World | June 30, 2011 at 11:36 pm

St. Petersburg’s Chinese Towers

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Outside the boulevards of Saint Petersburg’s historic center, some serious renovations are underway. The city’s newest housing development project boasts some of the most modern apartments in the city. The million square meters, once fully developed, will provide housing for 35,000 people, including several schools, a mall and two hospitals. It makes sense that such an ambitious plan was financed by a Chinese consortium.

The Baltic Pearl, St. Petersburg's Chinese-built "urban glamour zone"

Shanghai Industry Group has invested five years and $1.3 billion in the “Baltic Pearl” development project. Along the way, they experienced local protest and regulation, but completed the first phase with the overwhelming support of both the Russian and Chinese governments. Such glamorous projects are intended to signify Russia and China’s cooperative entry into a globalized economy.

The completion of the Baltic Pearl and similar joint ventures reveals a great deal about China and Russia’s “strategic partnership.” The strength of this relationship is dependent primarily on practical economic cooperation, not shared ideology or fear of Western ascendancy.

When Gorbachev came to power in the 1980’s, bilateral trade between the Soviet Union and China amounted to a paltry $370 million dollars. But after the rise of the Russian Federation, the two nations have increasingly left old tensions behind. In 2010, China became Russia’s largest trading partner, with trade reaching $55.4 billion. Economically, these countries are a match made in heaven. China has become the largest consumer of energy in the world; Russia is the world’s second biggest oil exporter and biggest natural gas exporter. The decision to renounce the U.S. dollar for bilateral trade in favor of the yuan and the ruble is a sign that such cooperative trends will only continue.

Western commentators fear increased cooperation between these two nations, envisioning doomsday scenarios of an anti-American alliance. Of course, China and Russia share many ideological and political points of convergence.  Both have asserted their sovereignty over defining political freedoms within their countries, have decried unilaterally Western humanitarian interventions, and have neutralized internal threats to national unity by ethnic minorities.

But in a broader sense, neither side wants the partnership to damage its relationship with the United States. As Rajan Menon, author of “The End of Alliances,” states:

“The dominant aspiration in Russia today is to join the West, though not as a junior partner or on take-it-or-leave it terms. The partnership with China does bring benefits—chiefly, leverage in Russia’s dealings with the United States and revenues from the sale of arms and energy—but it is not based on any cultural identification, let alone a sense of where Russia’s future lies.”

At the same time, China’s leaders also know that a positive relationship with the West is essential to their continued growth; America provides China with technology, massive trade surpluses, and foreign investment. Relations between China and Russia could hardly be called an “alliance”; there is no evidence of exclusivity or binding commitments.

The true basis of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership lies in practical, economic concerns. As long as China and Russia still share short-term goals, the partnership will continue. But beneath the surface, significant tensions also exist.

For example, take St. Petersburg residents’ attitudes towards their city’s Chinese-built apartment complex. Rumors of Chinese migration to the city sparked opposition to Shanghai Industry Group’s development project. One Russian student I talked to emphatically stated that the Chinese “only built it, they are not going to live there.” This attitude is similar to fears of a Chinese “demographic invasion” in the Russian Far East. Ten time zones away from Moscow, the sparsely populated eastern regions of Siberia have witnessed a major influx of Chinese immigrants and workers. Rumors fed by racial stereotypes reveal a preoccupation with the preservation of Russian territory and identity against Chinese encroachment.

Similar tensions exist in other areas. Notably, the two nations have disagreed over a host of issues in Central Asia, including the Russian government’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. It’s clear that fear and disagreement lurk beneath the rhetoric of friendship.

Russia and China’s “strategic partnership” will continue for the time being. But this does not necessarily indicate the existence of ideological kinship, or of an explicitly anti-American alliance. Indeed in place of doctrine, the alliance is held together by clear economic pragmatism. And as long as Russia and China’s short-term interests stay in line, more oil will be sold, more consumer goods will be made available in Russia, and more apartments complexes will be built.

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