In the recent discussion of Russia’s new military doctrine, most of the coverage has focused on its discussion of NATO’s role as a potential threat to Russia and the criteria for possible use of nuclear weapons. What has been largely missing from the discussion (and from the military doctrine itself) is the role that China will play in Russia’s security in coming years. Both official documents on Russian security and the vast majority of Russian officials and analysts consistently underplay the potential threat that Russia might face from China. It’s not that Russians don’t think there’s a threat there, it’s just that it doesn’t get as much attention as the threat from the West.
In any kind of realist conception of how states formulate their foreign policy, this distinction wouldn’t make any sense. After all, objectively speaking, China is an enormous country located on Russia’s border and having a high rate of economic growth, overpopulation, an increasingly powerful army, and a history of territorial claims on Russian territory (and even border clashes over this territory in the late 1960s). Even now, Russian governors in the Far East occasionally raise the specter of the “yellow menace” and talk about the danger posed to the underpopulated region by unregulated Chinese migrants. But this kind of talk rarely emanates from Moscow and certainly does not affect troop positioning — only three of the 85 new brigades are situated in the Far East.
So why does Russia understate the potential threat from China (and consequently overstate the potential threat from NATO and the West)? I would argue that this is because Russian foreign policy elites are not operating with a realist worldview (despite all their protestations that they base their foreign policy on realpolitik). The goals of Russian foreign policy are at heart about restoring lost prestige. Russian leaders want Russia to be seen as a great power again, if not equal to the U.S., then at least sufficiently respected to be able to influence world events that they care about. This is much more important than actually becoming a great power.
And they measure the status of their country by comparing it to Europe and the United States, not to China. The vast majority of Russians still see the Chinese as inferior and do not view China as a valid state for comparison with Russia. This is why China is largely ignored in most Russian foreign policy formulations and threat assessments.
In reality, I don’t think Russia has much to fear from China. China is focused on economic growth and not on territorial expansion and would not want to face the international opprobrium that would come with any kind of hostile action against Russia. But then again, realistically Russia should not feel threatened by the West either, and yet its rhetoric and official pronouncements often focus on the potential threat from just this quarter.
In this regard, it is again instructive to turn to the placement of Russia’s military forces. I already mentioned that there are almost no brigades in Russia’s eastern regions. There are also not too many brigades facing west. Most of the ground forces are positioned to the south, where the actual potential for military conflict is highest. In this way, the rhetoric and actions of Russian leaders diverge, with the rhetoric about status giving way to a more realistic assessment of potential military threats when it comes to troop placement.
In other words, it makes sense for China to be ignored as a potential threat to Russia — the risk of military conflict in the Far East is low. The discrepancy comes in the artificially inflated public assessment of threat from the West, and this inflation has taken place primarily for political reasons.