• 06 December, 2023
Geopolitics & National Security

The Unreliable Russia-China Bond

Levina Sun, 26 Mar 2023   |  Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s meeting with the Russian President Putin few days ago, created a pandemonium across the globe. They have both been pillars of support for each other as they together faced the wrath of America and its NATO allies in last 2 years. Presently, the bonding between the two Asian giants appears jubilant but the reality is — the bonhomie between the two is not sustainable.

Today what China calls as North China sea may have been a bigger littoral zone had the Russians not duped them in the past. At every opportune moment in history Russia and China have dug their teeth into each other’s territory. This is true for their recent past too.

China’s Loss Russia’s Gain

In 1858 when China was going through its century of humiliation, Tsar of Russian dynasty lined up his men along Chinese border and demanded for outer Manchuria to be handed over to Russia. At that point, China was in a quagmire. It was already fighting the British and French in Opium war 2 while facing internal crisis in Taiping. The Chinese didn’t want a third front to open, so in 1860 Qing gave away the land to Russians– a land equivalent to the size of Ukraine. This eastern part of Russia has 2 important cities:  Khabarovsk (the biggest city in Eastern Russian) and Vladivostok. Today many of Russia’s military exercises including the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) exercises are carried out in Vladivostok. Russian pacific fleet headquarter is located here, and it’s here that some of Russian’s main nuclear submarines reside.

The Sea of Japan, to which China lost access in 1860, might have originally been part of the Northern China Sea, but today a small yellow sea lying between China and Korea is called the Northern China Sea. With this, China lost one of its access points to the Pacific Ocean. It has been a huge loss!

However, Chinese are hopeful someday they will regain access to 1 million sq Km land which they called outer Manchuria, that is why their map still calls Vladivostok by its original name—Haishenwai.

As late as 2020, Chinese and Russian diplomats were embroiled in a row over Russians celebrating 160th anniversary of Vladivostok.

Nuclear Conflict… Almost!

In 1969 Russia and China went for each other’s jugular over a border dispute, at an island called Zhenbao , which the Russians called Damansky. The origin of this dispute can again be traced back to Qing dynasty when Russia got a part of outer Manchuria.

Mao was an insecure man, but he knew Chinese military had more manpower than Soviet Army. So, the Chinese Army ambushed Soviets expecting them to not retaliate but the Soviets replied in the same coin. China claimed 58 Soviet soldiers were killed in the conflict while the Soviets claimed 248 Chinese soldiers were killed. It is an accepted fact that the Soviets knew the Chinese had the capability to overwhelm them, and therefore they were prepared to use their nuclear weapons in case the conflict escalated further.

Whilst the Soviets were fighting the Chinese in the island of Zhenbao, they also opened a new front in Xinjiang, which is one of the least stable provinces of China. Fortunately for the Chinese, the Sino-Soviet conflict ended in September 1969.

The border issues were resolved in 1991 by signing the Sino-Soviet agreement. But the agreements made were ambiguous and it still leaves space for further conflicts in the future.

Attempted Land Grab (2017)

As China grew in population and economy, its need for resources pushed it into a state of desperation. The situation has been exacerbated by China’s most important river Yangtze drying up in recent years. Chinese need for water and resources pushed them to lock horns with Russia again.

In 2010s, myriads of Chinese bought land around Lake Baikal in Russia. This is the largest freshwater lake on the planet which apparently contains 1/5th the world’s entire fresh water. Chinese state-owned company Aquasib bought lands around the lake so that they could build a pipe straight to China (Lanzhou). But Russians were perturbed by the Chinese plans and local Russian population began to protest in 2017. Russian Government has since then ensured that the Chinese do not grab land in the region.

“Emulating The Russian Defence”

In 2021 as the world was grappling with Covid-19, China was testing hypersonic missiles. But did the Chinese really come up with the design is a question that remains a mystery. In Aug 2022 a Russian scientist spying for China was arrested for passing the design of hypersonic missile to latter. This happened while Russia was fighting a war in Ukraine and China was backing the Russians. In May 2020, Japanese giant Mitsubishi’s hypersonic missile design was stolen by Black tech and Tick Chinese hacker group.

So, when did Chinese begin “reverse engineering” the designs?

After the Korean war in 1950, China suffered heavy losses and was in dire need of replenishing its defence forces. Soviets stepped in and sold them 700 MiG-15 fighter jets and 150 Tu-2 light bombers. This deal had tripled the size of China’s air force.

On one side the Soviet collapse in 1991 left Russian economy in affliction, on the other side 90’s was the epoch when China’s economy was galloping like a horse. They overtook the Russians in no time. China slowly began to ape Russian strategies and copying military equipment’s which Chinese had bought from Russia after Soviet collapse. Russians initially turned a blind eye to these acts but soon it became evident that Chinese copied military equipment were eating into Russian share of defence market. In 2019, Russia officially made a statement on the number of military equipment copied by China.

Russian state defense conglomerate Rostec said” Unauthorized copying of our equipment abroad is a huge problem. There have been 500 such cases over the past 17 years. China alone has copied aircraft engines, Sukhoi planes, deck jets, air defense systems, portable air defense missiles, and analogs of the Pantsir medium-range surface-to-air systems.”

The list of copied items is long, and it involves some famous Russians products like Su-33 (copied as J-15) and Su-27 (copied as Shenyang J-16).

However, the Russians are not twiddling their thumbs. Latest defence deals ensure that Chinese buy in bulk rather than buy samples from Russians. If bought in bulk, Chinese will have to induct the Russians equipment into their forces, which would reduce the chances of the same equipment from getting copied by Chinese…. or so the Russians hope. They are also pressing for assurances against theft in their contracts and have tried to extract royalties from Chinese copies of Russian arms. But these are not foolproof methods to prevent Chinese from copying as the Hypersonic missile design theft has taught the Russians.

The question that perplexes many is—why would then Russia sell one of its most revered product like S400 to China?

Russians have realised that it is impossible to prevent Chinese from stealing their designs. However, they have figured out that selling old designs or models (like selling S400 instead of the latest S500) to China prevents the design from being copied. Reverse engineering an old design and creating their own Chinese version of the weapon system is not a cost-effective method. Albeit one of Russia’s woes is that it needs money to keep its economy running, as it fights back the sanctions against itself after the attack on Ukraine. Today Russia is the most sanctioned country in the world, and having a customer with an economy as big as China’s will help Russia sail through tough times. Cornucopia of Russian luck forces China to rely on them for resources.

Ideally, this is called a symbiotic relationship. But Chinese predatory habits cannot be suppressed for a long period is a reality that Russia is aware of.

Author is a well known analyst of strategic affairs and defence.  She has expertise in content creation on many subjects. She can be followed at @LevinaNeythiri on Twitter.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Chanakya Forum. All information provided in this article including timeliness, completeness, accuracy, suitability or validity of information referenced therein, is the sole responsibility of the author. www.chanakyaforum.com does not assume any responsibility for the same.

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Kalidan Singh

Mar 27, 2023
Symbiosis? Sorry. No. Chinese troops are not likely to fight along with Russian troops in Ukraine or anyplace else. What we have here is a Chinese led attempt to play spoiler, and seek advantage against the backdrop of Russia's engagement in Ukraine (which - by western standards - seems closer to a quagmire nearer to the Soviet adventurism in Afghanistan at one time, and further away from a total victory).

Rahul Tripathi

Mar 26, 2023
Hai Levina, wonderful peice of information on China and Russia relationship,China can never be reliable friend to anyone.

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