Earlier this summer Vladimir Putin visited Beijing for what was to be his 15th meeting with Xi Jinping since the latter’s ascension to power in 2013. Whilst government-sponsored media from either country have done their utmost to herald relations as profoundly unshakeable, one only has to look back a mere 40 years to see the underlying fragility of this so-called superpower axis. China and Russia entered into an open-border conflict as recently as 1969, and since then have endured both bitter and affable moments. Fast-forward to the present, however, and you will find a flurry of billion-dollar agreements and a developing bromance between President Xi and Putin, which make former tensions seem like worlds away.
Relations not only fluctuate between hot and cold, but recent years have also seen a complete shift in the balance of power between the two countries. Only a few generations ago the Chinese would have referred to their Russian counterparts as 大哥 (elder brother) - a term culturally ingrained with a sense of respect and admiration. Modern times, however, have seen China’s rise on the global stage. Meanwhile, Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea and war-waging strategy in Eastern Ukraine has left the country in isolation following a plethora of sanctions from Europe and the United States. Turning to the East, from the Russian perspective, has been much less an active decision than it is a force of hand, consequently leaving China firmly in the driving seat in negotiations moving forward.
The historical volatility of the relations between these two countries, compounded by this recent power imbalance, has fostered an elevated degree of scepticism on the solidity of the foundations of a Sino-Russian partnership. In an article for the Financial Times, Kathrin Hille, for instance, referred to the two countries as nothing more than “friends with benefits”. When their interests align, cooperation and progress are very much realistic prospects. Nonetheless, the durability and resilience of relations remains unsubstantiated.
An Unfinished Bridge
The conviction in the rhetoric of Russian and Chinese officials ultimately offers very few guarantees for genuine progress, whilst arguably the most important indicator remains the development and improvement of grassroots relations. Given that Sino-Russian relations compose a complex and ever-changing changing picture, many have paid particular interest to the North-eastern region of China, which shares a 4,200 km. border with Russia. Separated by the River Amur, the microcosmic region offers a rare focal point to explore grassroots relations between the countries, with Chinese towns such as Heihe (黑河) on one side and its Russian counterpart, Blagoveshchensk (Благовещенск), directly across the river. Whilst many of the bilateral projects in the region suggest positive progress, the most representative example to focus on is the 2014 Bridge project. Whilst the Chinese side of the bridge is done and dusted, the Russian side is, for now at least, completely unconstructed. This encapsulates the current state of Sino-Russian relations; once you look past the hyperbolic rhetoric in media coverage, there is still a long road ahead in terms of physical action. Symbolically, there are definitely bridges to be built in order to bridge the gap between these two distinct and dominating cultures, to ensure that this marriage is something more than convenience, and guarantee that local cooperation can also become a reality.
Author’s Note to Reader: I recently met Dame Caroline Humphrey, a Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge University, who conducted extensive fieldwork on this very border region as part of a larger project, Where Rising Powers Meet: China and Russia At Their North Asian Border. What particularly fascinated me about her project is the anthropological lens used in the field to analyse micro stories, which can then be applied to and used in collaboration with international political, social and economic theory. I am keen to bring this approach to our own Silk Road Project, and I am excited to concentrate on human relations and local perceptions of different cultures, regions and relations.