Philip Snow’s ambitious new book – China and Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord – covers several centuries of history between the great powers, and asks what their current relationship status means for the rest of the world
Philip Snow has written a big book about a very big subject – Russia-China relations. It starts in 1689 with the Treaty of Nerchinsk by the Amur River and moves through the subsequent centuries’ Big Brother/Little Brother, “unlimited friendship” to the current somewhat cautious alliance between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. How much is genuine friendship, how much is pragmatic alliance, and how much the realpolitik of a shared border? Snow’s approach in China and Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord (Yale University Press) is chronological, and while there are a wealth of historical lessons, there’s also a detailed consideration of where the Sino-Russian relationship is today – post-USSR, post-Mao in an era of Xiconomics and Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Perhaps you could start by telling us a bit about how you came to be interested in both Russia and China and to initially visit the two vast nations?
As a boy in the 1960s I accompanied my parents, the novelists CP Snow and Pamela Hansford Johnson, on trips to the Soviet Union where they endeavoured to build up a dialogue with Russian writers in the depths of the Cold War. In the early 1970s I also developed an interest in China, then just emerging from two decades of isolation. I studied Chinese at Oxford, and after graduation worked as a liaison officer for the Sino-British Trade Council, ancestral organisation of the CBBC. During my Oxford degree course I spent some months working to improve my spoken Mandarin at a language centre in Singapore, where I encountered a team of Soviet students who had been sent there because they were unable to go to Beijing. The experience left me intrigued by the history of contact (or lack of contact) between these two great peoples.
The timing of this new book seems apposite in the light of a seemingly stronger overt relationship between Beijing and Moscow than in recent decades and a time of heightened tension both in Ukraine and the Taiwan Straits. But this has been an intermittent friendship with many ups and downs hasn’t it?
During the first 170 years after formal relations were established in 1689, Sino-Russian contacts were remarkably peaceful, with Russia observing neutrality in the Qing dynasty’s conflicts and the Qing allowing Russian merchants to trade, first in Beijing and later at the border entrepôt of Kyakhta. From the mid-1850s, however, the Tsarist government switched to a policy of territorial expansion at China’s expense, first detaching the whole of ‘Outer Manchuria’, a region the size of France and Germany combined, and then moving on to create spheres of influence in the rest of Manchuria, Mongolia and Xinjiang. All of this aroused much Chinese anger as nationalist feeling mounted in the final years of the Qing.
Following the downfall of Tsarism in 1917, the new Soviet Russia sought to present itself as a benevolent patron to the emerging Chinese Nationalist and Communist parties. But both the two parties disliked being micromanaged by the Kremlin, and both also suspected the Soviets of continuing to pursue the old Tsarist goals. After the PRC was established in 1949 the Soviet Union poured in political advisers to guide their Chinese ‘younger brother’, and scientists and engineers to effect ‘the biggest technology transfer in history’. Within a few years, however, Mao Zedong and his followers were taking steps to break free from this Soviet tutelage. Clothed in ideological verbiage, this drive for independence soon broadened to cover the old territorial grievances, with worsening border clashes that in 1969 threatened to explode into nuclear war. The rift still wasn’t totally healed by the end of the Soviet period, but both the post-Soviet Russian and Chinese governments have worked hard to forge a new partnership based on equality and to turn their backs on the chequered past.
How much do you feel that the on again-off again nature of the relationship has in the past, and is now, being prompted by Russia and China’s response to outside third parties – the US, EU, etc?
Russia and China undoubtedly seem to have been at their closest when confronted by a common adversary. In 1937-38, when Japan launched its all-out invasion of Nationalist China, Soviet Russia was the only outside power willing to help the Nationalists, stepping in with massive war credits, armaments and top-notch military advisers. The Soviet motive was not altruistic; Stalin hoped to bog the Imperial Japanese Army down in a conflict a safe distance from Russia’s borders; but his action may well have prevented Chinese resistance from crumbling during the first two years of the Sino-Japanese War. In 1949 Mao Zedong was obliged by the unremitting hostility of the United States to abandon his previously independent course and align the Chinese Communist Party closely with the Soviet Union, and in 2011, a professor at the National Defence University in Beijing predicted that ‘So long as American pressure [on China] remains, the Sino-Russian partnership will endure’.
When we look at the apparent close relationship between Russia and China now, is it fair to say that the West, including the UK, perhaps lost out in not working harder to win China over in terms of maintaining trade routes and peaceful markets? That we perhaps left a vacuum in relations Moscow has exploited?
I’m not sure the Russians are seriously in a position to exploit the West’s withdrawal from the China market. Russian exports to China consist overwhelmingly of energy in the form of oil, gas and increasingly coal: in 2021 energy supplies are reported to have accounted for US$46 billion out of a total of US$69 billion worth of Russian exports to the PRC. The residue consisted almost entirely of raw materials, with just US$1.9 billion worth of ‘machinery, nuclear reactors and boilers’. It is the South-East Asian countries – Malaysia and Vietnam in particular – which are said to be poised to ‘hoover up’ the departing Western businesses. The Western departure from Russia, by contrast, has left the door wide open to the Chinese, who are reported as having achieved ‘real market breakthrough’ in such sectors as cars, electronics, household appliances and laptops.
Do you think this current cosiness between Russia and China will last and is it based predominantly on shared borders, shared perceived threats or possible future growth in trade?
I think we have to distinguish between short term and long term relations. The current relationship is very stable for all the reasons you list. The two powers feel threatened by the West, both strategically by NATO expansion in Europe and AUKUS and the Quad in the East, politically by the Western challenge to their belief that national rulers should have untrammelled freedom of behaviour within their own frontiers, and morally by the perceived bogey of Western ‘decadence’. The 2004 ‘final’ settlement of their border disputes has allowed them both to shift forces elsewhere: Russia to its ex-Soviet neighbours and China to the Taiwan Straits. And Western sanctions and decouplings have driven them into a tightening business embrace based on the exchange of Russian oil, gas and coal for Chinese manufacturers.
The longer term future looks more problematic. With China’s GDP now ten times that of Russia and declining Chinese interest in Russian industrial products, it is reasonable to wonder how much longer the Russians will be happy to serve as a ‘resource appendage’ of the PRC. Border settlement notwithstanding, Chinese teachers are still said to keep their history classes informed of the immense Tsarist land grab of ‘Outer Manchuria’. With a mere six million Russians in the Russian Far East facing 110 million Chinese in the PRC’s north-eastern provinces, it has been suggested that the day may come when large-scale desertification in northern China propels a mass migration of desperate people into Siberia in search of food; and reports are already circulating in Russia of Chinese attempts to gain access to the water resources of Lake Baikal.
With Russia and China currently close and the UK in a very adversarial position vis-à-vis Russia over Ukraine, how is this impacting our relationship – diplomatically and in terms of trade – with China?
The point to make here is that UK-China relations and UK-Russia relations are proceeding along parallel but still separate tracks. There has of course been a drastic worsening in the UK’s diplomatic relations with China, with British politicians referring to the PRC as a ‘systemic challenge’ and even a ‘threat’. This may in turn have had some impact on trade: both the DTI and China’s Global Times reported a mild decrease in Sino-British trade between 2021 and 2022, though this may be attributable not so much to political factors as to Covid-19. But these developments have had nothing to do with Russia’s Ukraine war, simply reflecting the West’s current preoccupation with a China it views as a security risk, a source of economic subterfuge and a violator of human rights. Equally, Britain’s role as a leading supporter and armourer of Ukraine has been shouldered without reference to China, though Britain along with other Western countries has deplored what it sees as China’s ‘pro-Russian neutrality’. All this could change if Beijing were found to be furnishing arms to support Putin’s war effort. The Chinese government have denied having any such intention; and in spite of the US Secretary of State’s claim in February that Beijing was considering the provision of ‘lethal support’, no evidence for this has come to light, though suspicion has attached to the Chinese supply to Russia of ‘dual use’ technologies. If this red line were crossed, the UK would indeed be confronted by a united Sino-Russian opponent, and the impact on both its diplomatic and commercial relations with China could well be severe.