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Economic Interests Attract China to Russia, Not Edgy Policies

With its invasion of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, Russia invited condemnation and sanctions from the West and had little choice but to tighten ties with China. Stronger Sino-Russian relations prompt some analysts to compare China and Russia. “China should take such questions and comparisons seriously – making it clear through public diplomacy that the country is not like Russia,” argues Wang Yiwei, a 2001-2002 Yale University Fox Fellow who now teaches at Renmin University in China. Wang lists three ways China differs from Russia: a cultural conditioning that emphasizes history and culture rather than geographic expansion; diverse trade partners including many in the West; and a history of settling land-border disputes through negotiations. By pursuing a non-alliance policy, China will keep Russia close but not too close, as most Chinese look to partnerships with the West. China values good relations with Russia for bargain energy deals and broad initiatives like the modern-day Silk Road, and not confrontations that attract trade sanctions – YaleGlobal

Economic Interests Attract China to Russia, Not Edgy Policies

China pursues a non-alliance policy, in no way obliged to follow Russia on confrontation with the West
Wang Yiwei
YaleGlobal, 3 February 2015
Unequal friends: China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia's President Vladimir Putin celebrate a long-term gas deal; isolation following the intervention in Ukraine makes Russia more dependent on China

BEIJING: Many observers ponder Russia’s international isolation following its annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine and the increasing dependence on China – and are puzzled over not only Russia’s behavior but also about how close Russia and China could become. Will China continue to assist Russia? Could China follow Russia’s path in Crimea to handle Taiwan and other territorial issues? 

China does not have to pick a side in the Ukraine crisis. But China should take such questions and comparisons seriously – making it clear through public diplomacy that the country is not like Russia.

Just as the Russian intervention was intensifying, European countries worried about China’s historic territorial claims. During his first visit to Berlin in March 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping received a special gift from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the first precise map of China made by esteemed French cartographer Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d'Anville in 1735. That year was the height of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), when the Emperor Qianlong ascended the throne. The map of China includes the Island of Sakhalin to the northeast, now Russia; Taiwan to the southeast, independent of China since 1950; Ili River to the west, shared by China and Kazakhstan; Lake Baikal to the north in Siberia; and Hainan to the south.

Perhaps Russia's annexation of Crimea gave rise to Merkel's concern about the possible consequences of China's rejuvenation or recall China the Russian expansion threat. She conveyed complicated information by presenting an antique map depicting ancient China with all its inseparable parts in ancient times.

Merkel’s concern is understandable as once war-ravaged European nations remain sensitive toward boundary-related issues. Border changes have always been a worry in Europe, posing a lethal threat to its peace and stability and dragging regional stakeholders into frequent battles.

Europeans could not have missed the allusion to historical claims in official Chinese pronouncements. Soon after receiving the gift from Merkel, Xi delivered a keynote speech at the College of Europe in Bruges on April. 1, 2014: "For any country in the world, the past always holds the key to the present and the present is always rooted in the past. Only when we know where a country has come from, could we possibly understand why the country is what it is today, and only then could we realize in which direction it is heading."

Chancellor Merkel conveyed a complex message by presenting an antique map of China to President Xi.

Xi argued, “The relationship between China and the EU has become one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. To move the relationship forward, China needs to know more about Europe, and Europe needs to know more about China. For that, we need to build four partners for peace, growth, reform and progress of civilization, so that the China-EU comprehensive strategic partnership will take on even greater global significance.”

Three factors show the differences between Russia and China on territorial issues:

First, consider their respective cultural conditioning – the culture shaped during the development of the two nations distinguishes China from Russia. Russia began in the medieval state of Kievan Rus and then expanded from Europe to Asia to Siberia in the Far East, stretching across Eurasia, making it the world’s largest country in terms of territory.  

In contrast, the vast grassland to the north, tributary states to the south, boundless sea to the east and the cloud-kissing Himalayas to the west have endowed China with a mentality of being a "Middle Kingdom." As Xi noted in his address for the College of Europe, “Of the world’s ancient civilizations, the Chinese civilization has spanned over 5,000 years and continued uninterrupted to this day.”

Therefore, it is temporal logic, not spatial, that has dominated China's culture. The nation values the natural appeal of its own culture, rather than geographical expansion, and this has historically suggested that China will not follow Russia’s path.

With temporal rather than spatial logic, China values the appeal of its culture over geographical expansion.

Secondly, from the perspective of their current economic positions, China and Russia differ in dependence on the rest of the world.

As the second largest economy in the world and a major participant in, beneficiary and builder of globalization, China relies on two engines, export and investment, to beef up economic growth. China's external dependence prompts it to cooperate with other nations in a peaceful way.

China’s economy is fundamentally different from Russia’s, the world’s sixth largest, which mainly relies on energy and arms exports. Half of Russian national income comes from the export of energy. The top three trade partners for Russia are China, the EU and Ukraine while China’s are the EU, the US and ASEAN. With less economic reliance on the West, Russia can offend the West, some of whose members though, must seek Russia's energy and diplomatic clout.

Finally. China and Russia differ on expectations for the future.

Though Russians also yearn for bright prospects, the Chinese are more optimistic about their future according to various opinion polls. And affected by the mentality of changing oneself and influencing the world, the Chinese people firmly view the Chinese dream as consistent with the dream of other peoples. The Chinese will not ruin the country's opportunities for strategic development with reckless ventures.

China is in not obliged to follow Russia in confronting the West. The West represents the future for most Chinese.

China has signed border agreements with almost all 14 countries it shares a land border with, the exceptions being India and Bhutan. Of course, maritime territory, rather a modern concept, has emerged as a major bone of contention with China’s Asian neighbors.

M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on Chinese strategy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has pointed out that China, which embraces political compromise over the use force, tends to solve border disputes through negotiations.

Thus China does not need to emulate Russia.

The Chinese people have learned from their experience in modern times that peace, development, cooperation and win-win progress are the most significant values in getting along with the rest of the world. Besides whether China will follow the path of Russia, another concern is how China took advantage of Russia’s isolation to strike a favorable bargain in the long-term gas deal and how it is in a driver’s seat as far as such economic cooperation is concerned. As the long-time negotiation of the gas deal was signed in Shanghai last June, the question emerges over whether Russia’s isolation gives China greater leverage?

China is in no way obliged to follow Russia in confronting the West. Considering the historic memory of Russia’s annexation of China’s 3 million kilometers of territory, China’s leaders undertake a non-alliance foreign policy that prohibits China from coming too close to Russia. In particular, China is seeking to build a new type of great-power relations with the United States. The West, and not Russia, is the major partner for China in overall opening of the economy and reforms. The West, not Russia, represents the future for most Chinese. How close China can come together with Russia depends not on Russia’s need for China, but China’s need for the West. The “one belt, one road” – China’s new Silk Road initiative – will bind China and Russia together and not the sanctions from the West.


The author is director of the Institute of International Affairs and professor with the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China and senior research fellow at Chongyang Institute of Finiancial Studies, Renmin University . He was a Yale University Fox Fellow in 2000-2001 from Fudan University.

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Comments on this Article

8 February 2015
I agree with Mr. Moriyama and Mr. Hayton. I would go a step further. Beijing has been attempting to re-write 20th century history by expanding familial piety to Imperial Chinese dynasties backwards thousands of years thereby claiming natural resources belonging to free nations in modern times. If the CCCP believes that assigning the power of the state to the reality of compromise and cooperation from past familial ties is a blueprint for the future, then they will just have to give it a try and see how their neighbors respond to such tactics.
A strategy employing intimidation and fear will certainly be opposed by free people in East China and South China regardless of their Asian heritage. Self-interest combined with rational actor theory demonstrate this clearly and conclusively. Beijing will not be able to change 100 years of facts on the ground by drawing arbitrary lines on a map that serve Chinese national interests in the region. The world wants cooperation and compromise, not fear and instability. China must continue her peaceful path to her rightful position as a responsible global stakeholder.
China certainly has a legitimate claim to regional hegemony within their 'sphere of influence' in Asia dating back thousands of years, no nation is disputing that fact. Beijing has benefited greatly from global cooperation and would be very wise to become a signatory of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas) because it would be an excellent move in the right direction to setting clear national boundaries for all the free nations of the region. Beijing must continue a peaceful path that highlights the rule of law. Beijing leaders may not see how valuable the UNCLOS agreement is to their long-term national interests and stability. It builds on thousands of years of cooperation.
Establishing clear international laws of the sea and engaging in military-to-military discussions is the best way to avoid a miscalculation on the high seas that no nation on earth wants for the Pacific region. The benefits of UNCLOS would provide a clear foundation for the continuation of peaceful global trade.
-Ken Haumschilt , Re-writing Asian history
8 February 2015
Chancellor Merkel's map did not include the Senkaku Islands as a Chinese territory. When presented to the Chinese people by Chinese mass media, the map showed the islands as part of Chinese land.
The Chinese logic of 2+2=5 is world-famous (Jefferey Wasserstrom, China: In the 21st Century.) It can be any numbers except four.
"Supporters of the revival of tianxia as model for today's world are essentially misrepresenting the past to reconfigure the future, distorting it to advance a political agenda that is at best disingenuous and at worst dangerous (June Teufel Dreyer, China's Tianxia, 30 Oct. 2014, YaleGlobal Online.)"
Russian modern history has been the efforts to regain its contact, cut off by Tartars, with Europe. Chinese history has been to place it again at the center of the world.
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Chancellor Merkel's Map
7 February 2015
With all due respect to Mr. Wang, Chinese diplomacy in the East China Sea and South China Sea has set unrealistic negotiation frames for their Asian neighbors and their allies in the West. Chinese bullying and intimidation of smaller nations is not an effective way to conduct diplomatic relations. Multiple attempts by the United States to engage in military-to-military dialogue has not resonated in Beijing at all.
If China truly respects the West and the territorial boundaries of their Asian neighbors, then a comprehensive military-to-military Status of Forces (SOF) agreement for the Pacific and Indian ocean regions is imperative to global peace and security. Trying to drive a wedge between the United States and the EU is an unwise strategic gambit. Chinese actions, unfortunately, are not consistent with their diplomatic rhetoric regarding the expansion their maritime borders.
-Ken Haumschilt , Chinese diplomacy with SE Asia
6 February 2015
The author is incorrect to say that the map that Chancellor Merkel gave to President Xi, "includes the Island of Sakhalin to the northeast, now Russia; Taiwan to the southeast, independent of China since 1950; Ili River to the west, shared by China and Kazakhstan; Lake Baikal to the north in Siberia and Hainan to the south. "
Chancellor Merkel presented a 1750 German reprint of an earlier map by Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville. That can be seen here:
The accompanying text describes the 'problem', with this map "The territories of Xinjiang, Tibet, and, importantly, the South China Sea are left outside the territorial borders of China proper. ... Furthermore, the islands of Taiwan and Hainan are drawn in a different colour which similarly problematizes Chinese historical claims of sovereignty over these lands."
There is an earlier map of China by Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville, dated 1737, that does include the territories mentioned by Professor Wang.
- but this was not presented by Chancellor Merkel.
-Bill Hayton , A different map