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Foreign Policy

China’s Russia Syndrome

Jun 10, 2022
  • Wang Yiwei

    Jean Monnet Chair Professor, Renmin University of China

History repeats itself but with different meanings.

Nikita Khrushchev made a secret visit to China on July 31, 1958, and the Soviet Union and China issued a joint public statement on Aug. 4 when he left Beijing. On Aug. 23, the People’s Liberation Army launched the Kinmen Artillery Battle (known internationally as the Second Taiwan Straits Crisis). Some outsiders believed the shelling was related to the discussions between the Chinese and Soviet leaders. It was intended to handicap the U.S. military to a certain extent, but in fact China did not breathe a word to Khrushchev about this. Upon hearing the news, Khrushchev stomped his feet in frustrated rage and cursed Mao Zedong as a “pugnacious rooster.”

A repeat of history is happening today, but with reversed roles. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics in return for President Xi Jinping’s attendance at the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics eight years ago. A Sino-Russian joint declaration was signed in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between China and Russia. Three days after the Winter Games concluded, Putin launched an extraordinary military operation against Ukraine. It was rumored that Russia had consulted with China beforehand, and that China had asked Putin not to launch the operation until after the Games were over. This speculation is similar to that associated with the shelling of Kinmen. In fact, China was kept in the dark.

Russia used China for an endorsement, as China once did with the Soviet Union. This was an answer to the mutual need of China and Russia to resist U.S. pressure.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia intended to integrate into the West, but it failed and then had no choice but to turn to China. China hoped to cultivate good relations with the United States. Unfortunately, the United States has been strategically suppressing China over the years, and the Chinese populace has turned its sympathy to Russia — even though, historically, Czarist Russia occupied 1.5 million square kilometers of Chinese territory. Vladivostok, where the Russian Pacific Fleet is headquartered, belonged to China during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Sino-Russian relations, described as being “unlimited” and having “no ceiling,” in fact are intended to deter the United States.

This is China’s Russian syndrome. China and Russia are big neighbors. The memory of threats to China by northern nomads has put China on the alert against Russia, but the two are also back-to-back strategic partners against a unipolar world dominated by the U.S. and in reforming the international order.

Russia also has a Chinese syndrome. Historically, Russia was worried that China no longer called Russia "big brother.” Instead, Russia became the junior partner. Russia’s aggregate economic output is only one-10th that of China. Most important, its economic structure is not integrated globally in terms of thinking or system. 

China, Russia asymmetrical 

First, Russia’s thinking is spatial, which is obvious in the Russian national anthem. By contrast, China’s thinking is temporal: The country prides itself on its uninterrupted civilization of 5,000 years.

Second, China is more confident about the future — its great revival is irreversible — while Russia is making last-ditch efforts. Putin believed that if this generation did not fight, there would be no chance to take Crimea and to ensure that the Black Sea Fleet had access to the sea.

Third, China is the prime beneficiary of the current world order and globalization and has no need of altering the status quo. It is concerned about the United States decoupling and launching a new pattern of globalization that excludes China. Russia has not really been integrated into the global marketplace and has a sense of insecurity. It also has a historical tradition of expansion and geopolitical genes in its culture. Russia has always been unable to integrate into the West, instead regarding itself as a “third Rome” that stands for the Eastern Orthodox Church and orthodox Slavic civilization.

Chinese culture, by contrast, is inclusive and parallel to the West. The Soviet Union and the United States have engaged in clashes and the Cold War. China, on the other hand, is inclusive and has opened its economy to the world. There will be no new cold war between China and the United States because of the cultural foundation, not just the economic structure.

When some people in the U.S. and Europe put the Ukraine issue on par with the Taiwan question, Chinese people are furious. The two are completely different in nature. Taiwan is not a country but a part of China. China pursues an independent foreign policy of peace and advocates partnerships rather than alliances. China is a reformer of the international order as well as a pioneer of a new type of international relations. China advocates the building of a community with a shared future for mankind. Therefore, people should understand China’s Russian syndrome and realize that China is a country with a continuous civilization that has been pursuing peace, stability and prosperity in the world all along.

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