SRC Winter Symposium Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Changes in the Slavic-Eurasian World ( English / Japanese )

Russo-Chinese Relations in the post-Cold War period

Akihiro Iwashita

Copyright (c) 1996 by the Slavic Research Center( English / Japanese ) All rights reserved.


     Most of us are interested in recent developments in Russo-Chinese relations. For the Japanese, the two great powers, which face each other and have long had common borders, are neighbors. During the Cold War period, the presence of the two powers continually influenced Northeast Asia. It is true that the Soviet Union has collapsed, China has been revising its economic system, and affairs around the Northeast Asia have changed dramatically. But the influence of these two powers has not decreased. On the contrary, the fate of this area will very much depend on currently forming yet still unclear Russo-Chinese relations.

    We remember the discussion about Russo-Chinese relations in the post-Cold War period at the symposium at the Slavic Research Center on July 14, 1995, when Prof. Li Jingjie and Prof. Akino Yutaka presented their work and I participated as one of the commentators.*1 I will recall it to your mind as an introduction to my paper.

    Prof. Li's and Prof.Akino's papers were both well-balanced and intensive, although there was a strong contrast between the former's rosy perspective of Russo-Chinese relations and the latter's pessimistic one (as Prof.Kimura, another commentator in this session, correctly noted).*2

    My impression was that both of the papers adopted a overly government-centered analysis in spite of their opposite perspectives. My main question is the following: Can we identify the new Russo-Chinese relations as simply those between two central governments? Do we not need to position "local issues" within or across the two states as an individual factor?

    Both of the two papers basically identified the new Russo-Chinese relations as merely the new Moscow-Beijing relations. "Local issues," including "territorial issues" or "Chinese immigration into the Russian Far East" were considered as "cards" that the two central governments can bargain with in building new relations.*3 This analytic framework may be typical and traditional for surveying the two states' relations, but is it sufficient in the post-Cold War period?

     This new stage of Russo-Chinese relations includes non-state factors that were not present under the Socialist regime: autonomous and differentiated regions vitalized by a market economy, freedom of movement and trade, and relative freedom of the press.

This new factor in the Russo-Chinese border areas has influenced central governmental politics since the latter half of 1993. That is why this paper consists of two stages. The first stage is mainly focused on the period from Gorvachev to 1993. This stage can be explained basically within the analytic framework of the central government relations. The second stage begins in 1994. This stage needs to be analyzed in a more complex framework, including non-state factors vitalized by the changing systems in the two states. In particular, this paper aims to focus on the Russian foreign policy towards China, referring specifically to the different attitudes of the three regions in the Russian Far East : the Martime krai, the Khabarovsk krai, and the Amur oblast.


1. The First Stage: the Russo-Chinese encounter in the post-Cold War period

(1) The collapse of the Soviet Union

    The rapprochement between the Soviet Union and China began with Perestroika's foreign initiatives presented in Gorbachev's Vladivostok speech in July 1986 and his Krasnoyarsk speech in September 1988. The former speech became famous for its new proposal for resolving the three problems that China stated as: the withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Chinese border areas, the peaceful settlement of the Cambodian war, and the withdrawal of the Soviet Army from the Afganistan. In 1989, after settling these issues, the General Secretary of the CPSU, Gorbachev, visited China in the midst of the Tiananmen students' movement for liberty and democracy against the Socialist regime. Russia and China officially reconciled for the first time in 30 years and declared a "peaceful co-existence" between the two states. The problems on the eastern border, which resulted in the Russo-Chinese conflict of the 1960's, were resolved in the 1991 territorial agreement, when Zhang Zhemin visited Moscow.

    But Russo-Chinese relations still had not improved greatly at that point. Both sides wanted peaceful relations but no more. The backlash of the Tiananmen incident made China more cautious of radical reforms in the market economy, while the West strongly protested China's repressive attitude towards political freedom. Conversely, Russia expected a pro-western Perestroika policy to develop even further. Rumours suggested that Gorbachev opposed China's actions to suppress the students' movement, although he did not comment on it officially because of the generally accepted non-interference principle mandated by "peaceful co-existence".*4

    The unsuccessful coup'd by Russian conservatives in August of 1991 worsened the Russo-Chinese relationship, because Chinese officials anticipated a victory by Russian conservatives, who felt anxious about the future of the Socialist regime.*5 However, Yeltin's new Russia arose with much more help from Western countries. In 1992, after the Soviet Union collapsed, the new Russia was born as a much more pro-western state than Gorbachev's. Russian President Yeltsin considered the West, including Japan, as a "natural ally (estestvennyj so[znik)".*6 In his declaration, the new Russia was positioned as a "democratic country in the market economy", whose closest partner was the West. This was the first Russian strategy of the "post-Socialist" era. There was little opportunity for improving Russo-Chinese relations at this time.


(2) The "Post-Socialist" transition

    The collapse of the Soviet Union, the most powerful Socialist state, shocked the Chinese Communists. They were afraid of crisis in their own Socialist regime. But the collapse of the Soviet Union did not only give China a sense of crisis, fueled by fears that it might suffer the same fate, or be obliged to confront the United States. It also gave China a sense of relief from the threat from the North, and a feeling that China had now become the front runner among the world's socialist states. The Chinese considered this appealing situation as an opportunity for change.

In February 1992, Deng Xiaoping made the "Southern Speech" in Shinchen and Jiuxai, in which he stated that China needed to speed up reforms towards a market economy and never go back to past stagnation.*7 This was a new Chinese "survival plan" for the post-Cold War period. In October 1992, the 14th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party declared that the market economy must play a key role under the Socialist regime. From that point, China officially adopted the doctrine of a "socialist market economy" which gradually has gained greater importance for the market economy than for the Socialist regime.

Although Russia is officially "democratic" and China "socialist" (that is, they have different ideologies), both sides share the common doctrine of a "market economy." Indeed, both social systems were more or less different; Russia was a centralized state, in which political reforms preceded economic ones; China seemed less centralized, and had started economic reforms decades before. However, they have much the same manner of a centrally-controlled "command" principle as opposed to a free market one.*8 We can identify the two states as in (or on the way to) the "post-Socialist" period, though China officially adheres to the name of Socialism. The official difference of the doctrines play no important role, as long as they observe the non-interference principle. Rather, the two countries have a common base to cooperate in transition to the same goal of a "market economy."

International circumstances helped the two states to become more intimate. In the latter half of the 1992, Russia became cool towards the West for several reasons: Russia was receiving less financal assistance than the West had promised on paper, there was no improvement of the Russian national economy, and the Russian people's feelings of inferiority had increased with the flood of western goods into Russia. The Russian people felt that Russia needed to revive its national prestige vis-a-vis the West. Even the famous "pro-western" foreign minister, Kozyrev, discarded the "pro-western" foreign policy, which was fiercely attacked by "Eurasian" proponents in the parliament, and switched to a "balanced" one, that considered other great powers (China, India, etc.) as important as the West. However, the Russian government did not dare to confront the West because its ultimate goal was to develop Russia into a "civilized" great power with a market economy which would play a great role in the world community .*9

Some Russian officials began to pay close attention to the Chinese transition to a market economy as the model "post-Socialist" state. They said that the Chinese transition had proceeded very well without inner disorder, allowing China to retain its foreign prestige throughout the world.*10

Considering the Chinese side, it is true that its ultimate goal is also to develop China into a great power with a market economy, which would play a great role in the world community. In the same manner as Russia, China is in a position in which it can not confront the West because a lack of western assistance and investment would damage the development of the Chinese economy.

Russia may not be the optimal partner for China, but China has to be friends with its northern neighbor in order to securepeaceful existance. China understands the technical and infrastructural gap between China and Russia. After the Russo-Chinese rapprochement, China was pleased that Russia finally accepted the equality of the two nations. The 1991 territorial agreement and other documents were characterized as a legal basis of equality in Russio-Chinese relations.*11

The Chinese side also needs Russian assistance, especially in the areas of atomic technology, equipment and weapons. While trade battles against the US and Taiwan issues sharpen, the ties with Russia will count for China.*12

This is the first stage of Russo-Chinese relations in the post-Cold War period. We conclude in this stage that: regardless of ideology, Russo-Chinese relations found a common purpose in the post-Socialist transition: becoming a developed country with a market economy which would play a key role in the world community.


2. The Second Stage: another complex story of Russo-Chinese relations*13

(1) The "China syndrome" in the Russian Far East

In 1993, Russo-Chinese relations developed dramatically in a manner which the two states had never experienced during the Cold War period. The trade value between the two states increased to almost eight billion dollars. China suddenly became a second partnerto Russia. Local trade along border areas in the Russian Far East also increased to an estimated one forth of the total volume. In addition, the comings and goings of citizens of both countries was over one and half million, a first for both states. However, these figures did not indicate a close relationship between the two nations.

In the Cold War period, both Socialist regimes tightly controlled the transportation of peoples and goods within the states and from abroad. But after both states adopted an open policy towards the outside under Gorvachev's and Deng Xiaoping's initiatives, dynamic changes took place on both sides. The transition to a market economy meant that each government would exert less control over the economy and society than before. The unexpected disappearance of the Soviet Union accelerated the uncontrolled situation in the border areas of the Far East. The Russian side did not have enough time for its transition to a market economy as compared with the Chinese side's prudent preparation for over a decade.

As one measure of Perestroika's open policy, the Russian government permitted Chinese citizens to enter Russia without a visa. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Chinese acceleration of economic reform in 1992, Chinese businessmen eyed trading chances with the suddenly opened Russian market. Heilongjian province, the biggest Chinese border region facing the Russian Far East, also adopted a new plan of "open the north, linkage to the south" that provided Heilongjiang with opportunities to profit by moving goods from richer Southern China to the Russian Far East, where the market was short of supplies from Central Russia due to the economic disorder in Russia.*14

Against this background, many Chinese "shuttles" rushed to the Far East to carry daily necessities through the common border and sell them in the Russian market. This massive transfer of peoples and goods from China to Russia characterized Russo-Chinese relations in 1993.

Russia and China have a 4300 kilometer common border. The border areas are unequal in population; Chinese Northeast provinces have a hundred million people, while the Russian Far East has only seven million. In addition, there are great differences in culture and standards of living. An uncontrolled situation could result in serious clashes between the two nations in the border areas.

In 1994, the Russian side demanded that the Chinese obtain visas before entry into Russia, in response to requests by the local authorities in the Far East. But the comings of Chinese into Russia did not halt immediately. Some used "group tours," which were permitted to enter Russia without visas. Once they entered Russia, they traveled freely for business. Others tried to pass over "green borders," which border guards did not control very strictly. The number of unregulated Chinese residents in the Martime province was estimated at over 7000 in 1994.*15

At that time, Russian uneasiness towards China had peaked. The most famous Martime paper "Vladivostok" reported that three fourths of Chinese residents in the Martime krai were not registered.*16

In April 1994, the authorities of Khabarovsk krai challenged the the Upper Parliament delegation, which inspected the Russo-Chinese borders to prepare a report for its international committee. The vice governer, chief of the security office, and commander of the Far East Military District appealed to the delegation regarding to the Chinese threat to Russia, referring to fears of increasing Chinese "immigrants" and their "cunning" in business. The Khabarovsk governor, Ishaev also commented on this issue.*17

The local authorities in the Far East began to conduct a series of operations, named the "foreiger (inostranec)," which aimed to sweep illegal Chinese residents out of the Far East. We can find many episodes regarding these operations. A newspaper reported that in Blagoveschensk, the capital of the Amur oblast, when the local inspectors conducted this operation in a special hotel for Chinese, some Chinese jumped out of the window like "cockroaches" to avoid arrest, and a Chinese woman entrenched herself in a toilet for three hours.*18 The Chinese government fiercely reacted to these operations, condemning the Russians for ignoring Chinese "human rights."

As Prof. Larin pointed out, Russian newspapers had begun to organize the campaign against China at the end of 1993.*19 We can find many anti-Chinese articles in the local newspapers in the Far East, regardless of where they were issued. Generally speaking, by the end of 1994, the "China syndrome" had spread not only throughout the border areas but nationwide. We can read why many Russians feared the "Chinese threat" and what actions they were taking both in national and in local papers. The most shocking article, The Chinese republic in the Russian Far East? was written by the famous writer, J. Medvedev, in the begining of 1995.*20

In short, the Russian Far East was afraid of an uncontrolled situation vis-a-vis China, caused by the their own sudden transition in the "post-Socialist" era. The "China syndrome" seemed common in all the border areas in the Russian Far East.


(2) The divergence of Far East views on China

In the beginning of 1995, a new event added to the difficulties in Russo-Chinese relations. The Martime governer, Nazdrachenko, began to campaign aginst the Russian central government to reconsider the 1991 Russo-Chinese territorial agreement, which favored the transfer to China of about 1500 hectors of Martime border lands. Although he did not directly challenge President Yeltsin, he used the local press to attack some of the foreign ministry's experts and the central press, which supported the 1991 agreement.

The Chinese government reacted to his announcement quickly and the top of the Russian Foreign Ministry warned that Nazdrachenko's action could worsen Russo-Chinese relations, putting them back to the 1960's when there were disputes concerning the border islands. On February 16, a special correspondent of Tokyo Shinbun in Vladivostok sent the sensational news to Japan that the Chinese People's Army had begun to conduct a large exercise in the border area to oppose Nazdrachenko's actions. The reporter estimated the numbers of the Army at a half million.*21 Just after this sensational news, local papers in Vladivostok discussed whether or not this news was true.*22

My conclusion is that the Chinese did excercise in the border area, though the number of men mobilized was overestimated. However, much more important than this sensational exercise itself was the Martime's attitude towards China at that time. It was true that tensions between Russo-Chinese border ran high. A Russian border guard captain, Dashuk, was shot by Chinese invaders in April. A prophet, Tamara Globa, spread the word that a "war against China" would break out in 1996.*23 Some residents rushed to question the military office about the Russo-Chinese "war".*24 The rumor of an out-breaking of "war" spread in the Far East though the local military authorities continued to reject it.

Comparing these events in the Far East to the relative calm of the central government ties between two states, we find a deep gap in the concept of Russo-Chinese relations.

In 1995, central government relations went smoothly. It was said that they were stabilized. Many top leaders of both states developed friendly relationships. In the first half of 1995, Kozyrev visited China in March, Yabulinskii in April, Zhuganov and Grachev, the defense minister, in May, and Lipeng, the Chinese Prime Minister, visited Moscow in July. Yeltsin's visit to China was also planned for the end of 1995, though it was eventually cancelled due to health problems. A Russian official of the foreign ministry stated that China was a "natural ally."*25 Some believed that China hoped to make an alliance with Russia.

While Russo-Chinese relations may be a "union" at the central government level, on the regional level, "war" was threatening. What was the true state of Russo-Chinese relations at this time?

To answer this question, we must give additional attention to the deterioration of Russo-Chinese relations caused by the remarkable Martime challenges. From 1994, the position towards China in the three Far East regions had begun to diverge. In reference to this divergence, the differences in trade balances should be considered.

Economic ties between Russia and China suddenly weakened in 1994. The amount of trade in this area seemed to drop to a third of that of the previous year. This can be explained in many ways: both sides' avoidance of barter trade and hoping for increased trade based on the foreign currency ; China's economic regulatory policy, inflation, the unification of foreign Yuan to domestic Yuan, and the bad quality of Chinese goods; Russia's economic stagnation, delayed procedures of trade, increased tax on imported goods, and the presidential mandate to limit deals with natural resources.*26

But we can not ignore the negative effect of the Russian visa control policy towards the Chinese and the Far East campaign against China. It seems undoubtable that such legal and psychological barriers had a detrimental affect on the two nations' flux of goods and people.

The sharp deterioration of Russo-Chinese economic relations was illustrated by the divergence of trade balances in the three Far East regions. In the Martime, the drop in Chinese imports in 1994 was replaced by an increase of goods from Japan and South Korea (Table 1). While this tendency was also seen in Khabarovsk to some extent (Table 2), there was a sharp contrast between the former two and Amur oblast. Amur was unable to substitute another country's goods for Chinese goods, thus the sharp drop of Chinese goods meant a sharp decrease in the amount of imports in this region (Table 3).

The differences between the Khabarovsk and the Martime regions are also significant if we focus on import figures (Table 4). In Khabarovsk, 1993's sudden increase in the importation of Chinese goods was exceptional, and China continues to play an important role in imports in comparison with Japan and South Korea. That is why Khabarovsk is considered to be holding a middle position between the Martime province, which might not be so greatly influenced by Chinese goods, and Amur, whose well-being would be jeapordized without them.

It isn't possible to illustrate all the differences among the three regions looking only at this trade balance data. It is just one of the many aspects of divergence. But local governments have quoted this data at times in order to legitimize their own policy towards China, thus we cannot ignore the divergence of their policies towards China and the fact that it is caused mainly by the differentation of economic ties.

Another reason for the divergence is due to the Martime's remarkable challenge. The common borders along Amur oblast and Khabarovsk krai are basically along a river (the Amur or the Ussuri), while the Martime's border mainly consists of land area. The border most often crossed illegally by Chinese hoping to poach is the Martime's. The tragic death of Dashuk, who was shot by the Chinese, happened along this border.

This strained news concerning Russo-Chinese conflicts was mainly limited to the Martime krai and its borders. In March 1995, it was reported that the Khabarovsk governor, Ishaev, criticized the 1991 Russo-Chinese agreement, placing himself on Nazdrachenko's side. But this news was not precise. He merely expressed his belief that the 1991 agreement was inadequate as it did not clarify the status of the two islands near Khavarosk, Bolshoi Ussuriskii and Tarabarov, as a part of Russia, but he did not demand the renouncement of this agreement as Nazdrachenko did.

The different positions of the two governors is clear. Khabarovsk's two islands are de facto under Russian control, regardless of the fulfillment the 1991 agreement in which the issue of the two islands remained unresolved. What Ishaev demanded was district control of the Chinese in and near Khabarovsk city.*27

The change in the area is obvious when one compares local opinions in Khabarovsk krai in 1995 with ones in 1994. The "China syndrome" cooled down. Khabarovsk has already accepted the presence of "China," without which Khavarovsk's ecomony could not function, especially in the agriculture and construction industries. Chinese laborers were seriously counted as a necessary supply of inexpensive and efficient labor.*28

The local papers in Khabarovsk krai adopted a pragmatic attitude towards China and attached great importance to local relations between Khabarovsk and Heilongjiang. They began to report warm relations with China in many articles: the Chinese consul general was given a heartful reception in the regional parliament, both region's delegations warmly welcomed each other, the chair of the Khabarovsk parliament appealed for giving Heilongjiang province observer status at the Far East - Trans Bikal Parliament Conference in May, the Khabarovsk krai began a friendly relationship with Heilongjiang when Heilongjiang's governer Tian Fushan met with Ishaev in Khabarovsk.*29

The Amur oblast is much more active towards partnership with China. In this area, there are no territorial issues. The local paper, "Amurskaia pravda," promptly rejected the possibility of a Russo-Chinese "war" in 1996 which had been foretold by Tamara Globa.*30 Diachenko, the former pro-Chinese governor, criticized the foreign ministry's policy towards China as affected by the "China syndrome." He declared the colonization by Chinese to be unreal and fantastic, and demanded an open policy towards China, which consisted of simplification of visa controls.*31 The Russo-Chinese contract to build a bridge over the Amur River in June 1995 was the most obvious event in the development of this region's friendship relationship.

Such divergence between the areas of the Russian Far East is not limited to its local governments. We need to pay careful attention to the different attitudes towards China between the military commanders of the Far East District in Khabarovsk and of the Pacific District in Vladivostok. The former, who have met with Chinese colleagues much more than the latter, changed their previously strict attitude against China into a more flexible and warm one in 1995.*32 We do not have any more details concerning the Russian military, but we can not ignore such a change in opinion about China.


Conclusion: towards a third stage?


In reviewing the Russo-Chinese relations from 1992 to 1996 from the typical central government framework, most Russo-Chinese watchdogs concluded that Russo-Chinese relations have developed successfully, although troubling and complicated issues between two states have arisen.

In this context, a debate has arisen about whether Russo-Chinese relations will be "allied" or not. When Russian President Yeltsin visited Beijing on 25 April 1996, the two governments declared Russo-Chinese relations to be in a new stage of "strategic partnership." Does this mean a quasi-Union ? Of course, we can answer either "yes" or "no"!

Many think "no". One Chinese official said the concept of a "strategic partnership" has no important contents and that it was suddenly requested by President Yeltsin on the plane to Beijing. The Chinese side did not seem to hope for a "strategic" relationship, a concept which could be understood as an "alliance." Both governments rejected the concept of an "alliance" and many watchers also confirmed this. It may be persuable in the current situation, when the priority of both states is no longer to confront the West but to change themselves into developed states with Western assistance.

But we can also provide evidence pointing to the other answer, "yes." We have to pay attention to the timing of this joint declaration. Yeltsin finally visited China just after President Clinton's visit to Japan. The Russo-Chinese declaration might be a counterbalance to the "redefined" US-Japan security alliance. In Northeast Asia, tensions mounted over the Taiwan straits and North Korean border. Russo-Chinese relations may not be a "union" now, but in future, what could develop?

It is not enough to look at the situation only from the typical central government framework and to evaluate whether this relation is a "union" or not. My conclusion demands a different analysis of the forming Russo-Chinese relations. In the post-Cold War period, both Russia and China were merely in a transit stage as "post-Socialist" states. Russians sometimes say that a "powerful and unified" China will be a credible partner, not a threat. This may be true of Russia for the Chinese side also. The most dangerous threat for both sides will be uncontrolled Russo-Chinese relations. In the Russian Far East, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union this kind of disorder along the border area arose.

Of course, as we know, both of the central governments have striven for stable relations. And, for the time being, it is successful. But all of its success can not be attributed to the central government. We know the "China syndrome" spread in the Far East in 1993 and 1994. We also know of the confident building of Russo-Chinese relations on a regional level, especially Khabarovsk and Amur's initiatives, in spite of the artificial crisis created by the Martime authorities in 1995. We can not ignore the existence of autonomic and differentiated regions as a factor which has begun to influence the new Russo-Chinese relations in the Post-Cold War period.

My perspective of Russo-Chinese relations depends on the transition process of both states. Now these relations seem stable and the Russian government dominates in the Far East. But differentiation in this area has just started. What will be the third stage in the future?

SRC Winter Symposium Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Changes in the Slavic-Eurasian World ( English / Japanese )

Copyright (c) 1996 by the Slavic Research Center( English / Japanese ) All rights reserved.