The new Beijing — Moscow axis

Staff Columnist

“A Shared rivalry with the U.S. has reunited the two powers as in the  early days of the cold war.  But this time, China is the senior partner.” By Yaroslav Trofimov  (The Wall Street Journal, Saturday/Sunday, February 2-3, 2019)

“When President Sukarno of Indonesia inquired about China’s economy in 1956, Mao Zedong replied candidly that the country remained poor and agrarian and didn’t have much to export ‘apart from some apples, peanuts, pig bristles and soybeans.’

What Mao’s modesty concealed was his desperation to industrialize, especially for military purposes, and his hope that the Soviet Union would help him to achieve that goal.  Beijing frequently acknowledged Moscow as a mighty ‘Big Brother,’ and the pecking order between the two countries was clear .  Just months after ascending to power in 1949,  Mao had spent several humiliating weeks holed up in a shabby dacha outside Moscow, restricted in his movements and treated as a minor vassal while he pressed for meetings with Stalin.

Seeing China as its new dependency, Moscow sent thousands of Soviet engineers and workers and trainloads of manufacturing equipment during the 1950s.  By the time relations between the two Communist regimes broke down in the mid 1960s, the Soviet Union had erected a network of industrial plants across China, enabling its protégé’ to produce planes, tanks and ships.  Moscow even provided Beijing with nuclear weapons technology.

Now, a half-century later, the tables have turned, and the two nations are forging a new bond – with the U.S. as their common rival once again.  China today is an export driven economic giant with ambitions for world leadership, embodied in President Xi Jinping’s quest for a global ‘community of shared destiny.’  Russia, for its part, has been ostracized by the West for President Vladimir Putin’s adventurism  and remains deep in the economic doldrums.  The former superpower has been forced to adjust to life as China’s junior partner and occasional supplicant.”


“China defends the east, and Russia defends the west. Guo Xuetang Institute of International  Strategy and Policy Analysis”

More from Trofimov:  “Western sanctions that followed Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine have given geopolitical urgency to the Kremlin’s pursuit of China  — a neighbor long seen with fear and distrust.  Gone are the days when the U.S. could leverage these anxieties:  Russia’s establishment has concluded it has no choice but to cast aside its suspicions.  For Moscow, Beijing has become an indispensible partner  — source of capital, technologies and markets that it can no longer easily find elsewhere.

‘China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate in the annual intelligence community assessment this week, warning that threats to U.S. national security from the renewed collaboration will expand and diversify in the years ahead.

Though aligned, the two nations are not formal allies and do not always see eye to eye on foreign policy. China doesn’t recognize Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula – just as Russia doesn’t endorse China’s claims to contested islands in the South China Sea and continues to sell weapons to China’s regional rivals, India and Vietnam.  Yet over the past year, President Trump’s determined effort to roll back China’s world power aspirations  — and to restrict its trade and access to technology  — has nudged Beijing closer to Moscow.  Despite many structural weaknesses, Russia is increasingly valued by Beijing because of its diplomatic clout , remaining military might and weapon know-how.

Since Mr. Xi took office, the two countries have broadened security and

economic cooperation.  Last September in Siberia they held their biggest joint war games to date, with  3,000 Chinese troops driving armored columns on Russian soil.  In January Russia’s Central Bank said that it had moved 14.7% of its currency reserves into the Chinese yuan, selling American dollars as a part of a strategy to reduce Russia’s exposure to U.S. sanctions.  Ties between Russia and China these days are ‘at their best period in history,’ Mr. Xi has repeatedly  said, and Mr. Putin has described the relationship in equally effusive terms.

The brief previous period of friendship between Moscow and Beijing in the 1950s was based on shared Communist ideology  — and ended during the Cold War once Mao began to chafe at soviet domination following Stalin’s death, exploiting this rivalry was one of America’s major strategic achievements, famously marked by President Nixon’s breakthrough visit to China in 1972.  A joint effort by the                 U.S. and China to assist anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s effectively precipitated the Soviet Union’s collapse.”

More, concluding:  “As Russia’s economic ties with the west fray, it has turned to China as a new market, with a massive cross-border natural-gas pipeline going into operation as soon s this year.  Driven by Russian natural-resource exports, bilateral trade surged by 27% last year, reaching $107 billion.  Chinese direct investment in Russia  remains paltry, however.  It is still a simple trade relationship.

The U.S. remains incomparably more important than Russia to China’s economic development.  America’s soft power in China also eclipses Russia’s influence, at least so far.  For every Chinese student in Russian universities, 10 others are pursuing degrees in the U.S.

A bigger obstacle to closer cooperation is Moscow’s fear that China will move one day to seize areas in  Russia’s Far East that Beijing ceded in the mid-1980s.  (Stalin ethnically cleansed them of large Chinese and Korean populations in the 1930s.)Though the Far East accounts for some 40% of Russia’s land mass and much of its mineral wealth, it is inhabited by only 8 million people  — fewer than the nearby Chinese provincial city of Harbin.”

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