Russia and China are not the natural allies that many people believe they are

Russia and China may have an interest in opposing US hegemony, but the two countries must also cope with a variety of causes of conflict, ranging from trade blocs to border clashes.

Following the escalation of tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, there are now innumerable media headlines on the "China-Russia axis" and the "connection between Russia and China." To anti-Russia hawks, the ideological value of linking Russia and China is undeniable. Russia is a tiny country with a modest economy. China, on the other hand, seems more menacing. By uniting Russia and China in a new version of George W. Bush's "axis of evil," it becomes easier to dismiss cooler voices pointing out Russia's obvious limits in terms of global aspirations.

But how stable is this ostensibly Sino-Russian friendship? While the two countries may essentially agree on the need to restrict US hegemonic power, they are also likely to see each other as more immediate causes of conflict.

In his book Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World's Sole Superpower, China scholar Michael Beckley notes there are many issues mitigating China-Russia "unity":

Russia and China currently maintain a strategic partnership, but this relationship is unlikely to become a genuine alliance…. In parts of the world that matter most to them, Russia and China are more rivals than allies…. For every example of Sino-Russian cooperation, there is a counterexample of competition. For instance, Russia sells weapons to China, but it recently reduced sales to China while increasing sales to China's rivals, most notably India and Vietnam. Russia and China conduct joint military exercises, but they also train with each other's enemies and conduct unilateral exercises simulating a Sino-Russian war. The two countries share an interest in developing Central Asia, but Russia wants to tether the region to Moscow via the Eurasian Economic Union whereas China wants to reconstitute the Silk Road and link China to the Middle East and Europe while bypassing Russia.

There is also the possibility of a continuous border conflict between Russia and China. China, for its part, is now involved in up to 18 border conflicts, while Russia is involved in multiple border disputes with both Ukraine and Georgia. In Siberia, however, both governments are embroiled in a low-intensity struggle over the Russia-China boundary, which has long been a source of contention between the two countries. While this border issue is unlikely to result in violent confrontation in the near future, it does present an instructive illustration of one of the numerous problems that the Russia-China "partnership" confronts.

What Is Russia's Far East Problem? 

With Russia's population declining, the Chinese side of the border seems to be a source of political instability and ethnic invasion into Russian territory. In the long run, this is likely to lead to greater dispute about the actual placement of the border and who controls the territory.

This has been noticed by many. Laurent Murawiec of the Hudson Institute, for example, released "The Great Siberian War of 2030" in 2008, which analyzed the likelihood of escalating tensions along the Russia-China border. Murawiec observes that as Russia's population declines and withdraws from Siberia—a phrase used in this context to refer to anything east of the Ural Mountains—relative Chinese geopolitical dominance in the area would also decline:

A hollowed out Siberia will be similar to a vacuum hole sucking in outside forces to make up for the vanishing Russian presence. Conflict is neither inexorable nor prescribed by some mechanical inevitability, but the likelihood that disequilibrium may lead to turmoil must be taken into account as a realistic possibility .

A similar thesis appeared in the New York Times in 2015 with an article titled "Why China Will Reclaim Siberia." The author, Frank Jacobs, lays out the basic dynamics: 

The border, all 2,738 miles of it, is the legacy of the Convention of Peking of 1860 and other unequal pacts between a strong, expanding Russia and a weakened China after the Second Opium War. (Other European powers similarly encroached upon China, but from the south. Hence the former British foothold in Hong Kong, for example.)

The 1.35 billion Chinese people south of the border outnumber Russia's 144 million almost 10 to 1. The discrepancy is even starker for Siberia on its own, home to barely 38 million people, and especially the border area, where only 6 million Russians face over 90 million Chinese. With intermarriage, trade and investment across that border, Siberians have realized that, for better or for worse, Beijing is a lot closer than Moscow.

There are two key concerns here: the first, as Murawiec also said, is that the demographic imbalance on both sides of the border is very disruptive. This could eventually lead to China employing a strategy similar to that used by Russia in eastern Ukraine: if the Russian borderlands end up with a sizable number of ethnic Chinese with ties to China, the Chinese regime could issue Chinese passports on the Russian side of the border and then pursue de facto annexation in the name of protecting the ethnic minority from Moscow's "encroachments."

Second, it is notable that the exact position of the boundary was created by nineteenth-century politics rather than ancient history. The fact that the present Russia-China boundary was established by "unequal treaties" in 1858 and 1860 links the current Russia-China border to China's "Century of Humiliation." During this time period (about 1840–1950), China was on the losing side of multiple wars and treaties imposed on it by the world's big powers.

This remains immensely significant in the thinking of certain Chinese nationalists who evaluate contemporary policy in Beijing on the basis of preventing another century of humiliation.

Indeed, Russian and Chinese forces harassed one other across the border in northeast China as late as 1969. This "escalated into a shooting match on March 2 and 15, resulting in significant fatalities," according to the report. Although a shooting conflict over such issues looks to be a long way off, worries about Chinese immigration in Siberia persist. Those who are interested may even see a 2018 documentary titled "When Siberia Will Be Chinese" on Amazon.

In 2020, China's official media made it a point to remind Russia's administration that Vladivostok was Chinese "until Russia conquered it through the unfair Treaty of Beijing."

None of this means that China and Russia are necessarily going to come to blows in the near term. But it serves as an example of one way the two states face real potential conflict in the future. It is also reason to doubt that Russia and China are solid allies united in opposition to the West.

Two Populations in Decline

The fact that China's demographic bomb is even more catastrophic than Russia's may be Russia's greatest chance for preserving a firm grip on Siberia.

Russia's population has never recovered to pre-Soviet levels in the thirty years following the Soviet Union's demise. Furthermore, Russia's population is anticipated to fall much lower, maybe from 146 million now to less than 100 million by 2100.

That by itself would almost assure a Chinese takeover of Siberia were it not for the fact that China may be facing an even more dramatic drop in population. As the Asia Times noted last year, 

The Chinese Academy of Science predicts that if fertility continues to drop from its current rate of 1.6 children per woman to a projected 1.3, China’s population would be reduced by about 50% by the end of this century.

But a fertility rate of 1.3 is likely a high estimate. China's official records tend to stretch the truth, and the real fertility rate may be closer to 1.1. If true, the population decline could be dramatic indeed. Or, as the South China Morning Post put it

If China can stabilise its total fertility rate at 1.2, the total population will fall to around 1.07 billion by 2050 and 480 million by 2100. This decline will be accompanied by an ageing population structure. The proportion of the population aged 65 and over will rise from 10 per cent in 2015 to 32.6 per cent by 2050.

A rapidly aging population is less likely to have the resources needed to put considerable strain on Siberia.

So, at least on that front, population decrease may eventually satisfy both parties. The situation in Siberia, on the other hand, serves as a timely reminder that Russian and Chinese interests may not always align, and Russia is not the geopolitically secure juggernaut that many Russophobes seem to assume it is.

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