The biggest global conundrum- the complicated relationship of the world’s two Red powers, Russia and China, is unravelling all over again. The “axis of convenience” and the make-believe camaraderie between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have deepened amidst the global backlash against China. But deep within the Chinese political leadership and the Russian political leadership are engaged in a cold tussle. The idea of cooperation emanates solely from sanctions against Russia from the West that force it to rely on Chinese partnership.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are fighting a battle of Constitutional alterations. First, Jinping became the leader of China for his entire life with an amendment in the Constitution in 2018. Now, Vladimir Putin has also prepared to stay in power for life, almost. Earlier this month, Russia allowed Constitutional reforms that allow Putin to stay in power till 2036.
Putin’s decision to stay in power is being read as a reaction to Jinping’s life-time takeover of the People’s Republic of China. There are a number of reasons that dictate Putin’s decision to stay in power and counter Chinese hegemony but the main ones are growing Chinese influence in Central Asia, Sino-Russian border disputes, Russian insecurities in its Far East, future competition in the Arctic and Moscow’s role in the Indo-Pacific.
China in Russia’s backyard- Central Asia
Russia has traditionally seen countries in this region such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as its exclusive sphere of influence. But things are changing as China is using its economic might to expand its footprints in this part of the world.
China is overpowering Russian influence. It has emerged as the biggest trading partner of Central Asia, leaving behind the EU and Russia. Beijing has already started taking the region in its grip. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan already owe a bulk of their foreign debt to China. Russia’s closest ally in this part of the world, Kazakhstan itself receives more investments from China than Russia.
Eurasia is at the core of Putin and Kremlin’s foreign policy but Beijing is continuously trying to replace it as the key player.
Putin knows that China is growing into a big giant. Corresponding to Beijing’s extraordinary economic rise is the Dragon’s ambitions to gain more and more territory from all its neighbours. China shares the second longest border with Russia, next only to Mongolia.
And while most of the border disputes were resolved with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, you can never really assume that you have got your boundaries settled when you have China as your neighbour. China is the only country that believes in expansionism and salami-slicing tactics even in the post-World War II era.
China can rake up border issues especially when the leadership in Russia is taken over by a weak successor to Putin. Chinese officials have already tried to stake a claim on the Russian city of Vladivostok. This is how China claims territories- first, it starts bringing up ancient or medieval era claims, then Beijing disputes settled borders and finally the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops start engaging in scuffles and face-offs.
China in the Russian Far East
This remains a ubiquitous irritant in Sino-Russian relations. This sparsely populated Russian territory boasts of abundant natural resources, and traditionally looks at it as vulnerable to Chinese influence or even colonialization.
China has been eager to invest here in a bid to gain influence but Vladimir Putin wants to counter this dependence on China that was also writing on the wall with India’s US $1 billion line of credit to Russia for development of the Far East region.
The Arctic tussle
Kremlin’s ambitions look the most promising in the Arctic. The speed of global warming and the melting of polar ice cap means that we could witness rampant commercial shipping in this part of the world earlier than expected. Russia feels that this will boost its geo-economic influence. Moscow claims that the Arctic is its “privileged sphere of interest”.
And it is important for Russia since it wants to become a supreme naval power. Geography has been to Russia’s disadvantage after the downfall of the USSR. It currently has only one warm-water naval base- Sevastopol, which is also the reason why Moscow annexed Crimea in the first place.
But Chinese views are divergent. It doesn’t agree with Moscow’s idea that the Arctic is a part of Russian coastal waters. China claims that it is a part of the global commons, much like Antarctica.
Russian officials already detest the Chinese ambitions of a Northern Sea Route- ‘the Polar Silk Road’. Beijing would want this route to fall within the BRI in the distant future and use this route for trading in order to avoid becoming a green-water Navy due to the Malacca dilemma. Far from boosting its geo-economic and naval strength, Russia will be left fighting for sovereignty over the new commercial shipping lanes.
Russia is getting sucked into the Indo-Pacific
Moscow claims that the Indo-Pacific is an artificial concept that is divisive and aims to contain China. Kremlin might refuse to officially agree that the Indo-Pacific is the next big thing on the global horizon but it is getting sucked into the region itself.
The Indo-Pacific Region is broad and there is a lot of common ground to be explored. Russia might already be entering the Region with the plans of a Chennai-Vladivostok sea route. For India, this is an opportunity to expand its presence in the Region and for Russia, this is an opportunity to bring in global powers into a region that could become vulnerable to Chinese expansionism.
Russia is already assisting modernisation of the navies of Vietnam, Indonesia and India. It is playing a role in the Indo-Pacific without even recognising it. This is ultimately going to irk China which is the target of the Indo-Pacific strategy.
Putin understands that things are going to go downhill with China sooner or later. Sino-Russian relation is that of competition and convenience, rather than cooperation and friendship. Having realised that Jinping is here to stay, Putin isn’t going to back down either. He is going to give a fight and a tough one at that.