The Chinese-Russian Relationship: It’s Complicated
(Dean Cheng, April 17, 2022)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Dean Cheng is a Senior Research Fellow on Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation, where he specializes in China’s military and foreign policy, in particular its relationship with the rest of Asia and with the United States. He is fluent in Chinese. Prior to joining Heritage, he was a senior analyst with the China Studies division of the Center for Naval Analyses, where he specialized on Chinese military issues and authored studies on Chinese military doctrine, Chinese mobilization concepts, and Chinese space capabilities. Before joining CNA, he was a senior analyst at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). He also served as an analyst with the U.S. Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment in the International Security and Space Division, where he studied the Chinese defense industrial complex. Dean is the author of Cyber Dragon: Inside China’s Information Warfare and Cyber Operations. He studied at Princeton University and at MIT.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director, and I am delighted today to welcome back to the Westminster Institute, Dean Cheng from the Heritage Foundation. He joined us in 2020 to give a very compelling lecture on the subject of “How China Sees the World: The Return of the Middle Kingdom.”
Dean is a Senior Research Fellow on Chinese political and security affairs at Heritage, where he specializes in China’s military and foreign policy, in particular its relationship with the rest of Asia and with the United States. He is fluent in Chinese. Prior to joining Heritage, he was a senior analyst with the China Studies division of the Center for Naval Analyses, where he specialized on Chinese military issues and authored studies on Chinese military doctrine, Chinese mobilization concepts, and Chinese space capabilities.
Before joining CNA, he was a senior analyst at Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC). He also served as an analyst with the U.S. Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment in the International Security and Space Division, where he studied [the] Chinese defense industrial complex. Dean is the author of Cyber Dragon: Inside China’s Information Warfare and Cyber Operations. Dean Cheng studied at Princeton University and at MIT. Today, he is joining us to speak on: The Chinese-Russian Relationship: It’s Complicated.” Welcome back, Dean.
Thank you for having me.
Robert R. Reilly:
Maybe we can begin with you providing a bit of a historical perspective on the Russia-Chinese relationship.
Sure, so when we think about the Chinese-Russian relationship, we need to recognize that there are, broadly speaking, four phases. You had China-Russia, you had China-Soviet Union, you had People’s Republic of China-Soviet Union, and then the People’s Republic of China with Russia, and each of these was marked by a combination of interrelationships that were very complex, often competitive, rarely friendly, but often working together.
So when we look at the China-Russia relationship, we are talking about imperial China and imperial Russia, and these two countries were openly competing for what is now Central Asia. Russia was expanding eastward into Siberia all the way out to the Pacific, and China was actually trying to dominate and control the various steppe populations from where the Mongols had come, and basically this had long been a source of tension between China and those populations. And then the Russians arrived.
Then we saw the creation of the Soviet Union and a China that went from being imperial China to republican China, and this is a period that is marked by Russia taking advantage of China in the Chinese view. For example, Outer Mongolia was only created a hundred years ago when the Soviets helped detach that portion of Mongolia and made it into an independent country that was very much dependent on Moscow for its independence. And the Soviet Union also took advantage of China at Yalta to lay claim to the railways and of Manchuria and Harbin.
Then we had the People’s Republic of China, which was created in 1949, and its relationship with the Soviets, and initially that was actually very friendly because Mao wanted to work with Stalin, but when Stalin died, you had the Sino-Soviet split, which was rooted in a number of causes. It was ideology. There was who should take over the world communist movement, and that was marked by extraordinary bitterness and an actual war, which is generally not well known, between the Chinese and the Soviets in 1969. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have seen in a sense relations come full circle, so now it is the People’s Republic of China which is dominant, the number two economy in the world, [and] Russia, whose economy has never really recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union, even before the sanctions imposed with the current Russia-Ukraine crisis.
Russia has been described by some as a mafia-run gas station with nuclear weapons in the basement. China by contrast is a global, full-fledged economy, the world’s largest trading power, the number two economy as I said. So, we have seen a significant shift in the balance of power between Moscow and Beijing over the last, let us say, 400 years to the point where now Beijing clearly dominates. And with the sanctions imposed on Moscow since the Russia-Ukraine war began, the Russian economy has been badly hurt, and really China is probably going to come out of the Russia-Ukraine war dominating the relationship between Beijing and Moscow.
A Friendship Without Limits?
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, it was rather timely or untimely, depending on one’s perspective, that it was on January 4th of this year that China and Russia issued a joint statement. It was somewhat extensive if, without being too sarcastic, I would say large portions of the joint statement could have come from a democratic party platform. We are for the international supervisory bodies, we are for the United Nations, we are for the WHO, etc., etc., but the line in that joint statement that seemed to get everyone’s attention, in which a great deal of interpretation has been expended, is that it is ‘a friendship without limits,’ as it said. And indeed, it has no limits. ‘There are no forbidden,’ quote unquote, ‘areas of cooperation.’ How do you parse that?
I think that when we look at PRC-Russia relations over the last let us say 30 years, we have seen these two countries very clearly have shared antipathies mostly towards the West, towards democracy, towards representative government, but they have few mutual sympathies. They do not complement each other particularly. They do not work together all that much, so I think that this friendship without limits is a great line.
It certainly, as you said, got a lot of attention, but we do need to put it in the perspective that this is not an alliance relationship such as between the United States and Britain, okay, where truly we share a remarkable number of things. We share common principles. We share, obviously, a common language. What was it Churchill said, that the United States and Great Britain are two countries divided by a common language? We share intelligence. Our militaries work together extensively. This is not that kind of relationship.
What I think that these two countries were saying, however, is a warning that despite the past history of things like the Sino-Soviet split, that they are not at each other’s throats. They are not simply waiting for an opportunity to turn the tables on the other, so we see on the one hand significant economic ties, in particular China is obviously one of Russia’s largest trading partners. Russia is not a key trading partner for China, not on the scale of say the United States or the EU. What we do also see is growing military interactions, but little evidence of, for example, a shared command structure. We have seen significant military joint exercises, including intrusions into say the Japanese or South Korean air defense identification zones, but not a NATO-like sharing of intelligence, logistics, command and control. And then, of course, the issue of Ukraine is particularly striking because of the differences between the two.
Robert R. Reilly:
I just remark on the fact that China imports a great deal of military hardware and military technology from Russia, and I believe has used a good deal of that to upgrade the quality of its own military equipment. Is that correct?
That is a good example of the complexity. China bought a number of Russian submarines, fighter aircraft, and surface-to-air missiles, but China promptly turned around and, demonstrating the same lack of respect for intellectual property that it shows everyone else, it then copied the Su-27, which is the Chinese – I believe it is the J-11 fighter aircraft – and has developed on its own the J-20 and J-31 stealth fighter designs. And in fact, there is not much evidence of any cooperation with Russia in developing those platforms. The Russians actually were reluctant to sell certain key items, the S-400 surface-to-air missile system, the Sukhoi-33 fighter design, precisely because they are worried about the Chinese copying and then competing with Russia on global arms markets.
One of the great problems for China is the inability to build a fighter turbofan engine. To be fair to the Chinese, very few countries actually can do this, and the Russians are not great at it. They would love to buy more Russian jet engines, and the Russians have been very reluctant to part. Certainly, they are not prepared to sell them entire factories for precisely, again, the same reason. So, yes, they have bought Russian equipment. They have often used it as a template, but most of China’s military equipment these days is homegrown, certainly manufactured domestically but also increasingly designed it.
Robert R. Reilly:
I do not know whether it was Bismarck or someone like him who said nations do not have friends, they have interests. And I would greatly appreciate your assessment of what the different interests of these two enormous countries are. As you mentioned, they collided in the past in the ‘69 war in a major way, but now they are trying to reach some kind of condominium, but where likely are those interests to clash in some way? In other words, in long-term strategic perspective what do they have to worry about regarding each other?
So let us clarify a little bit where they actually are in agreement. Both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin would like to make the world safe for autocracy. They have little interest, desire, support or respect for civil society, for the rule of law, for all the various guarantees of liberty that are in our constitution, but also are echoed in Europe, western Europe and in Japan and South Korea.
Robert R. Reilly:
Though again, whether you take it ironically or not, the first part of the February 4th joint statement is nobody here but us democracies, right?
Robert R. Reilly:
I mean it is a paean to democracy. We are just a little different kind of democracy.
That actually is another example of where these two countries agree, which is that they play with words, they engage in political warfare, and part of that is manipulating the meaning of concepts like democracy and popular will and even responsible government, so in that regard they both agree: we, the United States and the West, are a huge threat. Where they disagree is across a gamut of interesting aspects.
So let us start with Ukraine, which has been in the news a fair bit. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, China did not express support for that. It has not recognized, as far as I know, Russia’s annexation of Crimea. They have been very sort of hands-off-ish. When asked, you know, about it, [they respond by saying], ‘well, that is between the Ukrainians and Russians to decide,’ but it is not ‘yes, we accept and support this.’ Part of this is because China has extensive economic ties to Ukraine. It buys some interesting technology from Ukraine, including rocket motors and also engines, some aerospace components, and food.
Both Russia and Ukraine are major wheat exporters. This has been reflected in rising food prices. Ukraine has been a major supplier to China, so right there, China looks at this situation and says we are not really comfortable with Russia controlling Ukraine if we are going to buy things from Ukraine, so the Chinese have refused to call this an invasion, and we are very peeved at that and so is much of the rest of the world, but the Chinese have also – if they have not condemned it, they have not given full throated support. They have not said, you know, to Russia, yes, you go ahead, Ukraine is part of Russia the way Vladimir Putin says.
Robert R. Reilly:
Dean, if I could simply mention, I do not know whether President Xi had any idea of what Putin was going to do in Ukraine at the time, but the joint statement again is emphatic on sovereignty and territorial integrity. I mean if Xi had an inkling that Putin was going to invade Ukraine and still made that such a strong part of their joint statement, do you think that betokens he did not know Putin was going in?
No, I think that where this becomes much murkier is whether China respects Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia’s argument about Ukraine is that Ukraine is not really a country, its history only goes back so far and before that had long been part of Rus. I am certainly not going to endorse Vladimir Putin’s version of history, which I think has been demonstrated by far better Russian historians to be nonsense, but what is not clear is whether or not China accepts that line of argument, that for both Ukraine and Belarus, are they legitimate countries that have a right to remain sovereign and independent?
And in this regard it is useful to consider that when Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he went on a southern tour, speaking tour, of southern China during which time he repeatedly emphasized that the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, the greatest catastrophe, was the collapse of the Soviet Union, not World War II, not the Japanese invasion, that the collapse of the USSR jeopardized the world socialist movement but also showed the fallacy of civil society, allowing a military to be not run by the Party, etc.
And Vladimir Putin has said similar things, so if Xi really does feel – and this was again his very first action upon taking power – if he really believes that the collapse of the USSR was a bad thing, then Vladimir Putin reconstructing at least parts of the USSR in terms of the Slavic regions, Belarus, and Ukraine [is okay]. We think of [this] as an invasion. He may well feel at a minimum [this] is legitimate and may even be a laudable thing, so I am not so sure, again, reading the February 4th statement, that our interpretation of what they were saying and what they were saying necessarily align.
Robert R. Reilly:
If I could just say about Ukraine in terms of how China thinks about it, Ukraine is a part of their Belt and Road Initiative, and you already mentioned that it is a very significant economic relationship. Considering those things, they might not like to see Ukraine as part of Russia, as I think you indicated.
There are clearly concerns about allowing Russia to control key areas that China either has invested in or imports key technology from, so I would agree that I do not think the Chinese view this with equanimity, but at the same time I am not so sure that they feel that the invasion is illegitimate because, again, I think that their view of exactly what to make of the post-Soviet republics is unclear, especially under Xi Jinping.
The funny thing is that, you know, going back 400, 500 years, what we see is, again, Central Asia is where Chinese and Russian interests also overlap and not in a good way. So, the Central Asian republics, again, first, there is an interesting question, do they have a right, a legitimate right, to exist in the Chinese view and the Russian view? Vladimir Putin has said of Kazakhstan, they are not a real country. He said that a couple of years ago. China has invested billions of dollars in the Belt and Road Initiative, especially into Central Asia because, of course, they are right next door. They provide oil. They provide additional minerals.
Russia and China have a very asymmetric competition. China is about money. Russia is about political influence, particularly all the various files on all the various leaders that date back multiple generations when these republics were part of the Soviet Union. And what is striking is on the eve of the war between Russia and Ukraine, there was unrest in Kazakhstan, and then Russia introduced troops. Now, it was only a couple thousand. They kept the president in power and then they withdrew, but what was striking was that until the Russians intervened, the Chinese expressed concern but did not indicate that they would send in forces. But after the Russians introduced troops, all of a sudden, China offered security forces without specifying whether that was the military, the People’s Armed Police, private security firms, etc.
I would suggest that China looks at a Russian military presence in Central Asia, again, where there are billions of dollars of Chinese investment, again, with concern. They are not going to come out and say that Russia cannot do this. You will notice they never condemned the Russian intervention in Kazakhstan either, but I would suspect that this creates a great deal of nervousness in Beijing, and so going forward, however the Ukraine situation is resolved, I think that Russia’s demonstrated willingness to intervene physically into a Central Asian republic will create some interesting friction between Beijing.
Robert R. Reilly:
One analyst suggested that China in a way was pleased to see Putin maintain order in Central Asia because they want stability there. They do not want any upset to jeopardize their own control over Xinjiang, for instance. Is there any merit to that?
I think there is a great deal of merit to that. I think the Chinese absolutely want stability there. Whether they want that stability to be provided by Russia is the question. It is interesting to note that in the 1969 war, while most of the attention (limited though it may be) is on the eastern part of the front, there was, in fact, fighting in Xinjiang and Kazakhstan, which at the time was part of the Soviet Union, between the militaries of the two countries. The Xinjiang issue from the Chinese perspective is partly ethnic, partly religious because they are mostly Muslim, but to their mind has always been fomented in part by outsiders, including the USSR, so this I think is part of the sort of underlying nine-tenths of the iceberg beneath the surface there that is going to be influencing Chinese perceptions. If Russia comes to dominate again Kazakhstan, etc., will they use that to foment problems, whether in Xinjiang, part of China proper, or in other Central Asian republics where China is building pipelines and power grids and various other long-term infrastructure.
Robert R. Reilly:
But why would it be in Russia’s interest to do that? They are worried about their own Muslim population.
Chaotic Russia and Stable China
They are worried about these populations, but one, China writ large, not just about Central Asia, is focused on stability. Russia seems far more comfortable with chaos, whether it is fomenting through social media chaos in Europe, with the United States in our electoral systems, or fomenting chaos among ethnic and religious groups. Remember Russia supports anarchists, left-wing elements, right-wing elements, racist elements, religious elements just to create that chaos. Given the increasing slide of power towards China in the Russia-China relationship, creating chaos in Central Asia is one way if nothing else of signaling Beijing, we may be the junior partner but do not treat us like a junior partner.
Robert R. Reilly:
In conversations with some Russians, I find that they all know in the long term they are the junior partner, and there are many Chinese in southern Russia out east and they in fact are de facto taking over parts of southern Russia, not politically. Were Putin as long-term a strategic thinker as some people think he is, [he] would not only be worrying about restoring the Russian national interests to his west but to wonder and take action regarding his southeastern borders. In fact, by the way, the ‘69 war was precipitated in part over border disputes. Were those border disputes ever resolved or they are still lying in wait there?
No, they were resolved. Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping hammered out a series of treaties that basically, at the end of the day, actually gave China pretty much what it had demanded back in 1969, so the borders to the east were delineated by the navigable channels of the Amur and Ussuri Rivers. The territorial boundaries of Kazakhstan, again, then part of the Soviet Union, and Xinjiang were hammered out. And so, in fact, the Central Asian republics and Russia inherited those agreements, which is why that is not an outstanding territorial dispute.
Now, if you are the Russians, you are nonetheless not confident for a number of reasons. One, the Chinese have this very bad habit of deciding to reopen disputes at times. It is not over till it is over and it may never be over. Second is that Siberia, eastern Russia, is incredibly sparsely populated. The Soviets had really sort of plunked people out there, and once the Soviet Union collapsed, most people do not want to live in a place where it is so cold that metal turns brittle.
Vladivostok is far closer to Beijing and for that matter closer to Seoul and Tokyo than it is to Moscow. And from an economic perspective, the pull of consumer goods, factories, markets resources is much more to East Asia than it is across the very thin, fragile Trans-Siberian Railway and Baikal–Amur Mainline back to Moscow. If you are a Russian, you absolutely are worried that Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, and Nakhodka are going to see their future as more tied to East Asia than to the diktat from the Kremlin, so all of this adds up to a set of circumstances where, again, it does not mean that they are about to break with each other but there are a lot of land mines, if you will, in the Russia-China relationship that simply are going to occur because of geography, because of economic disparity and historical realities.
Robert R. Reilly:
Now, Putin has indicated in this wonderful relationship he has with Xi – I think Xi called Putin his best friend and said he is just like I am, we are two peas in the pod. Putin said that President Xi has never once asked him for his support in the Asia-Pacific area, that he just leaves that alone. Do you think that is accurate? I mean it is interesting, again, going back to the joint statement, Ukraine, of course, was not mentioned in there, but Taiwan was.
One, it is interesting to note the growth in Russia-Chinese military exercises. The ones that have been most noticed have been in Europe, where for the first time in history a Chinese naval task force appeared in the Baltic to work with the Russian Baltic fleet, and at another point appeared in the Mediterranean, again, to work with the Russian Black Sea Fleet, but there have also been joint exercises around Japan, a joint naval task force. That may actually be a misnomer. A group of Chinese and Russian navy ships, that appear to be coordinating with each other, transited some of the Japanese straits between and among the home islands. And at other times aircraft from both countries have, in what seems to be a coordinated fashion, intruded into the Japanese and South Korean air defense identification zones, so that is pretty unprecedented. It certainly puts a lot of pressure on Tokyo, a key U.S. ally, [and] Seoul, another key U.S. ally.
When the Russians went into Ukraine, the Chinese Central Propaganda Department issued guidelines on how to cover this, and those guidelines leaked. And one of the interesting aspects of those guidelines was that we must be careful to not condemn the Russian action and express support because we will need Russian support when it is Taiwan’s turn. Now, this is a Central Propaganda Department directive. It is explanatory. It does not mean that [China is invading Taiwan]. This is not a warning order, invasion imminent, but it does show, one, that the Chinese think ahead, but two, do in fact see and expect that Russia will maintain at a minimum a friendly neutrality if not open support for any Chinese intervention against Taiwan.
Robert R. Reilly:
Not only has China not recognized Crimea as part of Russia, I do not believe it ever recognized South Ossetia or the results of the Georgian invasion from 2008. [I believe] that Eastern European countries in particular will be watching very closely to see if China recognizes these two new republics that Putin has announced in eastern Ukraine.
Yes, one, Eastern Europe absolutely is watching China closely. It was watching China closely even before Ukraine. Lithuania, one of the Baltic states, actually made clear that it was going to modify its relationship with Taiwan, essentially upgrading it both in nominal terms, in terms of how they refer to Taiwanese diplomatic representation, etc., but also that it was going to turn down participating in any kind of Belt and Road Initiative effort into Europe on the part of China. And China was very, very unhappy about that, has really cracked down hard on Lithuania. The funny thing is Lithuania actually imports very little from China, and as important, China has pressed the rest of Europe, you need to get these Lithuanians on side, so I think that the Chinese actions regarding Ukraine are going to feed into this larger basket of concerns on the part of Europe, that China is not simply a giant marketplace.
In a sense, this is the return of strategy to European thinking, that for multiple decades they have been on a strategic holiday. What is China? China is a giant market. We sell stuff to them, we buy stuff from them, but other than that, I mean they are far away. Their military is certainly not going to show up in Paris or Brussels. That is true, but Chinese cyber actions, intellectual property theft, economic behavior, and anti-democratic actions, including support for Russia, I think is reminding Europe that there is a difference between a China in terms of fundamental perspective and an India or Brazil or a United States, and you get in bed with the Chinese at your own risk.
Robert R. Reilly:
Putin has been rather expert in dividing European nations and even getting inside them to provide further internal divisions. No doubt he was expecting this, what is referred to as a special military action instead of an invasion, to have a similar effect because at the end of the day, Putin is still holding the energy axe over Europe. It has produced the opposite effect, galvanizing NATO and indicating that it may actually start taking its defense responsibility seriously. Germany [is] ponying up and actually spending two percent of its GDP on the military, and [there is] an unanimous condemnation of Russia and [Europe is sending] major supplies to the Ukrainian military forces.
So, it has done exactly the opposite of what Putin was hoping and perhaps what President Xi was expecting if indeed the story is true that at the Beijing Olympics Putin told Xi what was going to happen or that Xi asked Putin please do not invade until the closing ceremony of the game takes place. So, a lot of people have been wondering what the lessons in this are for China in regard to any potential action it may take against Taiwan.
First off, I think it was a German general who once said I have learned never to praise the darkness before dawn. Before we conclude that NATO is galvanized, it is united, etc., let us see how well the sanctions hold up if the war continues into the Fall. It is one thing to say that the Russian energy weapon is not so mighty when the weather is turning warmer. If the war is still ongoing and the sanctions are continuing when the weather turns cold, how well will Europe stay together? How much will they maintain the sanctions if the population is cold, if industry is cutting back, if cars and trucks are paying twice as much for gas? Former Prime Minister Medvedyev said literally as the sanctions started to hit, I look forward to watching Europe pay 2,000 euros per thousand cubic meters of natural gas, which would mark about a tripling of the price. [That] is what Medvedyev was essentially threatening, and that is before the current inflationary wave hit.
The second aspect here is I suspect a realization on the part of the Chinese, who have not fought a war since 1979, that conventional, high, up-tempo operations are actually very hard. During our intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, you often heard counterinsurgency is the graduate school of modern warfare. I think Ukraine has demonstrated that undergrad is not made up of gut classes, that, in fact, conventional, high intensity operations are very difficult and are easy to screw up and get wrong.
For a military that has not fought a war in 40 plus years, the idea of launching an amphibious invasion, which is one of the most difficult of conventional military operations, across over 100 miles of some of the worst water in the world with a military that has no combat experience, has new equipment, new doctrine, generational changes in its officer corps simply due to aging, has got to be daunting. If the Russians had simply smeared the Ukrainians and just taken Kiev in the opening days, that would be one thing. The fact that they have not been able to do so is important.
And I think the third aspect here is the impact of the economic sanctions. Unprecedented levels have been imposed on Russia in terms of finance and banking. I suspect that one thing the Chinese have now put at the top of their to-do list before any invasion of Taiwan is the creation of an alternate financial system, which is something that you do not just simply create overnight, but more importantly you have to get other countries’ banks to sign on. Now, you can pressure some of them through Belt and Road Initiative and aid and other things, but would Europe sign on, would Japan sign on, South Korea, would Vietnam sign on? [It is] not at all clear. Without that, China’s economy, which is far more tied to the rest of the world, is potentially more vulnerable.
Now, of course, China is the number two GDP in the world. Would you impose sanctions on that economy? Would you actually be willing to risk creating global economic chaos over Taiwan? [That is also] unclear, but again, the unity of the West thus far demonstrated is a signal to Beijing [that] you cannot assume that you will get other countries to acquiesce.
Corruption in the Military
Robert R. Reilly:
One thing that the invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated despite all the emphasis by Putin on military modernization and some of the very powerful, shiny, new weapons he has developed and his attempt to professionalize the Russian military forces is what seems to have manifested itself as still a very high level of corruption in the Russian military, by which I mean when analysts, particularly logistical analysts, have looked at the performance in Ukraine and the breakdown of the trucks, the trucks cannot get through the mud, the tanks are throwing treads, that they say, well, this equipment has not been maintained. They have not been pulling their maintenance. That is one aspect. The other is that everyone down the chain, the food chain, takes a cut, so that by the time it gets down to the funds that are necessary to maintain this stable of military equipment in a state of readiness, that does not get done and so we have seen the results of that.
Now, from what little I know, there was a high level of corruption in the Chinese military with flag officers basically buying their positions and therefore using their positions to get their investment back. And President Xi, of course, has made that a hallmark of his campaign against corruption, which is very handy to root out political opponents, but he seems serious about the military. Is the Chinese military cleaned up in respect to corruption would you think?
I think that is very hard to say. First off, again, we have no combat experience to look at. When we look at the Russian military from a year ago, I do not think anyone quite expected the poor performance that we have seen. I think it is also useful to note here with regards to the Russians, whether or not they are fighting the way they trained or whether they are fighting under a set of restrictions and guidances from Putin, who does seem to have assumed that Ukraine would simply collapse.
But that being said, the Russian military, the Soviet military, what we know from defectors and others, often had enormous problems with maintenance. Some were rooted in corruption and a lot was just in a very different attitude towards maintenance, which is maintenance why bother? Soviet units would train on only one or two tanks out of a unit of perhaps 30 because that way you only had to fix one or two, and the rest were nominally ready for combat. As we have seen with trucks, you might be able to get away with that with treads, but you almost certainly cannot do that with tires.
Is the Chinese military like this?
I think that if we go back to 1999 or so when Jiang Zemin ordered the PLA out of business, to stop running nightclubs and canning factories and brothels and farms – at one point the PLA was the world’s largest pig pork producer in the world. That was certainly motivated in part by corruption. We have seen several things, the creation of a dedicated anti-corruption element at the highest levels of the PLA, but also, interestingly, a much greater emphasis on realistic training.
And it is an interesting question whether the Russian military had a similar directive enforced by the top leadership. There is an interesting argument, in fact, that Shoigu, the current defense minister, was a turn away from a more professional military, that his predecessor, who implemented a lot of reforms, was actually much more likely to have produced an effective Russian military, but he also cut down on corruption and therefore got booted as a result.
What we do know is that there have been cases of enormous corruption in the PLA. One Chinese general who was executed had a solid gold bust of Mao, not gold-plated, solid gold. You do not get that on a general salary, but he was executed so there has been an ongoing effort to root out corruption. Some of it is politically motivated, but I think some of it is real. Without an actual war to highlight your failings, it is I think almost impossible to tell.
This is why a number of analysts, me included, do think that the People’s Liberation Army before a war with Taiwan would want to conduct a smaller war sort of like what happened in Grenada for us, a limited conflict, one that in a sense you cannot lose but which would identify and help you work on potential failings. Grenada told us our communications did not work [and] our command-and-control systems were incredibly fragile. It showed that the 1970s really had created a hollow military. A Desert Shield/Desert Storm could not have happened without Grenada highlighting the failings to be corrected.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, where might the targets of opportunity be for China to flex its muscle and see how its stuff is working?
One potentiality is the South China Sea. The head of Indo-Pacom has said that the Chinese have now fully militarized a number of the islands that they built. Those islands are adjacent to defended islands, defended by Vietnamese, by Malaysians, by Filipinos, so one or more of those islands would provide you with a chance to try out amphibious operations, air support, logistics, but they are tiny, and the garrisons are very small, so at the end of the day, the Chinese would almost certainly win even if they suffered a lot of casualties.
There has been a lot of tension on the China-India border. We, again, tend to neglect that area.
Robert R. Reilly:
When was that last war?
The last war was 1962, but there have been since 2013 a series of growing provocations, including one that led to the deaths of both Chinese and Indian troops. Interestingly, nobody got shot. They were beaten to death with clubs, with rocks, and then in a few cases were thrown off of mountain sides. It is terrible terrain, so it is an interesting challenge logistically. It is an interesting challenge in terms of coordinating air support with ground operations, land navigation, all of those sorts of things, so I think those are two areas that offer potential opportunities for a very limited conflict that Beijing at least would believe that it would win.
Robert R. Reilly:
Interesting then that I believe it was the joint statement [which] suggested that this alternative ordering of the world would be anchored by the relationship between Russia, China, and India. We are not going with this Quad idea of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, it is going to be India, China, and Russia. Is that delusional?
No, I do not think so. I think that what is interesting is that India straddles several different relationships. India’s main weapons supplier is Russia. Interestingly, there is a problem there for the United States because India buys Russian weapons, we therefore are positioning ourselves to impose sanctions on them. I believe they are termed CAATSA. There are the BRICS, Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa grouping, which began simply as newly modernizing economies, but has taken on something of a life of its own politically. And then, of course, you have the Quad.
So Russia is not interested in giving up its relationship with India. It makes Russia relevant to China in some ways. China, obviously, would much prefer Russia to end its relationship with India. But China and India do have a strong economic relationship regardless of the strategic challenges. I believe India’s largest trading partner is China. It is certainly number one or number two.
So again, the Chinese economy is so different from the Soviet economy, is so integrated into the global economy, supply chains and the like, that it becomes a factor no matter where you go. And so, it is not quite delusional to think that maybe there is a Russia-India-China relationship, especially building off of BRICS. And you will notice Brazil has also been loudly neutral regarding the Ukraine conflict and India chose to abstain in the UN on the resolutions, so BRICS has more to it also than I think sometimes people [assume].
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, should that be the case, and should that develop, that would tremendously complicate the situation for the United States in the western Pacific as well as our allies, Japan and Australia, because without India, you have got a big problem. When Putin makes that statement that President Xi has never asked me for support for his objectives in the Pacific area, presumably the other side of that is he never asked me to do something for him in my area of main concerns, so we leave each other in these two main areas of concern. Is that likely to continue? I mean Russia does not have, as it certainly used to, thus the Russo-Japanese war, have major interests in the Pacific that it needs to protect, and therefore be a potential point of collision between the two of them.
Russia has interests. It wants to be a major power, a global power. You cannot ignore Asia if you want to be a global power, but the reality is that the Russian economy is not exactly a major player in Asia. Russia supplies energy to China. It tried to sign contracts with the Japanese in the wake of the Cold War. A lot of that fell through. Vladivostok and places like that are [not notable]. I mean one does not think of Vladivostok alongside Seoul, and Shanghai, and Tokyo as economic powerhouses.
So I think that for all that Putin would love to have a much larger Asian presence, and he has tried to insert himself into the North Korea situation, you know, the six-party talks did include Russia. He does sell weapons to a variety of Asian states, including Vietnam, interestingly. Again, [that is] a Chinese bête noire. But at the end of the day, especially in the wake of Ukraine, I think that Russia’s voice in Asia is actually going to be lessened. The Russian military was always going to be one of the key cards. Why do you pay attention to Moscow? Because they have a large, effective military. It will now be much smaller and has been demonstrably less effective.
One of the interesting questions is going to be the Arctic, whether or not the Chinese in fact leverage their relationship with Putin, especially after this war is over given all the economic sanctions, etc. If we assume that China maintains its economic ties to Moscow, China will be the country that can keep Russia economically on at least life support. The Chinese are not known for altruism. One of the things they may well ask for is, hey, you are a member of the Arctic Council. We would appreciate if you would help us despite not having any territory north of the Arctic circle, which is a requirement, nonetheless helping us getting onto, say, the Arctic Council.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, many people are critical of U.S.-NATO policy to this extent, that it has been responsible through its continued expansion eastward toward and onto Russia’s border, it has pushed Russia into the hands of China. And of course, historically, when Russia was more militarily powerful than the United States, Nixon used the China card to give the Soviet Union something to worry about. Every strategic thinker’s nightmare is a two-front war, so now you worry about it, Soviet Union.
Now that worry is over because of this understanding between Putin and Xi, which creates a tremendous amount of [concern], a greater worry for Europe because Putin is unconstrained by any worries in his east. And that both of these countries certainly [have mutual interests]. Perhaps their strongest point of mutual interest is creating problems for the United States. In so far as you can do it, you know, we appreciate what you are doing, as you will appreciate what we are doing.
And the consequence of that, of course, is the United States is placed in a very difficult strategic position as illustrated by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. You were supposed to shift to Asia and the Pacific, and now there is this requirement of maintaining or even increasing military forces in Europe, so this, indeed, has really created a huge nightmare. Now, some people think it was avoidable, [but] some do not. What do you think about this general assessment of the situation in which we have been placed by this alignment of strategic interests between these two countries?
Well, I think that, first off, this administration’s actions are frankly exacerbating this problem. We are expecting the Russians to guarantee Iranian good behavior under a revived JCPOA. Why you would think that Russia, who we are sanctioning over Ukraine, will somehow keep Iran under control, why you would allow the Russians to monkey around with their own oil exports by interacting with Iran as part of this [is incomprehensible]. We are offering Russia a backdoor way of both evading sanctions and strengthening Iran to create a third front of complication for our policies.
Did we push Putin into China’s arms?
To believe that is to believe that we should have told the Poles and the Balts, who had been under a Soviet thumb, [and] in the case of the Baltics, we never recognized their absorption by the Soviet Union in 1940, that no, you are on your own. Hopefully, the post-Soviet Russians will maintain good behavior, and we are not going to help you at all. Is that really a realistic view? Do we really think that if we had not incorporated countries like Lithuania and Poland into NATO, that either Putin would not have risen to power or that he would be somehow more open to the West and democracy? Hardly.
We do know that we talked the Ukrainians into giving up their nuclear weapons. We essentially said we would offer some kind of security reassurance, not a guarantee, and we fell through on that. It seems to me that that has done more to encourage the likes of a Putin, who I think lives by Stalin’s dictum, “When probing with a bayonet, if you encounter mush, keep pushing. If you encounter steel, back off.”
We have generally not come down hard on Russia at all.
The Russians took Crimea in 2014. What exactly happened? We did not arm Ukraine. [We imposed] sanctions, which were weak, sanctions which on Nord Stream 2 were not imposed except during the Trump administration and were lifted by the Biden administration. [There was] a refusal to provide lethal arms to Ukraine. It is not as though we have been led by a combination of, you know, Reagan, Thatcher, and Lech Wałęsa in confronting Putin in the years since Putin came to power. So I do not see that as being pushed together.
And one other thing to keep in mind is people talk about Nixon going to China. What they fail to recognize is that Nixon could only go to China because China changed. China was open to that visit because an internal power struggle had left Zhou Enlai [as] the winner, and Lin Biao [as] the loser. Had Lin Biao succeeded in his efforts, in 1972, it might well have been Leonid Brezhnev who landed at Beijing Airport and shook hands with Mao Zedong. Rather than a U.S.-China pull against the Soviets, had China not undergone domestic changes, it would have been the two communist powers confronting the West. I think we forget that internal politics, whether in Moscow or Beijing, is as important as American politics.
Robert R. Reilly:
One last point, Dean, or question for you to comment on is the unanticipated consequence of the invasion of Ukraine, [which] seems to be the strengthening of NATO. As you said, we will see how that plays in the long run, but in the short run, it is animating Finland, which has a highly successful history as a neutral state, and Sweden, to talk about joining NATO, and for the Secretary General of NATO, Stoltenberg, to say, well, the door is open, come on in. So, the alliance is growing even stronger as a result of it. You may or may not think that will make the alliance stronger, or whether it is appropriate, or whether it will further incite Russia, as indeed it has, as Russia is issuing further threats. And of course, we know about the ’39 war between Finland and the Soviet Union.
Would any of this, again, give further thought to President Xi that if he strikes Taiwan, he is going to create a strengthened alliance against him that will make things far worse than if he did not forcibly take Taiwan?
Well, clearly failure leads to negative consequences. Russia’s inability to take Kiev or even Kharkiv, fighting is still going on in Mariupol, the Russian military failed in its mission to take key objectives quickly, and with that you have what is in essence a preference cascade. A number of countries have basically said either, well, the Russians are not that big a threat, or the Russians are a scary threat, they will invade people, and we need to do something more than what we have been doing.[There are] two problems in trying to transfer this to the Pacific. The first is there is no NATO in the Pacific. There is no multinational alliance, so would an invasion of Taiwan strengthen U.S.-Japan relations? Almost certainly. U.S.-South Korea relations? Probably, but South Korea’s historic relationship between China and Japan is very different.
The other aspect here is if China launches a bloody failure, yes, I think that you may well see a number of other countries saying, one, China invades countries, which they have not done since 1979, they are now pursuing a different approach, we need to do something about it, and two, the failure means that we have breathing room, period, within which to respond.
Conversely, if the Chinese attack Taiwan and for whatever reason, political warfare, assassination, fifth column, what have you, Taiwan surrendered in ten days – and I am not suggesting that is likely to happen, I am just saying if that were to occur, unlike Ukraine, it is not clear at that point what other countries would do. Asia is not marked by balance of power politics. There is no history of intra-Asian alliances in the pre-modern era. There is no history of the Koreans and Khmers signing an alliance, or the Japanese and the Vietnamese signing an alliance against imperial China or Republican China, so it is a very different mental model.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, they were a tributary system, certainly.
All to China, not among each other.
Robert R. Reilly:
So that means that these countries over thousands of years are much more accustomed to deferring to Beijing or Xi’an or Nanjing or wherever the capital was at the time than to forming alliances to counter China. And I would suggest that that is not the default by which they think even today.
Robert R. Reilly:
Very interesting. A smaller issue which I neglected to mention earlier is one way in which China does seem to be helping Russia in respect to Ukraine is as a huge outlet for the Russian disinformation, which China is parroting and putting out in its media, where it has a very powerful presence in places like in Latin America and elsewhere. They are buying that explanation of the war and, indeed, that it was incited by the United States and NATO [by] leaving open the possibility [of] Ukraine joining.
Yes. The Chinese politically are more aligned with Moscow, but as you note, this messaging is especially anti-American. So it is not that Ukraine is made up of Nazis, which is a big piece of Putin’s argument, or that they are somehow corrupt, but rather this is all brought about by the United States. And that is the key point of agreement between Moscow and Beijing. Whatever else, we will lay the blame at Washington’s feet.
Robert R. Reilly:
Great, well, thank you very much. I would like to thank Dean Cheng for joining us today to discuss the Chinese-Russian relationship. As he says, it is complicated. And I want to invite our audience to visit the Westminster Institute website and our YouTube channel to see the other lectures and discussions we have available, certainly on Russia and Ukraine, and on China, as well as Dean’s earlier program with us on the Return of the Middle Kingdom. Thank you for joining us. I am Robert Reilly.