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China’s Notion of Sovereignty Could Split the Sino-Russian Axis

Posted on the 22 May 2023 by Shahalexander
China’s Notion of Sovereignty Could Split the Sino-Russian Axis

China is a vocal critic of current international rules and norms, because they regard the rule-based world order today as being based on Western values. Accordingly, Chinese policymakers claim idiosyncratic notions of national sovereignty and international law, which leads them to face frequent territorial dispute with their neighbors and philosophical conflict with the global community. In view of this, there is some possibility of a future conflict between China and Russia despite their common defiance against the Western liberal world order, as Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye made a gaffe that the sovereignty of post-Soviet republics was questionable ( "China's ambassador to France questions 'sovereign status' of former Soviet nations"; France 24; 23 April, 2023). In other words, the Sino-Russian axis is breakable, and the notion of sovereignty is one of the causes to accelerate the split.

The ambassador's remark was so controversial that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning responded quickly to deny this to soothe criticism from the global community, and emphasized that China respected the sovereignty of former Soviet countries ( "China affirms ex-Soviet nations' sovereignty after ambassador comments"; PBS News; April 24, 2023). However, Masanobu Abe, a Japanese journalist based in Paris, argues that Western experts regard Ambassador Lu's comment as common understanding of post-Soviet national sovereignty among Chinese foreign policy makers ( "China's Real Intention? Why the Ambassador to France Casted Doubt on Ukrainian Sovereignty?"; Toyo Keizai; April 27, 2023). Lu may have wanted to deny Ukrainian territorial legitimacy in Crimea, but theoretically, it implies that China does not even recognize the sovereignty of Russia. Potentially, that could trigger a Sino-Russian clash in Outer Manchuria or the Russian Far East. For China, this is a historical range of Manchurian Qing Empire, but taken forcibly by Russia through the treaty of Aigun in 1858 and the treaty of Peking in 1860. At the end of the 1960s when the Sino-Soviet border conflict broke out, relations between both countries turned worse.

In view of such historical context, recent remark by Chinese President Xi Jinping could provoke a bilateral territorial dispute in the Russian Far East again, as he demanded that Russian geographical place names in this region be renamed in Chinese, such as Vladivostok into Haishenwai. That implicitly suggests China's deeply rooted territorial grudge against Russia, although Outer Manchuria was out of the Han Chinese sphere throughout history. Despite the anti-Western axis, China wants to prompt Russian decline in the economy and demography, to make this country more dependent on them to gain more access to natural resource in Siberia ( "Goodbye Vladivostok, Hello Hǎishēnwǎi!"; CEPA; July 12, 2022). Xi's remark insinuates China's hidden territorial zeal to retake this area as Russia is exhibiting in Ukraine now, which could spark a bilateral conflict in the future.

The potential territorial dispute could develop into a further problem. Currently, Russia exports oil and gas to China and India through huge discount to alleviate the impact of Western sanctions on its economy since the invasion of Ukraine. The export price of Russian oil from Baltic ports is deducted by $11 per barrel for China and $14 to 17 for India ( "India and China snap up Russian oil in April above 'price cap'"; Reuters; April 19, 2023). But that sort of bargain sale is self-defeating and unsustainable in the long run, from a fair-trade point of view. Particularly, China would exploit other natural resource in Far Eastern Siberia at the expense of the taiga environment. Actually, Chinese lumbermen were notorious for illegal logging, even long before the war in Ukraine ( "Corruption Stains Timber Trade"; Washington Post; April 1, 2007). As Russia loses bargaining power, China's selfish appetite for natural resource would devastate the local ecosystem and livelihood of the people. Experts of international politics focuses on state-to-state power interactions so much that their attention to conflicts related to global commons is not so much. Also, Western environmentalists should be more active to defend Siberian forests as they did to Amazonian forests in the 1980s. The issue of natural resource and territorial sovereignty in the Russian Far East is deeply interconnected each other. This is another cause to split the Sino-Russian axis.

Both countries do not abide by the rule-based world order, and therefore, they often behave disrespectfully to mutual accords. Though China and Russia share anti-Western and revisionist views of the world, Russia fears Chinese expansionism in its Far East territory, leading to the Kremlin's imperfect compliance with bilateral trade and investment deals ( "The Beijing-Moscow axis: The foundations of an asymmetric alliance"; OSW Report; November 15, 2021). On the other hand, China claims that current international law is insufficient to protect their core interests, and therefore, they have to defend the interest through domestic legislation even if that law is incompatible with global rules. One of the most critical examples of China's defiance to international law is its infringement of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. Professor Emeritus Shigeki Sakamoto of Kobe University denounces that such arbitrary interpretation of international law would inflict tremendous damage on international maritime order. The focal point is that China does not clarify the condition to prioritize domestic legislation to global rules and norms ( "The Anatomy of Chinese Maritime Strategy: Violation of International Maritime Order through Domestic Legislation and Arbitrary Interpretation of UNCLOS"; JFIR; February 13, 2023) If China goes its own way so aggressively, it would face bitter frictions with other countries throughout the world, including Russia. Remember the Sino-Soviet split since the denunciation of Stalinist cult by Soviet Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. Anti-Americanism cannot keep the solidarity of both countries.

The Sino-Russian axis has been splitting our alliance and democracy, and their manipulations have grown more invigorated after the Cold War. Particularly, Russian election intervention for Brexit and Trump has shaken the foundation of Western democracy. Now, China is intervening the Taiwanese presidential election through inviting Kuomintang candidate Ma Yingjeou to the mainland ( "Ma Ying-jeou's historic trip: Can former Taiwan president help ease cross-strait tensions?"; Japan Times; April 7, 2023). Therefore, we must find every weakness of the Sino-Russian axis to retaliate against those crafty actions. Their solidarity is breakable. While G7 nations made efforts to rift the Global South from China and Russia at the Hiroshima summit, it is more important to drive a wedge between these great powers.

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