concerned the deployment of elements of US missile defense system in Eastern Europe and Northeast Asia "under false pretenses". Next, the two countries set out their own new understanding of the strategic stability, which, apparently, will serve as a basis for further negotiations with the United States on strategic issues. Russia and China refuse to consider strategic stability as a purely military category from the scope of nuclear arms. Both countries apparently consider nuclear weapons as one of the foundations of its security and intend to fend off any US anti-nuclear initiatives counterclaims to discuss the nuclear issue in the complex, taking into account conventional weapons and non-military aspects of security.

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Page last modified: 01-07-2016 13:16:44 ZULU