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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Looking Toward China

A Chinese spokesman characterized the recent Moscow summit between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chinese President Jiang Zemin by saying, "Our relations are now quite beyond ideology. There is a new level of friendship based on each country's interests." A Russian spokesman echoed this sentiment, noting "We have had enough confrontation with China." Whatever the achievements of the summit, it is clear that Russian-Chinese relations must undergo a significant change to meet the needs of both countries in the new global environment.

Throughout the Cold War, the Sino-Soviet relationship was carried out almost exclusively on the geopolitical, bilateral level. This was especially true in the 1980s as relations between the two countries were gradually normalized after many years of ideological conflict. In recent years, however, because of the collapse of the bi-polar world, the relationship between the two countries has come to be considered in terms of its impact on Far East Asia as a whole. It has become necessary for Russia to find and define its place in the Asian Pacific region by seeking development on both the bilateral and multi-lateral levels.

The Soviet Union always emphasized only its political and military presence in the region, and it did not participate in the development or formation of regional economic alliances. However, it is obvious that northeastern Asia holds enormous resource potential for Russia. Moreover, the region has not seen the kind of geopolitical instability that has shaken -- and redefined -- Russia's western and southern perimeters. Those borders now are lined with states that are either unstable themselves or are generally ill-disposed toward Russia. As a result, many experts see the Far East region as Russia's most attractive opportunity for developing new international ties. However, Russia's success in achieving this goal depends entirely on the extent to which it will be able to incorporate itself into the on-going process of regional economic integration.

At present, though, Russia has a very low level of engagement throughout the Far East. Its own economic instability and the tensions that linger from the Soviet Union's policies in the region continue to exert a negative influence. China has long directed its policies toward minimizing the Soviet Union's military and political role in the region, and these policies continue as a sort of reflex action to this day.

Political competition has now given way to economic competition. Although Russia is generally not in a position to engage Japan economically, it can and must compete with China for foreign credits and investment. Despite this competition, China also stands to benefit from an increased Russian role in the region since China has long been interested in making sure that no single nation is able to attain a position from which it can dominate the region's economy.

Cultivating ties with Russia may help compensate for China's relative backwardness and offset the growth of Japan's influence in the region. Moreover, strengthening economic ties between China's northern provinces and the Russian Far East and Central Asia can balance the growing inequality of economic development between northern and southern China, which always presents a threat of social and political instability.

China and Russia also share a number of security and other concerns that may facilitate cooperation between them. Both are concerned about stability in Central Asia and the growth of Pan-Islamic and Pan-Mongolian aspirations. Also, both are watching with concern the possibility of turmoil or, perhaps equally threatening, unification on the Korean peninsula. Finally, Chinese authorities are also keenly interested in stabilization within the Russian Federation because political and economic uncertainty serve to increase tensions along China's northern border.

At the same time, however, a number of sharp differences between Russian and Chinese interests continue to trouble relations. The most important of these is competition for attention from the United States and other Western countries.

In the past, Beijing benefitted from its position between Moscow and Washington. Now, however, Russia and the United States seem to be forging a close relationship that threatens to leave China as the rank outsider. At present, U.S.-Russian relations are far warmer than either U.S.-Chinese or Chinese-Russian relations. Given the difficulties inherent in the U.S.-Chinese relationship, China may well be pushed to alter the current situation by more actively pursuing ties with Russia.

Like most of the rest of the world, China recognized Russia as the successor state of the Soviet Union. Therefore, the difficult aspects of that old relationship remain to be resolved by Russia and China. These include the border question, unequal economic exchange, transport problems and others. Under the new circumstances, however, it is to be expected that these issues will be gradually resolved through negotiation.

Likewise, the "two China" question can now also be addressed in an atmosphere of reduced tensions. Officially, Russia continues to assure the People's Republic of China that its position remains the same as it was before. Simultaneously, however, it is cultivating an economic and cultural relationship with Taiwan, yet another indication of Russia's new level of engagement in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

Alexei D. Voskressensky is a deputy director and a senior research fellow at the Russia-China Center and a member of the Academic Council at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of the Far Eastern Studies. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.