“Last call Last Call for Moscow – Urumqi / Guangzhou,” and the elderly, shuffling Chinese passengers start to push and elbow to the opening glass gate. There are only three other Europeans on the flight. Two post-Soviet provincial women who inform me they are going to Guangzhou to “buy some excellent fertilizer for our shop,” and a bald Russian man in flip-flops that makes a bad joke. “I guess we are all going to have to get used to being pushed around by the Chinese.” The Chinese airline has clumped the Europeans together. The fertilizer girls mumble something about English people not really being that different from Russians after all.
I change in Urumqi and wake up in Shanghai, the beginning of an ECFR research trip to China to work out how the coming power views Putin’s Russia. Jet-lagged I eat sea-food street-food that briefly makes me think my neuronic system is about to collapse before heading to a leading Shanghai think-tank for a discussion with Chinese Russia watchers. We talk on a roof with a view onto smog. There is a lot of tea.
“We have been enjoying Mr. Putin’s personal style,” the Chinese experts begin. Very quickly it transpires just as the West favour Mr. Medvedev as sure as east is east - the Chinese have taken a strong dislike to him. “In China we prefer Mr. Putin as he has been to China over thirteen times and Medvedev has only been three times.” The Chinese experts stress that Medvedev is a lawyer, pro-Western and might take Russia closer to the NATO camp than they are comfortable with. They feel comfortable with Putin and do not view his strong-man style and human rights violations as a weakness but an asset for Russia. There are some insinuations China will be unhappy with a Medvedev succession in 2012.
As the discussion rolls into lunch it transpires that Chinese experts take the Russian army a lot more seriously than Western analysts do. It is “the only army that can challenge the US,” with “the most excellent nuclear stockpiles.” The view from Shanghai is that Russian military technology, which China purchased vast amounts of in the 1990s and early 2000s, is still streets ahead of made in China military kit. Debates in Europe about the sustainability of Russia’s political model are not discussed in China, however there is an awareness that the economy needs to be diversified to avoid economic problems. China’s own authoritarian model prevents its experts from seriously interrogating the flaws of other closed systems in an academic context.
The Chinese analysts stress that they view Russia not as an ally in the international system, but merely a strategic partner. “The Chinese money will keep Russia neutral in the event of a deterioration of relations with the US,” says on experts to the nodding of his colleagues. China needs a friend in the UN Security Council and on certain key issues like Iran, but the experts stress not to read too much into this friendship. “The Russian elite would like to join the West, but they can’t and we think Russia will keep its own course, not going to China or NATO – and this is good for China.” They feel the US-Russia reset has run out of steam and is unlikely to deliver much more.
When the issue of Siberia is raised China’s Russia watchers claim they see no reason to disbelieve the Kremlin’s figures of there being as few as 500,000 Chinese in Russia, meaning there are more Russians in China. However they are angered by the treatment of Chinese labourers and the difficulties of doing business in the Russian Far East. “If they let us in the region might actually develop,” they groan. But when the question of whether China would like to regain territories stolen by the Tsars from the Qing dynasty (where Vladivostok now sits) the experts are suddenly coy, dodge the question or respond cryptically – “we resolved the border issue on our own terms years ago. We have given this up already.” They get sore and switch to Chinese before switching back to English and the turning the topic around.
I take the over-ground metro through the Bladerunner cityscape and the smog to a leading university to meet a professor favoured by the Russian elite as a talented observer and a man who has the ear of Beijing. We sit down and formalistically discuss China’s take on its Eurasian neighbour. He has a velvet tablecloth. Like the EU, the Chinese also think that relations with Russia are in stagnation due to internal process in the Kremlin. The hey-day of the early 2000s, which saw the foundation of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization over Central Asia, is a long-time in the past. The Chinese do not view Russia offering meaningful support or really mattering on geo-economic issues where they are locking horns with the Americans. The further you get from Russia the stronger it seems to look - but also less relevant.
That evening I take the bullet-train to Nanjing for dinner with some British and Chinese friends who are about to embark on careers in policy-making and think-tankery. Stripped of the formalism of academia the young Chinese are far blunter about their country’s views on Russia. Putin’s state is viewed as something to reckon with but nothing to depend on. “Russia is not a trustworthy country, its less trustworthy than the US,” claims a friend from Nanjing. But the essential point is that what both the experts and the young Chinese agree on is that for all the BRIC babble, Russia and China still view their bilateral relationship with the US and more important than their own ties –and the West as the focus of their foreign policies.
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