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Outside View: China's silent dominance

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by M.D. Nalapat
Moscow (UPI) Oct 21, 2008
Chairman Mao Zedong can finally rest easy in his grave. His country has now become the dominant partner in the Sino-Russian relationship, a complete reversal of the past.

Since the 1930s Mao had a tense relationship with the Russians, largely because of their view that China and the Chinese Communist Party were in a subordinate position to their Soviet counterparts. Although Soviet leader Josef Stalin was partly successful in holding the reins on the Chinese, these slipped away entirely during the time of Nikita Khrushchev. The Leonid Brezhnev era saw China cozy up to the United States in Washington's bid to hobble Moscow.

Much of the credit for the success of the U.S. policy of containment against the Soviet Union in the decades leading up to 1992 belongs to the full-blooded way in which the Chinese Communist Party acted as an accomplice of successive Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington -- of course, with substantial economic and other benefits.

Credit for China's emergence as an economic superpower belongs to the U.S. policy of building up Beijing as a counter to Moscow, a partiality that continued for nearly a decade after the collapse of communism in Russia. Still today, the United States continues to be the primary provider of technology and markets to China, even though the country is suspected of being the ultimate source of the missile and nuclear capabilities of such problematic states as Pakistan, Iran and North Korea.

It was no accident that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made Beijing his first port of call after taking office in May this year -- excluding Kazakhstan. In Beijing he faithfully stuck to the CCP line on all issues ranging from Tibet to Taiwan and gave fulsome assurances of fealty.

In contrast, China was missing in action during Russia's recent hour of need in the U.N. Security Council, when the United States, France and the United Kingdom harshly opposed Russia's military action in Georgia. Again, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting convened in Tajikistan in late August, shortly after the incident, China ensured that any expression of support for Russia was expunged from the final document, allowing the passage of only an anodyne formulation that even Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili could not object to.

The Russian propensity to volubly back the People's Republic of China has been met with the latter's reluctance to be seen taking the side of a country that is rapidly on the way toward becoming an Albania-style satellite. It was, after all, Tirana that stood by Beijing against Moscow for more than four decades of the Cold War, a conflict in which the PRC sided with the United States against Russia since the 1960s.

Although official estimates say that less than 1 million Chinese are resident in Russia, those familiar with facts on the ground say there are as many as 6 million Chinese in Russia, 95 percent of who are there illegally. Thanks to corruption and huge geographic gaps in administrative coverage, reportedly as many as 20 Chinese use the passport of a single legal entrant to get work and other privileges in Russia. Some marry Russian women for short durations, thus winning the right to stay.

By 2015 it is estimated that up to 20 million Chinese will reside in Russia, more than half of who will be in the unpopulated reaches of Siberia. What the Japanese failed to achieve in the last century may now be accomplished by the Chinese -- which is to take effective control of Siberia away from Moscow. Already, well-funded "indigenous" organizations sprouting in the territories are calling for the rollback of Moscow's control, while much of the real estate and many businesses on the Sino-Russian border are in Chinese hands, even on the Russian side.

Some Russian analysts have been calling for migration from India as a counter to the Chinese influx, but pro-China elements in the Russian administration thus far have managed to prevent such a policy from being implemented. Although Moscow has a long way to go before the density of Chinese agents of influence there reaches the saturation levels of Taipei and Washington, the number of officials and academics who toe the Beijing line is increasing every year. The China lobby is today by far the most powerful in Russia, dwarfing the once-muscular U.S. lobby.

India is a particular target of the lobby. Those who are pro-China have ensured that Indian cultural offerings such as movies and television channels enjoy only a niche existence in the country, even though there is immense popular demand for them. While Chinese channels are everywhere, Indian ones are excluded.

Since the mid-1990s, Russia has become an expensive and unreliable supplier of equipment and technology to India. Tellingly, although Moscow freely allows Beijing to access its high-tech pool, India is denied full technology partnerships. The one exception has been the hypersonic BrahMos missile jointly developed by India and Russia.

All this is despite the fact that in the 1990s it was orders from India that kept most Russian defense production platforms from closing down, and India has always been generous in its interpretation of terms. Thanks, for example, to its policy of valuing the ruble at much more than its current market value, India has transferred nearly $19 billion to Russia during the past 15 years -- a gesture unmatched by China, which insists on getting full value for its money.

However, change may be ahead. Several Russian analysts are concerned at the way in which their country has become subservient to the geopolitical needs of China -- often being used as a battering ram against the West, while China plays the good cop -- and once again are turning to India. In turn, New Delhi has come to accept that a revival of the once-close partnership between Russia and India is key to ensuring that the country is not smothered by China.

The coming visit by year's end of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is expected to rekindle an alliance that was once the closest that either New Delhi or Moscow had with another country. Should such an outcome take place, there may be a pause and possibly a rollback of the People's Republic of China's overwhelming dominance in Russia.

(M.D. Nalapat is vice chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO peace chair and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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