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China and its Neighbors: Russia, Japan & India

Post Series: 2005: Volume 4, Number 2
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My purpose in these short comments is to lay out one useful idea for China’s relations with each of these three big neighbors. What follows is not intended as a survey of contemporary Sino-Russian, Sino-Japanese, or Sino-Indian relations, but one way of usefully viewing each of those dyads.

Russo-Chinese Ties: Demographic Imbalance

There exists a deep demographic imbalance between Russia and China. Russia is a thinly populated state in a condition of severe demographic decline, determined to hang onto vast resource rich territories of eastern Siberia seized during the same period of imperial expansion that produced the other globe-spanning European empires. Next door is China with a large and dense population, voracious and rapidly growing demands for resources, and a deep sense of grievance against the Western powers, including Russia, that Chinese are taught victimized their country for a century. This situation creates deep unease among Far Eastern Russians with China’s rapidly growing power.

Russia is a nation in serious demographic crisis. Since 1989 deaths have exceeded births producing a declining Russian population. A combination of factors give it one of the lowest fertility rates in the world: high alcoholism, drug use, suicide, and imprisonment rates among males, high abortion rates among females, declining public health system combined with high HIV and tuberculosis rates, and high unemployment leading to failed marriages and abandoned families. Between 1992 and 2000, Russia’s population declined by 3 million. By 2015 it is estimated that it will decline by another 11 million. By 2010 Russia’s population will be about 142 million —- less than half the population of the United States for an area twice the size of the United States.

Currently only about 7.5 million Russians live in the Russian Far East. There is a tendency for Russians to leave that region and return to the richer, western, European Russia. Most of those that migrate westward are young. Those who stay behind tend to be older, further decreasing the fertility of the Russian Far East.

The three provinces of China’s northeast have a combined population of over 107 million. With a fairly marketized and open economy, many Chinese have some capital, market acumen, and commercial skills. High rates of economic growth leading to rapid increases in disposable income in China create strong demand for resources of all sorts. Ambitious Chinese businessmen find many opportunities in the Russian Far East. Far Eastern Russians know that to develop their economy they must integrate with China’s booming economy. Yet they are apprehensive. They know that with Chinese investment and business will come Chinese immigration, and Chinese political influence. This was one factor in Russia’s recent decision to choose Japan rather than China as its key partner in exploiting Russian Far Eastern natural gas deposits.

I suspect that over the long run, Russia will be drawn closer to the Western orbit to deal with this problem of Far Eastern demographic imbalance. I would suggest that this was one deeper meanings of President Bush’s comment during his recent Brussels speech that the West was the true Russian home. Supporting Russia as the “weak man of (east) Asia” may become a key element of U.S. policy, just as Britain once supported the Ottoman empire as the “weak man of (west) Asia” to block Russian expansion toward the Middle East. China will have to tread very lightly with Russia to prevent this from happening.

Sino-Japanese Ties: Status Rivalry

China sees its current development drive as restoring China to its rightful position as preeminent power in Asia. Japan aspires to play a greater role in Asia as a stepping-stone to becoming a “normal country” — a country with political status commensurate with its economic and technological status. From China’s perspective, however, Japan simply lacks the moral credentials to aspire to political leadership in Asia. Below this moral sentiment is recognition that Japan acting as a great power in Asia would probably produce a balance of power in the region, dooming China’s aspiration of being the recognized preeminent power there.

China and Japan have often had difficulty accommodating the other’s status demands. By the time of the Tang dynasty in the 7th through 9th centuries, China dealt with foreign states by insisting they acknowledge the superior position of the Chinese emperor. China did not conduct diplomacy in the modern sense. Relations with foreign states were handled via the tribute system, premised on the moral and political supremacy of China’s emperor. Most states around China — Korea, Vietnam, Siam, Mongolia — learned to accommodate this arrangement for reasons of expediency. Japan, however, refused to acknowledge that its “emperor” was inferior or subordinate to China’s emperor. For centuries this made direct contact between the Chinese and Japanese imperial courts impossible. Contact was via vassals of both who served as intermediaries. From the Chinese point of view, the very presumption of the Japanese ruler in calling himself “emperor” was egregious lesse majesty. There was only one emperor, and he lived in Changan. Japan of course had the advantage of being an island safe (until the 13thcentury) from invasion by Chinese (Mongolian) armies.

Almost as soon as Japan became united in the 15th century, it challenged China for supremacy in Asia. Japanese armies invaded China’s loyal tributary Korea, as a stepping stone for broader Asian conquests. Ming armies drove Japan’s armies back. In the aftermath of this defeat, Japan turned inward, not to look outward until the 19th century. Then occurred another, well-known round of Sino-Japanese status rivalry: that of the 1930s and 1940s.

Currently, Beijing argues that Japan simply lacks the moral bona fides to serve as an Asian leader. Japan’s aggression and crimes against humanity in China and elsewhere in Asia during the 20th century, disqualify it. Even more, Japan has (in China’s interpretation) refused to repent for those crimes. “History” disqualifies Japan as Asian leader. China’s record of suffering and noble struggle, support for other Asian peoples, and contemporary economic and technological achievements, on the other hand, eminently qualify China. This is the true meaning of the “history issue” in Sino-Japan relations. From Tokyo’s point of view the “history issue” is about the future, not about the past.

Sino-Indian Ties: Possible Loss of a Strategic Buffer

Inheriting the tradition of the British Raj in defending India, New Delhi has since independence viewed the Himalayan Mountains as a strategic defense buffer. Confronted by the Chinese revolution of 1949, India imposed on all three Himalayan states (Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim) treaties designed to keep Chinese influence out of those states, thereby maintaining the Himalayas as India’s buffer. In 1989 India brought Nepal to its knees with an economic blockade to uphold its protectorate with, and keep China out of, Nepal. Now with the Maoist insurgency threatening to take over in Nepal, India faces the possibility of loss of its traditional northern buffer.

I do not pretend to know whether the Maoist insurgents will succeed in toppling the Katmandu government and taking power. It is apparent, however, that Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, that most of the countryside is already in rebel hands, that the Nepali monarchy has discredited itself by internal patricidal strife, and that the King’s recent suspension of democracy alienated much of Nepal’s small middle class. On the other hand, India, the United States, and Britain are providing military assistance to the royal Nepali government. It may or may not be possible for the Katmandu government to prevent a Maoist victory.

China has not supported the Nepali Maoists. Nor has it encouraged them in any way that I can ascertain. Indeed, it has tried to distance itself from the rebels. Still, if a Maoist government were actually to take power in Katmandu and call on Beijing to expand relations, Beijing would probably not refuse. Under such circumstances, Beijing would probably advice a Maoist Nepalese government to go slowly so as not to antagonize New Delhi. Social revolution has a logic of its own, however, and Nepal’s newly empowered non-elected elite might decide that uprooting entrenched patterns of economic power required ripping Nepal out of India’s economic orbit. The Qinghai-Lhasa railway, scheduled for completion in 2007, might serve as a lifeline for a Nepali economy reoriented away from India. The costs for the people of Nepal would be high, but their new revolutionary rulers might decide to accept those costs — just as Castro accepted (actually, forced on the Cuban people) the economic costs of reorienting the Cuban economy away from the United States toward the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

For Beijing, moving ahead to forge ties with a Maoist Nepal would constitute a high-risk and possibly high-cost,, but also potentially high payoff move. There is little that India could do to prevent this, and India’s defense position vis-à-vis China would be much reduced.

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