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Analysis & Opinion
15.06.12 Putin Seeks To Cement A Strategic Alliance With China
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Dale Herspring, Dick Krickus, Vlad Sobell

Having paid brief visits to Berlin and Paris (after ditching the G8 summit in Washington), Russian President Vladimir Putin embarked on a full-fledged state visit to Beijing last Tuesday that led into the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional cooperation forum dominated by Russia and China. Is Putin really seeking a “strategic alliance” with China? If so, for what purpose and at what cost? Does the SCO provide the institutional basis for the Russian-Chinese alliance?

In an op-ed in China's Communist Party daily ahead of his arrival, Putin praised Russia’s relationship with China, calling the two nations “strategic allies” and asserting that Russia needs a strong China just as China needs a strong Russia.

Indeed, the relationship has reached new heights. Russian trade with China has risen at least 40 percent year on year over the last two years, reaching $85 billion, and Russian officials say that a target of $100 billion in bilateral trade by 2015 is likely to be achieved ahead of time (however, this is roughly two percent of China's gigantic volume of foreign trade, which amounted to $3.6 trillion last year).

Russia is selling oil, coal, electricity and modern weapons to China. Moscow has been negotiating a major gas deal that would supply over 40 billion cubic meters a year of Russian gas to China to satisfy its growing appetite for cleaner burning fuel. (The gas deal has been somewhat elusive, as China refuses to pay Gazprom's asking price of $400 per every billion cubic meters based on the European market gas pricing formula. China is hoping that new imports of gas from Central Asia and of LNG from North America, Africa and the Middle East, as well as the development of China's vast shale gas reserves, would drive down the price for Russian gas imports.)

China has become an increasingly important supplier of commercial machinery and machine tools to Russia, as well as the source of investment into Russia's agriculture and infrastructure projects and a partner in joint ventures in building commercial aircraft.

China and Russia are more often than not acting in unison on the international arena, with coordinated and matching positions in the UN Security Council, particularly on issues relating to war and peace and maintaining state sovereignty. Last February, Moscow and Beijing vetoed the UN Security Council resolution that could have authorized a military intervention in Syria to stop the bloodshed in that war-ravaged country.

"China and Russia have an informal agreement over how to vote in the UN Security Council. China basically follows the Russian vote when it comes to issues where China is not vitally interested," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine, recently told Reuters. "But China will expect Russia to take its side when Beijing wants it, especially on issues in East Asia,” Lukyanov believes.

In a joint statement during Putin’s visit to Beijing on June 6, Russia and China said that they are “decisively against” international intervention or efforts aimed at regime change in Syria.

Yet observers doubt whether the bubbling relationship between Russia and China really achieves the level of a “strategic alliance” focused on counterbalancing the United States as the sole global superpower.

As Bobo Lo, a prominent expert on the Russia-China relationship, wrote in The New York Times this week, “Russia and China differ fundamentally in their views of the world and what they want from each other. These differences do not prevent cooperation in certain areas, but they ensure a relationship that is defined principally by its limitations.”

“For Moscow, a partnership with China serves multiple purposes. It counterbalances the strategic and normative dominance of the United States. It confers on Russia ‘success by association,’ helping to legitimize Putin's domestic and foreign policies. It strengthens Moscow's bargaining position with the West, whether in energy negotiations with the European Union or missile defense talks with Washington. And it allays vulnerabilities about the sparsely populated but resource-rich Russian Far East.”

China “wants to ensure a good neighbor and avoid a spoiling and destabilizing presence in Northeast Asia. It seeks a like-minded state to preserve the principle of national sovereignty against Western-led moral universalism and ‘interference’ in its domestic affairs. And it needs Moscow not to oppose its economic and security interests in Central Asia. China has no interest in revolutionizing an international system from which it has benefited greatly, or of supplanting U.S. global leadership. It is content to see Moscow take the lead in obstructing Western objectives, whether in the UN Security Council over Syria or by blocking alternative gas pipeline routes from Central Asia to Europe.”

“Moscow and especially Beijing attach far more importance to relations with the West than they do to their own ‘strategic partnership.’ The United States remains the strategic and security benchmark for Moscow; the European Union is by far Russia's largest trading partner and source of foreign investment. Similarly, for Beijing the United States is the one truly indispensable partner, while the EU is the largest source of foreign trade. Amidst talk about ‘partnerships for modernization,’ Moscow and Beijing look to the West, not each other, for advanced technology.”

Other observers argue that Russian leaders do not overestimate the importance of Moscow's “alliance” with China and view it as a competing power that could and should be used to advance Russia's own interests. As Dmitry Trenin, Maria Lipman, Alexey Malashenko, and Nikolay Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center argue in their June report, “Russia on the Move,” Russia ‘is not worried about China's continued rise, since the Russians see the Chinese leadership as overwhelmingly preoccupied with China's domestic agenda. They note Beijing's recent assertiveness but also that it is mainly directed eastward and southward. Where Chinese and Russian interests compete, as in Central Asia, Moscow seeks to bolster its position through promoting various forms of post-Soviet integration, such as its Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan or the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Russia is not shy about competing with China where it has a chance to hold what it regards as its own. Russians, however, will not do anything that could make China revisit its generally benevolent attitude toward Moscow.”

Is Putin really seeking a “strategic alliance” with China? If so, for what purpose and at what cost? Could it be an alliance to counter U.S. global power and its penchant for interventionism, or could it be just a regional cooperation framework without global outreach? What nation could be more interested in such an alliance – Russia or China? Does the SCO provide the institutional basis for the Russian-Chinese alliance? Or is it morphing into a China-dominated forum? How should the United States react to Russia's increasing alignment with China?

Dale Herspring, Distinguished Professor, Kansas State University, KS

As far as I can determine, based on the past and on Putin's general approach to foreign policy issues, the answer to the question is utilitarian: if close relations with China serve Moscow's interest, then Putin will use them. If relations with the United States and NATO become more important, then he will turn in that direction.

I think it should also be noted that while I have not seen a systematic public opinion analysis, the bottom line is that all of my contacts with Russian military types suggest that they have little love for the Chinese. They do what they are told to do, but privately, they make numerous derisive comments about them. They carry out joint military exercises with the Chinese, but they just did the same thing with the United States at Fort Carson.

I have also heard suggestions from retired military personnel that when NATO is held up as an enemy (to justify weapons acquisition) in many cases, it is the Chinese who are the target, but for political reasons, Beijing cannot be mentioned.

I tend to agree with Trenin at al. It is a marriage of convenience. There is no love lost between the Russian military and its Chinese counterpart.

Vlad Sobell, New York University, Prague

Ultimately, the question of whether there will be a “strategic alliance” between Russia and China will be answered in Washington. Should the United States choose to ignore Russia’s security interests and continue to surround it with an anti-missile defense system manned exclusively by NATO, the rationale for a Russo-Chinese alliance will strengthen. Conversely, it will weaken if NATO opts to take Russia’s interests into account and abandons its current uncompromising stance.

Since both Russia and China are preoccupied with economic modernization, they have no interest in imperial expansion and/or any confrontation with the West or indeed with each other. Any moves on their part that might be perceived as aggressive or “neo-imperialist” in the West are above all defensive.

Both of these post-totalitarian Eurasian giants are governed by conservative, nationalist-leaning regimes that have embraced hard-nosed realism in external affairs. They crave a stable and predictable balance of power in which their “peaceful rise” can be safely managed to the benefit of all.

This does not mean that there is no place for the West in Eurasia or that the United States does not have the right to forge its own (potentially) anti-Chinese and anti-Russian alliances. Indeed, a robust system of balance of power necessitates a modicum of Western presence in the region. However, the West ought to recognize that ultimately “Central Eurasia” (that is, the former Soviet Central Asian republics) is bound to be a Sino-Russian backyard, which means that it ought to behave there as a respectful guest, not as a neo-imperialist overlord. The West’s failure to do so could activate a latent Russo-Chinese alliance that might see fit to try to evict disrespectful troublemakers from the region.

Dick Krickus, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Mary Washington, former H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University, Washington, DC

What are the prospects of Russia achieving a strategic alliance with China? President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Beijing has prompted analysts to ask this question. It cannot be fully explored without considering how the United States figures into this matter.

Putin’s obsession with the United States rests on a series of actions that he believes are components of a campaign to embarrass and demean Russia: they include NATO membership for former Soviet satellites and republics; the U.S.-led NATO wars in the Balkans; and most recently, Washington’s pledge to construct a missile defense system in Eastern Europe designed to diminish Russia’s nuclear deterrent capability. Of course, Putin’s overriding animosity toward the United States rests on the conviction that the Americans are bent upon regime change in Russia itself.

In response to this perceived threat, Putin seeks a strategic relationship with China. With Beijing’s demographic, economic and military heft, a Sino-Russian alliance will provide Moscow with the resources to put the Americans in their place. This includes preventing them from deposing a Russian client, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and compelling President Barak Obama to make concessions to Moscow if he wants Russia’s help in denying the Iranian Mullahs a nuclear weapons capability.

But while Putin is preoccupied with the hegemony of yesteryear, he should be concerned about a new claimant for that position in this century – China. Bobo Lo observes that a surging China “threatens to reduce Russia to a subordinate player in the international system.” What is more, the growing imbalance of power between China and Russia “could result in an eventual loss of sovereignty over eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East.”

Some Russian colleagues deem such a remark as mere mischief-making, but there are ample signs that support it. Namely, whereas the Russian Far East is home for about six million of its citizens, there are about 120 million Chinese living on the other side of the border. This state of affairs has prompted many analysts to conclude that de facto, if not de jure, Chinese control of this territory is inevitable.

Clearly, while Russian military strategists in public express concerns about the American threat that is manifested in the European anti-missile system (which prompts them to make intemperate remarks about a nuclear first-strike in private), they are really worried about the existential threat that China poses for Russia’s security. Nor can they ignore Lo’s remark that “It is easy to overlook in all the summit razzmatazz that Sino-Russian relations lack substance. Moscow and especially Beijing attach far more importance to relations with the West than they do to their own ‘strategic partnership.’”

While China expresses concern about U.S. military operations and alliances in the Far East, it is intent upon achieving harmonious relations with Washington largely for that reason. The leadership may take comfort in claims about its superpower status, but today, and for some years, they know that America will remain the world’s premier power.

Looking in a more positive direction, the time has come for leaders in all three capitals – in cooperation with the EU – to forge an international order for the 21st century that is founded on cooperation, and not confrontation. The barriers to this enterprise are manifold and high, but given the turbulence of the world today that puts their security at risk, they all have compelling reasons to find areas of cooperation. That said, growing American-Russian enmity over the civil war in Syria may preclude any form of security cooperation on the part of Washington and Moscow.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

Russia and China have had diplomatic and trade relations for centuries – longer, for example, than the entire sovereign history of the United States. China has now the second largest GDP in the world and is a major creditor of the United States and of other countries. Both Russia and China are wealthy, with fast developing economies that have not only survived the past several years of the global economic crisis, but have at present overcome the damage. Both countries are geographic neighbors in the Eurasian landmass.

It would be foolish for either Moscow or Beijing to overlook these self-evident conditions and not establish collaborative relations of a strategic nature.

U.S. President Richard Nixon, who had far less in common with China than Moscow has with Beijing today, developed close relations with a China that was on the opposite ideological pole from America, with no geographic points of contact.

Indeed it is apparent that Russia’s president Putin seems presently more attentive to Russia’s continental neighbors than to the United States, as far as the semiotics of state visits and summits go. He has traveled to Berlin and Paris but not to Washington. But considering the amount of vitriol poured on him in the American press, the not-so-subtle challenges to the democratic legitimacy of Russia’s legislative and executive branches, and the even less subtle antics of senior American diplomats in Moscow (which are not disavowed from Washington) – why should anyone be surprised that Putin is not so eager to engage the White House?

One would hope that inside the Beltway these rather logical consequences of the American present position vis-a-vis Russia have already been considered and incorporated into whatever policy plan is currently in effect.

The above should not be considered as a value judgment on the wisdom (or absence thereof) in Washington’s current diplomacy toward Russia – it is simply an enumeration of the facts and of the realpolitik context. To many influential persons “realpolitik” is a dirty word – one supposes they prefer “traumenpolitik” (the politics of dreams), a doctrine reminiscent of “socialist realism” – the Marxist theory of politicized arts of the socialist world.

The world was always multi-polar. In the past, some policymakers chose to pretend otherwise because it was more convenient for them. Now, the multi-polar nature of international relations has moved from the background to the foreground. Both Russia and China have a choice of options in the “marketplace of foreign relations” and can decide which relationships offer more benefits.

It is a mistake to suppose that China is taking a “back seat” to Russia on certain topics, like the Middle East. China has a global diplomatic vision and a praxis of sovereignty over several thousand years. Surely, China is second to none in its own national objectives. The Chinese and the Russians are aligned on many currently critical international topics because Eurasia is the main theater and both countries are major Eurasian continental powers.

What happens in Syria or Iran is of concern to China independently of Russia’s particular interests – it so happens (and the reasons are clear and natural) that the concerns of these two countries are similar and in some respects complementary. Geography is destiny.

Thus, Putin flows with the imperatives of geography and the macro-currents of history. There is no evidence that Putin is closing any doors to other strategic alliances, but it takes two to tango. Russia is old-fashioned and expects diplomatic reciprocity: the tango, when properly danced, is a very egalitarian dance.
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