Staunton, August 20 – Vilya Gelbras, the late Moscow specialist on Soviet and Russian relations with Beijing, famously observed that Poles after many years had “learned to sleep in one bed with the [Russian] bear but “we Russians will not be able to learn to sleep with the [Chinese] dragon.”
If the second part of his observation is true, Wacław Radziwinowicz argues in Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza, there is trouble ahead because Russia is rapidly becoming China’s “younger brother,” an uncomfortable reversal of their roles from only a few generations back (wyborcza.pl/naszaeuropa/7,168189,25083998,rosja-staje-sie-mlodszym-bratem-chin.html).
From the 1950s to the 1980s, the Soviet Union was larger and stronger on every measure except for population, the Polish commentator says. But now China’s GDP is 7.6 times that of Russia’s, its economy continues to grow albeit more slowly than before even while Russia’s is in stagnation or even in decline.
China’s population is ten times that of Russia’s; and Beijing can field an army larger than the total number of Russians in the world. Moreover, that army while still weaker technically than the Russian is rapidly closing the gap and soon will reach parity or superiority in almost all measures.
But there is another difference that may matter more in the relations between the two. Russia wants to “play above its weight” internationally right now, while China takes a longer view, confident that it will get its way over time. That gives China an advantage given Russian overreaching, Radziwinowicz suggests.
The current close ties between Russia and China have been “cemented” by their common antipathy to the United States, but the factors pushing them in opposite directions are ultimately deeper and more powerful, the Polish analyst continues, involving as they do the real ability to project power in the future and the expansion of Chinese influence into Russia’s Far East.
“Russians know about the territorial pretensions of ‘the dragon,’” he continues; “and are concerned that Moscow which categorically refuses to return the Southern Kuriles to Japan which Moscow has occupied since 1945 will continue to make concessions to the growing potential of Beijing.”
It has rented out land and transferred water to China despite the fears of many Russians as to where that may lead. And it has not blocked the influx of Chinese workers and business people into Russia east of the Urals, thereby allowing what for now is neo-colonialism but what might become the real thing in time.
This Chinese advance is infuriating many Russians, with some saying that this summer’s forest fires in Siberia and the Far East were set by Chinese in order to cover their illegal harvesting of timber in the region. Even if this is not the case, the fact that many Russians believe it is now a political fact of life.
And Russians are focusing on the fact that while China has become Russia’s largest trading partner, Beijing isn’t investing in Russia. China’s share of direct foreign investment there last year formed only 0.6 percent of all such investment. China thus is taking money out – in the first half of 2018, Beijing withdrew a billion US dollars from Russia -- but not putting money in.
This means, Radziwinowicz says, that those who say Russia is now China’s “younger brother” are right, an arrangement that benefits China but one that will only antagonize Russians in the future.
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