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Best of frenemies: Official relations are good, but Russians grow wary of Chinese investments (SCMP)

7 April 2019


South China Morning Post title: Best of frenemies: Official relations are good, but Russians grow wary of Chinese investments
By: Nectar Gan
Date: 24 March 2019

[Summary in bullet points:]

  • Halting the building of a bottling plant on Lake Baikal was an environmental victory, but experts note the anti-Chinese animus that helped fuel it
  • As Chinese projects have increased, they have stoked resentment and tension, especially in Siberia and the Russian Far East

“When a Russian court last week halted the construction of a water bottling plant on the shores of Siberia’s Lake Baikal, a Unesco World Heritage Site, it was hailed as a victory for environmentalists.

That it certainly was. Baikal is the planet’s largest freshwater lake and fierce public outcry that the project could cause irreversible damage to it had been months in the making, spreading from Siberia all the way to Moscow. An online petition opposing the project, which started construction in January, garnered more than a million signatures, and an Instagram account dedicated to the protest drew over 167,000 followers.

But while environmental concerns were the focus of the opposition, analysts said the public uproar was also fuelled by suspicions and hostility many Russians have against the growing Chinese investment in the region.

The US$21 million project is being built by AquaSib, a Russian firm owned by a Chinese company called Lake Baikal Water Industry in Daqing, a city in China’s Heilongjiang province, 1,430km (890 miles) from the lake. Moreover, according to AquaSib, 80 per cent of the bottled water will be exported to countries like China and South Korea.

“The problems of Russian-Chinese business interaction in Siberia … have already created a real problem for Moscow. The Russian public opinion and majority of mass media [are] opposing the Chinese projects,” said Yury Tavrovsky, professor emeritus at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia.

“The new bottling plant only increases negative attitudes of some Russians to China,” he said.

Officially, relations between China and Russia could not be better, partly driven by both nations’ deteriorating relations with the United States.

Moscow’s ties with the West have been severely strained following sanctions for its annexation of Crimea and incursions into Ukraine in 2014, which prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to pivot to Beijing. And China is not only locked in a prolonged trade war with the US, it also faces increasing scepticism in the West about its “Belt and Road Initiative” and concerns about possible corporate espionage.

Ahead of a state visit to Moscow in 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Russian media that relations between the two strategic partners were enjoying their “best time in history”. Last year, China’s People’s Liberation Army took part in the Kremlin’s biggest war games in decades, a huge show of support. Billions of dollars of joint investment funds and dozens of projects have been rolled out to build closer economic ties.

Over a decade, China’s investments in Russia increased nearly ninefold, reaching US$13.8 billion in 2017, according to data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. Two-thirds of that amount targeted Russia’s natural resources, involving the mining, forestry, fishery and agriculture sectors.

On the ground, though, instead of fostering friendly relations, the Chinese investments have fed resentment and tension, especially in Siberia and the Russian Far East, historically an emotionally sensitive region for local residents.

The water bottling plant is only the latest lightning rod. In recent years, Chinese investment – regarded as land grabs by many locals – has set off waves of outraged protests.

Its expanding logging business has sparked public fears that the Chinese are destroying the ancient forests of Russia, China’s biggest timber supplier. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of idle lands that were leased to Chinese companies for farming occasioned media commentaries warnings about annexation by Beijing.

Chinese investors have also been buying building hotels on the shores of Lake Baikal, a popular attraction for Chinese tourists, prompting an online petition blasting Beijing for seeking to transform the area into a Chinese province.

To Robert Kaplan, a foreign-policy analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm, the response is easily understood: The Russians, he said, were “very paranoid that over time, over the years and over the decades, China will gain back effective demographic, economic control over the areas that were tested in the 19 century, the 18 century and before”.

In 1858 and 1860, with the signing of two treaties, China’s Qing dynasty ceded to the Russian Empire more than 1 million sq km (386,000 square miles) of its northeast lands – today, the southern part of the Russian Far East. The deal is still portrayed in Chinese history textbooks as a national humiliation.

These borders were repeatedly contested in the late 1960s, with military clashes breaking out between the Soviet Union and China, nearly risking an all-out war.

The disputes were largely resolved with an agreement in 1991, and Chinese activities primarily agricultural – in Siberia started in the 1990s, Tavrovsky said.

Those projects, though, left marks. “Chinese farmers [rented] plots of land for growing vegetables and [left] them in two to three years completely destroyed with chemicals,” he said.

Adding to the Russian anxiety is a huge population imbalance. Only 8.3 million live in the Russian Far East, according to a 2010 census. Just to its south, three bordering Chinese provinces total a combined 90 million residents.

“As long as China is developing so fast,” Kaplan said, “and as long as the Russian economy is so much weaker – and Russia has so few people across its many time zones – there’s going to be tensions and suspicions towards China that neither government is going to be able to control.”

To make the matter worse, experts said, the behaviour of some Chinese in Russia – tourists and officials alike – was adding salt to the wound.

“Some Chinese tourists visiting Baikal and other Siberian and Far Eastern regions are telling local people that these lands should belong to China because ‘they were stolen by tsars’. I myself have heard that several times,” Tavrovsky said.

More recently, a Chinese diplomat’s reported threat against a Russian journalist has drawn wide attention and outrage.

According to a March 4 editorial of the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the diplomat in charge of press relations at the Chinese embassy in Moscow ordered one of its journalists to remove her article on China’s economic slowdown from the newspaper’s website and threatened to ban her from entering China. The diplomat also reportedly made taunting remarks about Russia’s economy, according to an email the editorial quoted.

The Chinese embassy in Moscow and China’s foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

The incident is unlikely to affect official ties, but experts say it could further dampen Russian public perceptions of China.

“The case with the Chinese diplomat is taken very seriously [in Russia],” said Alexander Lukin, an expert on Sino-Russian relations at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

“Some journalists believe the guy is simply an idiot. However, others see it as an indication that many Chinese officials don’t really believe in the slogans of the top Chinese leadership to create a new type of partnership with foreign countries based on a win-win principle and mutual respect, and that China is beginning to behave as a ‘normal’ hegemonist state – interfering in the internal politics of other countries,” he said.

Moritz Pieper, a lecturer on international relations at the University of Salford in Britain, said the incident illustrated “an inconsistency in China’s public diplomacy”.

“Clumsy public communications of individual officials can erode PR narratives of strategic partnership and people-to-people ties constructed by the central government,” he said.

That official “strategic partnership” is to be celebrated again with a fanfare of publicity when Putin attends Beijing’s belt and road forum next month on a state visit.

But Kaplan said that no matter how bilateral relations were applauded at the official level, local outcries like the recent protests against the Lake Baikal bottling plant were likely to recur.

“There will be incidents … and the job of Beijing and Moscow is to keep things quiet and peaceful, because otherwise their strategic partnership would be undermined,” he said.

Tavrovsky said that Chinese officials, businesses, even tourists, should keep that in mind when in Russia.

“For the sake of good Moscow-Beijing ties the Chinese should change their increasingly assertive behaviour in Russia and aggressive economic expansion in Siberia,” he said.”



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