China and Russia have often described their relationship as “special” and “unprecedented” and have recently promised to maintain what they call a “comprehensive strategic partnership”.In fighting the coronavirus pandemic, the “specialness” of this relationship has been clear for all to see. In February, Moscow sent medical supplies to Wuhan, then the epicentre of the outbreak, and when the virus peaked in Russia, China repaid the favour by delivering to its neighbour millions of masks and other protective equipment.What’s more, the leaders of the two countries seem close, having met more than 30 times since 2013. Last month, in what appeared to be a veiled dig at the United States, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for China and Russia to jointly “oppose hegemony and unilateralism”, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said the two countries’ ties had reached an “unprecedented” level.

Zolotoy Rog (Golden Horn) bay in Vladivostok, Russia. Photo: ShutterstockEven so, in recent months, however hard the two countries have tried to paper over them, cracks have been appearing. Among the divisions: historical differences over Vladivostok; sales of Russian arms to India; and delays in the delivery of Russian missiles to Beijing.But perhaps the most explosive issue of all is the suggestion in recent weeks that Washington wants to embrace its old Cold War adversary as a way of countering growing Chinese might. Unthinkable as that might once have seemed, asked about the possibility last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo replied: “I do think there’s that opportunity.”

Ruler of the East?

Divisions over Vladivostok spilled into the public domain last month, when the Russian embassy caused an online backlash in China by posting a video about the commemoration service for the city’s 160th anniversary.Chinese feelings over Vladivostok, which once belonged to China, remain high. The modern-day territory of Primorsky Krai, of which Vladivostok is the administrative capital, was part of the Qing dynasty’s Manchurian territory before it was annexed by the Tsarist empire in 1860 after China’s defeat at the hands of Britain and France during the second opium war.

Many Chinese criticised the embassy’s blog as a painful reminder of their country’s historical humiliations at the hands of foreign powers.CORONAVIRUS UPDATEGet updates direct to your inboxSIGN UPBy registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy

Hu Xijin, the editor of the nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times, even went as far as refusing to refer to the city as “tongzhi dongfang” or “Ruler of the East” as its name means in Russian, calling it by its old Chinese name of Haishenwei instead.

Some of the more strident posters suggested China should respond to the embassy’s blog by rethinking its stance on Crimea.

Russia seized Crimea by force from Ukraine in 2014 and annexed it the following year after a referendum, a move which drew international condemnation. China has so far chosen to remain neutral.

The outcry over the embassy’s blog was one of the first real signs that the territorial dispute was not dead and an indication that “Sinocentrism is becoming a problem in this relationship”, according to Asan Forum editor Gilbert Rozman.

“A supremely confident China in 2020 is witnessing an upsurge in impatient calls to settle scores steeped in grievances nurtured by its leaders. Deference towards Russia observed since 1992 may not be an immutable principle”, Rozman wrote in an article titled Multipolarity vs Sinocentrism: Chinese and Russian Worldviews and Relations.Elaborating on his article, Rozman said China’s confidence came from the sense that it was rising fast while the reverse was true for the US, a sense that was reinforced by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Yet, such confidence was building for many years and 2020 only accelerated it,” Rozman said.

As for deference towards Russia, Rozman said this was a strategic decision made by Beijing to win Russia to China’s side against the US.

Arms to India

Moscow also found itself in hot water with the Chinese public when it increased its arms sales to New Delhi soon after a deadly stand-off between Chinese and Indian troops along their disputed Himalayan border.

The month after the June 15 clash, in which at least 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese were killed in hand-to-hand fighting, New Delhi rushed through a deal to buy new Russian warplanes and upgrade its existing fleet.

As one Chinese internet user put it: “While fighting your opponent, how would you feel if your friend handed over a knife to your opponent?”

However, Dmitry Stefanovich, a research fellow with the Centre for International Security at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations, pointed out that Russia had been supplying arms to India since long before the clash in the Himalayas.

Most of India’s strategic weapons, from its aircraft carrier to its nuclear attack submarine, are imported from Russia.

“The Russian defence industry, obviously, would like to remain in the Indian market, which is getting more and more competitive, with France and the US being the most obvious challengers,” Stefanovich said.

Indeed, said Delhi University’s Institute of Chinese Studies visiting fellow and assistant professor Rityusha Tiwary, Russian arms sales to India had in fact fallen since the peak in 2005 when sales reached US$3.2 billion. Still, analysts acknowledged that defence matters had created fault lines in the Russia-China relationship.

Alexey Muraviev, an associate professor of National Security and Strategic Studies at Australia’s Curtin University, said Russia was uneasy about Chinese cooperation with Ukraine in both military and business matters.

“The Chinese are also engaged in reverse engineering Russia’s military technology and then trying to sell indigenous platforms based on Russian designs, thereby competing against Russia on the global arms sales market,” Muraviev added.

Tiwary said Russia saw selling arms to India as a way of balancing out China’s growing power.

Missing Missiles

Another fault line appears to have opened up over a deal for Russia to supply the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system to China.

The S-400 is considered the most advanced of its kind in Russia, capable of destroying targets at distances of up to 400km and heights of 30km.

Last month, the Chinese websites NetEase and Sohu reported the deliveries had been “delayed” due to the coronavirus, but Moscow said later the deliveries had been “suspended”.

According to Russia’s TASS news agency, China received its first batch of S-400s in 2018 but further deliveries were suspended when Moscow accused Valery Mitko, president of the St Petersburg Arctic Social Sciences Academy, of spying for Beijing.

The move incensed many Chinese, not least because Russia’s defence minister Sergey Shoygu had agreed with his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh to fast-track the production and delivery of five S-400 systems purchased by India in 2018. (The first of these are expected to be delivered in October).

Many Chinese said this proved Russia was putting the interests of India before those of China, which had placed its orders in 2014.

“Is this not a clear-cut case that the Russians are unreliable? China has to wake up!” wrote one Chinese internet user.

Describing the S-400 suspension as an “intriguing development”, Derek Grossman, senior defence analyst at the Rand Corporation, a Washington think tank, said the suspension ran counter to the narrative that Sino-Russian security relations had strengthened in recent years.

He also questioned Chinese media claims that the problem was due to the coronavirus, noting that it came less than two weeks after the deadly clash in the Himalayas on June 15.

“This strongly suggests that Moscow’s decision was in response to the [Himalayan] incident,” Grossman said.

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He noted that throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union had been a close friend of India, and the relationship remained warm today.

“I suspect that the S-400 decision largely was the result of Russia deciding to punish China for its actions against India, and to demonstrate to New Delhi that Moscow can still be trusted to support its interests,” Grossman said.

Indo-Pacific Partner?

Still, perhaps most divisive of all the issues facing the relationship is the recent claim in Indian media that New Delhi wants Moscow to join the US-led Indo-Pacific initiative, a strategic grouping widely seen as being an attempt to counter China.

The matter was reportedly discussed during a phone call between Russian deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov and the Indian ambassador to Russia, D. Bala Venkatesh Varma.

India reportedly told Russia that just as it supports Moscow’s Greater Eurasia project – in which Russia’s foreign policy is intended to pivot to the East and greater engagement with Asia – so too should Russia support the Indo-Pacific grouping, and not see the idea merely as a strategy by Washington to divide the region.

Some Chinese commentators said the idea – a “betrayal of China”, according to some – was as explosive as asking Russia to join Nato (the Western military alliance originally set up primarily to counter Russian aggression).

But while some analysts questioned whether the US would agree to Russian membership, others thought that given the right incentives Moscow could be convinced.

Tiwary said the idea was in line with the strong India-Russia partnership of recent decades, and would further cement the relationship.

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“For Russia, the initiative offers a chance to counter US leadership in any emergent power structure in the region, by being a part of it,” Tiwary added.

However, Stefanovich said Russia was unlikely to sign up, given the group’s reputation of being anti-China. “Russia believes in inclusive regional organisations and cooperation regimes,” said Stefanovich.

Victor Gao, Soochow University chair professor and the vice-president of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a think tank in Beijing, agreed.

It was “inconceivable” that Russia would “relegate itself into being a vassal of the US”, Gao said.