July 11, 2018

Russia and the PRC: Preserving Strategic Partnership or Moving to Confrontation?

Causes and Consequences

In its previous publications, the “Borysfen Intel” Analytical Center has already raised the issue of exacerbating of the problems with the activity of Chinese entrepreneurs in Eastern Siberia and the Far East, causing a negative reaction from local residents. First of all, it concerns the massive deforestation in the region and the active development of economic and tourist infrastructure around the Lake Baikal, which has a disastrous impact on local ecology.

Besides, a significant increase in the number of ethnic Chinese in the region leads to squeezing out Russians from them. Thus, since 2014, the number of the Russian population of the Trans-Baikal Territory of Russia has decreased by 30 thousand people, and of the Far East — by 60 thousand people.

Moscow is still refraining from open claims to the PRC, but is already demonstrating dissatisfaction with the situation in the Eastern regions of Russia
Moscow is still refraining from open claims to the PRC, but is already demonstrating dissatisfaction with the situation in the East

Until recently, neither the local nor the central authorities of Russia had been actually responding to these problems. Moreover, citizens' protests and attempts to prevent the “predatory”, and in a number of cases, illegal activity of Chinese business were cut short by Russian law enforcement agencies. At the same time, at the official level, it was argued that there was no reason to worry about the development of Russian natural resources by the Chinese, which seemed to be only “contributing to the development of the Russian economy”.

To date, this position of the leadership of the RF is undergoing tangible changes, which may also affect the general character of Russian-Chinese relations. Given China's strategic importance for Russia in its confrontation with the West, Moscow is still refraining from open claims to the PRC, but is already demonstrating dissatisfaction with the situation in the Eastern regions of Russia.

In particular, on July 4, 2018, in Beijing there was the 4th meeting of the cooperation committee between the National People's Congress of China and the Russian Parliament with the participation of the Chairman of the Federation Council of Russia Valentina Matvienko and Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of China Li Zhanshu. Representatives of the Parliaments of Russia and China stated that the parties' cooperation has reached a qualitatively new level of intergovernmental relations based on mutual respect and profit. Proceeding from this, intentions have been announced to enhance the interaction between the Russian Federation and China both in the international arena and in the implementation of bilateral projects.

The 4th meeting of the cooperation committee between the National People's Congress of China and the Russian Parliament took place in Beijing, July 4, 2018
The 4th meeting of the cooperation committee between the National People's Congress of China and the Russian Parliament
took place in Beijing, July 4, 2018

At the same time, on the eve of her visit to Beijing, V. Matviyenko met with heads of local authorities of the Trans-Baikal Territory of the Russian Federation, during which she publicly accused them of persuading the illegal logging of the forest in the region and its export to the PRC. Given the significant negative effects of such activities (in 2017 alone, the losses of the region amounted to 145 million rubles), she demanded to strengthen control over the activities of Chinese entrepreneurs in the region, including detention of offenders and their deportation from the Russian Federation.

Chairman of the Federation Council of Russia Valentina Matvienko, Chita, Trans-Baikal Territory of the RF, July 3, 2018 Chairman of the Federation Council of Russia Valentina Matvienko, Chita, Trans-Baikal Territory of the RF, July 3, 2018
Chairman of the Federation Council of Russia Valentina Matvienko,
Chita, Trans-Baikal Territory of the RF, July 3, 2018

Indicative is the change in the attitude to the People's Republic of China of the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia V. Zhirinovsky. Contrary to his previous statement about the importance of China as Russia's main partner and the absence of any threats from it, last week he made a tough critique of the local authorities of Tomsk region of Russia for the lease of 140,000 hectares of forest to Chinese businessmen. According to V. Zhirinovsky, this practice causes direct and unjustified losses to Russia's economic interests.

 

At the same time, there is an increase in the number of critical publications of the Russian media also on other aspects of economic cooperation between Russia and the PRC. In particular, there are claims that China is financing only those economic projects that involve expanding its access to Russian natural resources, namely, trans-border transport infrastructure, pipelines, mines and primary raw material processing enterprises. At this, for those projects used mainly Chinese labor and China-made equipment, so, their implementation involves money, which seem to be invested into the development of the economy of the Eastern regions of Russia, but gave no benefit to them, contributing only to China's own economic growth.

 

Besides, Russian experts are increasingly concerned about China's building up its military capabilities. In this regard, the emphasis is placed on the inability of the troops of the Eastern Military District (MD) of the Armed Forces of Russia to protect the country's territory in case of a Russian-Chinese conflict. The reason for this is the advantage of the Chinese PLA over the RF Armed Forces, both by the number of their troops in the region and by the quality of the weapons. According to the Russian experts, while the Chinese PLA is undergoing active modernization, the troops of the Eastern MD of the RF Armed Forces are armed mostly with obsolete military equipment. Significant gaps remain in the system of Russian air defense in the Eastern region.

Due to this, Russians experts point out the need to strengthen the troops of the Eastern MD of the RF Armed Forces, and to speed up the process of their rearmament. Besides, there is an urgent need for a complete revision of the concept of bases for the storage and repair of military equipment, most of which are located in the Eastern MD. For example, there are mainly an outdated and inadequate armaments on these bases, and they themselves are located in the immediate vicinity of the border with the People's Republic of China, which will not allow the use of these bases to form new units at the expense of the mobilized contingent. In view of this, it is proposed to eliminate existing storage bases and deploy new ones in rear regions, in particular in Buryatia, southern Yakutia, in the north of Sakhalin Island and near Komsomolsk-on-Amur.

The abandoned military equipment storage and repair base near Komsomolsk-on-Amur The abandoned military equipment storage and repair base near Komsomolsk-on-Amur
The abandoned military equipment storage and repair base near Komsomolsk-on-Amur
 The abandoned military equipment storage and repair base near Komsomolsk-on-Amur

Given the nature of the Russian authorities, namely, the subordination to the Kremlin of the overwhelming majority of influential politicians and the media, the above-mentioned facts are a reflection of the Russian leadership's real concern about the situation in the East of the country, and a demonstration of readiness to intensify measures to protect Russian interests against the PRC, in the military sphere included.

Evidence of this is the change in the character of operational and combat training of the Eastern MD of the RF Armed Forces in terms of turning from mastering the fight against armed rebel groups and terrorists to practicing repulsing offensive of the superior enemy. In particular, fulfillment of such tasks was the basis for scenarios of military trainings that were conducted within the framework of the verification of the Eastern MD troops after winter trainings. The same will be the scenario of the strategic command-staff exercise of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation “East-2018”, which is scheduled for the autumn of this year.

The troops of the Eastern MD of the RF Armed Forces are practicing repulsing offensive of the superior enemy The troops of the Eastern MD of the RF Armed Forces are practicing repulsing offensive of the superior enemy The troops of the Eastern MD of the RF Armed Forces are practicing repulsing offensive of the superior enemy
The troops of the Eastern MD of the RF Armed Forces are practicing repulsing offensive of the superior enemy

However, all this once again confirms the complication of the situation of V. Putin's regime, which in fact has become hostage to its geopolitical adventures. Thus, the escalation of the confrontation with the West, on the one hand, forces Moscow to make concessions to China, and on the other — such actions create direct threats to Russian interests in the East of the country, which is already recognized at the highest state level in Russia.

In such a situation, the only way out for Russia is to establish relations with the USA and the EU through the achievement of certain compromises on Ukrainian and other problematic issues in the relations of the parties. It is this, and not the mythical “exchange” of Ukraine for Syria or “North Stream 2” (as stated by the Russian media), will be the main topic of talks between US and Russian Presidents scheduled for July 16, 2018, in Finland (Helsinki). At this, the threat of opening the “second front” in Russia's East may become one of the key factors influencing their results.

 

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