The Sum Total of All Fears
No. 1 2013 January/March
Vassily B. Kashin

PhD in Political Science
National Research University–Higher School of Economics (HSE), Moscow, Russia
Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies


SPIN-RSCI: 3480-3664
ORCID: 0000-0001-9283-4528
ResearcherID: A-9102-2017

The Chinese Threat Factor in Russian Politics

Russian-Chinese relations have reached an unprecedented level of trust and cooperation in recent years. Moscow and Beijing act concertedly on the majority of international issues, and this is not just some passive support for each other but joint efforts to map out political moves. Military-technical cooperation in 2011-2012 basically returned to the “golden age” of the 1990s, with annual supplies coming close to $2 billion. In addition, the two countries have been conducting ever larger military exercises, marked by an increasingly higher degree of interaction.

Joint sincere efforts are being taken to strengthen humanitarian contacts, ties between public organizations and cooperation in the field of education. Government officials of the two countries share the view that the “Chinese threat” is a myth that benefits mainly the United States. Russian and Chinese leaders have repeatedly said that their political relations are based on trust and that their countries would never regard each other as foes. The topic of possible threats from China is a taboo for Russian officials participating in public discussions.

At the same time, the analysis of data concerning the supply of new weapons to the Russian Armed Forces indicates that the Eastern Military District has one of the highest rates of rearmament in the country. Prompt redeployment of troops from the European part of Russia to its Far Eastern regions is one of the key scenarios used in large-scale war games in the country. Most of press statements on espionage cases issued by the Federal Security Service (FSB) concern China. In addition, Russia obviously limits Chinese investments in certain strategic sectors of its national economy.

Clearly, all precautions taken by Russia are associated not with a direct but potential threat to its interests, sovereignty and territorial integrity that may come from China. And yet, even a potential Chinese threat is a significant factor in Russia’s foreign and defense policy.

Russia and China have no special “heavy historical heritage” that could fuel mutual animosity. Contrary to popular myths, there are no large countries along Russia’s border with which it warred less than with China.

Major military episodes in the history of the two countries include clashes between the Manchus and Cossacks led by Yerofey Khabarov and Onufriy Stepanov in the 1750s; two Chinese sieges of the Russian Far Eastern fortress of Albazin in 1685 and 1686-1687; and an abortive attack on fortifications on the river Selenga by the Qing dynasty’s Mongolian vassals in 1688.

By European war standards, these clashes, each of which involved several hundred Russians, were insignificant. Russia played a greater role in the Eight-Nation Alliance’s intervention in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1899-1901, but still it was not the main aggressor.

More recent events include the conflict on the Chinese Eastern Railway in 1929 (probably the most prominent one in the history of bilateral relations) and the incidents on the Damansky (Zhenbao) Island and near Lake Zhalanashkol. It’s hard to find two other large countries that would have co-existed for over 300 years and fought each other so little. Russian-Chinese relations did have dark and disgraceful chapters in their mutual history, such as the Blagoveshchensk Massacre of 1900 or the extermination of Orthodox Albazinians in China during the Boxer Rebellion. But Russia and China have never had a real large-scale war between them, with tens and hundreds of thousands of people killed and cities razed to the ground.

“Unequal Russian-Chinese treaties,” which China claims caused it to cede large territories to Russia in the past, can be considered an element of Chinese domestic propaganda, which culminated in a “Century of Humiliation” – a notion referring to the period of 1840-1949 when the country was invaded by other countries. Naturally, the main idea of this concept is not to point at the offenders but to emphasize that the “humiliation” ended only after communists came to power in the country.

At the same time, Russian-Chinese interaction against the West has a long history. In 1858, Russia tried to supply modern weapons – rifles and artillery guns – to China and was ready to send its advisers over there to teach the Chinese to use them. It was believed that, once rearmed, the Chinese would deal a heavy blow to the British and the French and that Russia would thus take revenge on them for its defeat in the Crimean War. The deal was upset by the political foot-dragging on the part of the Chinese emperor who refused to ratify the Treaty of Aigun with Russia. In the 20th century, Soviet Russia provided military aid to the Kuomintang during the civil war in China and the Sino-Japanese War that broke out in 1937. But these moves were just a prelude to colossal cooperation projects launched after communists came to power in China.

Despite the anti-Soviet ideological campaign in China in the 1960s-1970s, during which the Soviet Union was portrayed as a centuries-old enemy of the Chinese people, the Chinese do not hold historical grudges against Russians. But it is an important reminder of how easy it is for the political leadership of China to manipulate the public opinion and direct people’s discontent and aggression against an external enemy of its own choosing, even though this enemy was a close ally only a day before. Persistent references to the “Century of Humiliation” and the increasingly frequent use of nationalist motives in state ideology provide fertile ground for nationalism, which often spins out of control and forces the Chinese leadership to follow nationalist trends.

We have been comfortably watching from outside the harassment of Japanese business in China during the aggravation of a dispute over the Senkaku Islands in 2012, a mass campaign against French Carrefour supermarkets for France’s position on Tibet in 2008, sanctions against the Philippines, and occasional media stories in China about an imminent war with the Philippines, Vietnam or Japan. But if public hatred can be turned against a weak and harmless country, like the Philippines, then any country can become its target, depending entirely on the political will of the Chinese leadership.

The problem is that no one can tell where the political will of the Chinese leadership will be directed even in ten years from now. Just like Russia, China is a country with a transitional political system. Its provisional nature is officially recognized and stated in Communist Party documents, and most of Chinese leaders’ policy statements speak of an inevitable political reform.    

How will this reform go and will it be kept under control? China is in the midst of the urbanization and demographic transition processes, which European countries went through in the late 19th-the first half of the 20th centuries. Likewise, it is experiencing severe economic inequality, social injustice, and a growing educational and cultural gap between the urban middle class and the lower classes.

The situation is exacerbated by a deep ideological crisis in China’s ruling Communist Party, which more and more often has to resort in its propaganda efforts to nationalist and great-power ideas.

For Europe, the first half of the 20th century was a period of political turbulence, which resulted in foreign-policy twists and wars. The Chinese government is aware of threats to the country’s development and stability and is taking measures to avoid them, but the current state of economic science does not allow us to say confidently whether these measures will be successful.

China can change so much in a matter of several years that the Chinese threat may turn from a hypothetical into a real one. Confrontation with Russia makes no sense in terms of China’s long-term interests, but then there was no sense in China’s confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, either. This policy stemmed from internal political interests of Mao Zedong and his inner circle. Russia cannot but take this probability into account.


In the event of armed conflict with China, Russia will be teetering on the edge of defeat at first, regardless of its military buildup now. In fact, it is virtually impossible for Russia to defend Siberia and the Russian Far East from Chinese aggression without large-scale use of nuclear weapons, which have to be employed in the early stages of hostilities.

If one looks at the political map of the world, he will see that Russia’s Siberia and Far East appear to be just as large as the rest of Asia. But a look at the population density map will reveal that the inhabited part of the region is just a strip some 3,000 kilometers long and less than 200 kilometers wide on the average. Territories lying north of that strip are not suitable for accommodating large numbers of people or for carrying out large-scale economic activities.

Defending a narrow and long strip of land is a challenging task in itself. But even this small territory is scarcely populated and has no developed infrastructure. There are three main routes cutting across this strip of land and linking the Russian Far East with the rest of Russia: two railroads (Trans-Siberian Railway and Baikal-Amur Mainline) and one paved road from Chita to Khabarovsk, finished with so much difficulty only in the 2000s. The Trans-Siberian Railway and the Chita-Khabarovsk road in some places pass very close to the Chinese border and would be vulnerable even to artillery fire from China.

Built at a relatively safe distance from the border but at such a high cost and with so much effort, BAM makes Russia’s situation in the Far East somewhat more stable. But even this railroad with its numerous bridges and tunnels can be cut off by air strikes and cruise missiles.

The disadvantageous geographical position and infrastructure backwardness have always underlain the Soviet/Russian military policy in the Far East. These factors played a key role in causing the Russian Empire, which had surpassed Japan economically and militarily and which had far greater resources, to admit its defeat in the 1904-1905 war.

Starting in the 1930s, the Soviet Union, relying on its military-industrial superiority over Japan and later over China, tried to make up for its geographical disadvantages by permanently maintaining a large military force in the Far East, which assuredly outmatched a potential enemy in heavy weaponry (quantitatively and usually qualitatively), if not in manpower.

Even at the most tragic moments of World War II, when the fate of the country was hanging by a thread, the Soviet leadership did not allow the number of troops in the Russian Far East to go below a certain, rather high. Their strength never fell below the level of 1.1 million in manpower, 2,000 tanks, 3,100 aircraft and about 9,000 artillery systems.

Notwithstanding convincing intelligence that the Japanese leadership had no plans to attack the Soviet Union, it was considered risky to cut manpower below a certain level as it would have made the country defenseless against an enemy acting along interior lines and relying on much more extensive infrastructure.

The same logic underlay the Soviet military posture in the Far East after the beginning of confrontation with China in the 1960s. In 1965, the Soviet Union started redeploying army divisions from inner regions closer to the border with China. In the late 1960s-early 1970s, the Trans-Baikal Military District alone was reinforced with 10 divisions, including three armored ones. In 1990, the District had 260,000 troops, 3,100 tanks, 3,900 artillery systems, and about 200 helicopters. The Far Eastern Military District had about 370,000 troops, 6,000 tanks, 5,800 artillery systems, and 300 helicopters.

By the number of heavy weaponry, these two districts alone could compare to the whole of China’s five-million-strong army of that time, and they by far exceeded it in weapon technology. Forces of the Central Asian and Siberian Military Districts and the Pacific Fleet were also largely poised to repel a hypothetical Chinese attack.

And yet, Lt. Gen. Vladimir Legominov, who served in the intelligence service of the Trans-Baikal Military District for 14 years, wrote in his memoirs: “We understood that in the event of a non-nuclear conflict our capabilities could hardly compare to those of the opposing party.” The only, but quite ephemeral, chance of success for Soviet troops in a non-nuclear conflict would be a rapid offensive in order to divide, encircle and destroy the outnumbering enemy forces before they could do the same.

But there was no certainty about the success of such an operation, especially considering the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons by China in the late 1970s-early 1980s. It was then that China amended its commitment not to be the first to use nuclear weapons to allow the use of such weapons on Chinese territory against invading enemy forces.

The need to keep a large number of troops in Siberia and the Russian Far East, coupled with the arms race that was going on in Europe, was one of the major causes of economic overload in the Soviet Union and its subsequent collapse. Post-Soviet Russia could not even hope to have a Soviet-type defense system in its Far East, while China was turning into one of the leading industrialized powers in the world. No country, including the United States, can now achieve the same level of arms superiority over China as the Soviet Union had (except for confrontation at sea). The Russian Army’s strength is now less than 300,000 troops, which is less than 20% of China’s land forces and, unlike in Soviet times, the Russian Army no longer has firepower superiority.

Another factor that exacerbated Russia’s military situation in the Far East was a dramatic drop in the cost of high-precision weapons and their widespread use. The ramified system of permanent fortifications, built by the Soviet Union in the Far East for decades, which lent certain stability to Soviet defenses, had become useless. All of Russia’s general purpose forces are only a tiny fraction of what the Soviet Union used to have in the Far East. And while prospects of non-nuclear confrontation with China raised doubts in the 1980s, now the situation looks quite certain. This awareness caused Russia to sign an agreement with China in the 1990s to reduce and limit the number of troops stationed in the border areas.

In fact, Russia’s only non-nuclear trump card in its hypothetical military confrontation with China is the Pacific Fleet. The technical superiority of Russian nuclear-powered submarines and China’s growing dependence on maritime trade give Russia a theoretical chance to inflict unacceptable economic damage upon China. Obviously, this factor would not stop a potential Chinese advance in the Far East, but it can raise costs for China if it considers starting a conflict with Russia.

Interestingly, Russia has since 2004 been actively renovating and developing the nuclear submarine base in Vilyuchinsk (Kamchatka), which the Russian General Staff proposed closing in 2003 for lack of funding. The efforts to develop infrastructure in Vilyuchinsk are under Vladimir Putin’s personal supervision. He has made several trips to the base where most of Russia’s newly built Project 955 Borei-class and Project 885 Yasen-class nuclear submarines are to be stationed.

On the whole, Russia is developing its general purpose forces with a clear view of potential confrontation with China. In 2010, Russia established the Unified Strategic Command “Vostok” (Eastern Military District) on the basis of the Pacific Fleet and the Far Eastern and Siberian Military Districts, making it the largest force in the Russian Armed Forces. Despite the friendly nature of Russian-Chinese relations, the District, which is directly responsible for defending the Russian border with China, is being actively developed.

A considerable part of new weapons supplied to the Russian army goes to that District. Its air force units are the main recipients of upgraded Su-27SM fighter planes which have been supplied to the 22nd and 23rd fighter aviation regiments based at Dzemgi and Tsentralnaya-Uglovaya, Primorsky Territory. The Russian military command is planning to deploy a third regiment of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems in the region (the first two defend Moscow). The District has lately received Su-30M2 fighter planes, Su-25SM attack planes, Ka-52 attack helicopters, Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters, and other weaponry. More than 50% of military equipment in service with the District’s air force and air defense units was renovated (replaced with new equipment or upgraded) in 2011-2012.

Every year, the Russian military hold military exercises to practice redeployment of troops from Russia’s European part to the Russian Far East. The military command attaches much importance to modernizing strategic aircraft. And yet, the best Russia’s general purpose forces can do is repulse an armed provocation similar to those that occurred on the Soviet-Chinese border in 1969, or a somewhat larger one.

Russia’s defense capabilities with regard to China are based on nuclear weapons, including tactical ones. The Chinese factor can probably explain many aspects of Russian activities pertaining to the strategic arms control and reduction policy. Russia declines to discuss any cuts in strategic nuclear arsenals with the United States without the other nuclear powers joining in. It does not disclose the composition of its tactical nuclear forces and has no intention to reduce them. Moreover, it invests large amounts of money in their development. And it must be the Chinese factor that had in the past prompted then Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to suggest that Russia should withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

It must be said that Russian fears of China are mirrored in fears of Russia in China. Russia is a country with a transitional political system. Extreme ideologies are strong in the country and the “Chinese threat” theory is very popular here. If Russia joins the Western camp and becomes an ally of the United States, China will find itself in a very complex and precarious situation: years of efforts to diversify sources of resources will be wrecked; Chinese investments in other CIS countries will be endangered; although Russia is not capable of launching a ground invasion of China, military confrontation and a possible appearance of U.S. military bases in Russia will require China to invest tremendous amounts of money in its air defense and early warning systems, and may even necessitate redeployment of some strategic facilities. China will fall into isolation in the international arena where Russia is now its only major ally on many issues that are crucial for Beijing.


The understanding of horrible consequences that confrontation may have makes Russia and China take measures to avoid this scenario. Their governments are trying to bind their countries by economic, political and humanitarian ties that will make a conflict unlikely or even impossible in the future. But these efforts are complicated by the parties’ unwillingness to give up short-term economic interests, by differences in the size of their economies, mutual mistrust and insufficient understanding of each other’s motives. And yet, one cannot deny gradual progress of this policy.

In the economic sphere, Russia is seeking to build a relationship with China as intertwined as possible to make it an important stabilizing factor in bilateral political contacts. China fully supports efforts to boost bilateral trade with Russia, which reached $90 billion in 2012 and is expected to exceed $100 billion in 2013. For Russia, China is already the biggest trade partner, if the European Union is not considered a single economy. In 2012, China accounted for slightly over 10% of Russia’s foreign trade, while the Russian share in China’s foreign trade is much smaller and barely exceeds 2%. Nevertheless, Russia is already turning into an important supplier of certain raw materials to China and its role will grow as Beijing is seeking to diversify sources of their supply. In addition to extending the current oil import agreement, the two countries may also sign an agreement by the end of this year for the supply of Russian natural gas to China. Russian coal becomes increasingly interesting for China, too, and there are also good prospects for boosting the export of Russian petroleum products and electricity to that country. At the same time, the economy is expected to play only a minor stabilizing role in bilateral relations in the medium term.

Politically, the two countries engage each other in various formats and mechanisms of political interaction, such as joint participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS and cooperation in discussing international issues in the United Nations, including regular consultations between the foreign ministries and coordination of positions ahead of important votes in the UN Security Council.

China is trying to allay Russia’s concerns about a possible political rivalry between the two countries in the post-Soviet area. Beijing already responded coldly to attempts by some post-Soviet countries, among them Belarus, to use China as a counterbalance to Russia’s influence. During Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to China in 2010, Beijing actually recognized the post-Soviet region as an area of Russia’s special interests and stated in a joint document its support for Russia’s efforts to ensure its national interests and security in the Caucasus and the CIS as a whole.

In the field of defense and security, apart from large-scale military-technical cooperation which has lately returned to the level of the 1990s, Russia and China are taking measures to build mutual confidence, including joint military exercises, the training of military personnel, and the exchange of intelligence. The two countries are making consistent efforts to build a positive image of each other at home, and China has probably outdone Russia in this respect. Modern Russian culture is well featured on China’s state-run television and radio. The Chinese mass media carry detailed and positive reports on the political and economic situation in Russia. There are extensive plans to develop Russian-Chinese ties in such fields as education, science and technology. Although it will take years to build a truly solid material base for Russian-Chinese relations, with no guarantee of success, the leaders of the two countries are determined to persevere to the end in these efforts.

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The Chinese threat, however hypothetical, is one of the key factors underlying Russia’s foreign and defense policies. Russia’s geographical position is such that military-political confrontation with China would have the most gruesome consequences and entail huge risks for Moscow, even if it gets political support from Washington during this standoff.

This explains why Russia is so suspicious about any idea of partnership with the United States in the Asia-Pacific Region: such partnership would bring no obvious benefits (at least it is clear that the United States would not be prepared to offer anything truly appealing to Russia in the foreseeable future) but would create tremendous direct risks for the future of the country.

Russia’s special relations with China mean that Russia is not interested in taking sides in regional disputes between China and other countries in the region. Russia does not want to be put in a situation where it would have to make a choice between special political relations with China and continued mutually advantageous cooperation with other countries in the region.

Since the long-term future of China remains unclear, Russia cannot rule out a situation where the Chinese threat will turn from a hypothetical into a real one. Therefore Russia is interested in having effective channels of communication and cooperation with the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific Region, which could be stepped up whenever necessary.

On the whole, Russia’s attitude towards present-day China and its place in the world was concisely stated by then-prime minister Vladimir Putin in his interview to three federal television channels on October 17, 2011. When asked whether the Chinese threat to Russia was real, he said that China’s aspirations were aimed not at natural resources of adjacent territories but at global leadership and that “this is where we are not going to argue with China.” “China has other competitors in this sphere, so let them sort things out among themselves,” Putin said. He also noted that “as a rule, it is our Western partners” that try to use the Chinese threat to scare Russia. But Russia’s goal is to acquire reliable guarantees of its own security with regard to China, while avoiding full involvement in the growing Sino-American global rivalry and reaping all the benefits a third party can expect in such a situation. China faced a similar situation in international relations in the 1970s-1980s and used it quite deftly as a springboard for taking a leap in its development.