Alex Levine's Blog

Reasons Why Russia Should NOT Open Trade with China

July 25, 2017

China is the predominant worldwide exporter of manufactured goods, creating an enormous portion of the world’s consumer products and other items that are more dependent on man hours than on capital capacity. At face value, this is a good thing for the world: China can produce far more goods for much cheaper at a functional quality than, say, the United States or Europe. For Russia, China is an important trade partner, especially now that most of the first world have embargoed their Eastern European partner. However, like all things in international relations, the movement of goods carries a whole host of possible side effects, and simply removing all trade barriers between the states may not be the totally appropriate action for a Russia that is attempting to get the best deal out of the situation. While I will not go so far as to claim that totally free trade is the best solution to this little facet of diplomacy, as totally free trade is largely agreed to be an overall positive economically, I will try to make a case for Russia to at least consider limiting trade with China from both geopolitical and economic standpoints.

The nations of Central Asia have been important to Russian interests for several centuries now. Whether Russia viewed them as enemies, allies, satellites, or territories, the political landscape has greatly depended on these lands. In the 18th century, for example, Russia vied for influence over these lands with the British Empire, creating a geopolitical and diplomatic tension known as the Great Game. With the British Empire deceased, however, Russia should have essentially unlimited leverage to do as it likes in these regions so long as they can avoid stepping on the toes of any other power by playing too strong a hand. Essentially, so long as they don’t outright invade, they theoretically should be able to bring these nations under their sphere of influence, and, given enough time, be so influential that they can essentially control the nations’ abilities to practice diplomacy, essentially making them into satellite states. Two possible obstacles stand between Russia and this goal, however: Western powers, who have practically no interest in the region outside of checking Russia, and China, who have a strong interest in the area. To reiterate, the current world hegemony has little care as to what happens in what is essentially useless land, unstable and virtually empty of important resources, and Russia should be able to circumvent punitive retaliation so long as it can disguise its intrigue in a decent enough cloak, hiding their long-term goals under the guise of, say, beneficent support or improving stability. So long as the leaders can convince their voting base that Russia’s rationale is legitimate, they can avoid looking weak and can claim that the right move for them is to let Russia do what she will, regardless of whether or not they can see what Russia is up to. China, however, is a different story altogether. They have a growing interest in the reason, with growing infrastructure investments being used to solidify these nations’ economic reliance on the Asian nation. Although investments by China may be important to bringing stability and economic viability to these poor countries, it does make them more reliant on Chinese interests. While China will probably never go so far as to try to control the states (due in part to their distance from China’s core regions as well as the political difficulties of simply maintaining such a relationship,) China will certainly protest should Russia attempt to exert too much influence. Should investments into the region prove more valuable than continued friendship with Russia, the practical Chinese will simply threaten to pull out of any trade agreements they have with Russia, dealing a far heavier blow on the Russian economy than the Chinese.

Furthermore, Chinese-Russian relations are highly important in the Siberian-Manchurian border, especially for Russia, where the people are very reliant on Sino investments for their infrastructure. However, Manchuria is also sparsely populated, especially along the northern portion, giving the Chinese minimal reason to invest. Larger profits can be found in Africa and Southeast Asia, for example. However, there are two countries that may have economic interests in the region, though currently the diplomatic situation may be too tense for them to consider investing: Japan and Korea. Japan is very weary of its much larger neighbor, especially as the two battle for control over the small islands scattered across the sea. If the relations between China and Russia were to worsen, Japan may prove to be a willful trading partner to Russia. South Korea is on more amiable terms with China, though if Russia condemn China’s efforts to maintain the Kim regime in North Korea, they would perhaps be more willing to negotiate a better deal with Russia. Of course, the Japanese and Korean economies are more capital-intensive, and Russia would be essentially trading civilian goods for machines and other such technologies, though this may be a blessing in disguise. Russia is heavily reliant on its natural resources, and so making its population more self-reliant on producing its own goods may help further industrial growth in Russia.

Still, the idea of limiting market access to China can hardly be thought of as anything other than a thought experiment. In reality, Russia probably lacks true imperialistic motives in Central Asia, and Japan and Asia can hardly rival the pure economic force that is China. So long as the sanctions continue, Russia will essentially be held hostage by China, unable to really look anywhere else to gather the products it needs. This by no means should come off as insulting to Russia. Rather, China’s enormous population and lackadaisical nature to workers’ rights basically makes it the premier source of cheap labor throughout the entire developed world.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
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