The Sino-Russian Alliance That Isn’t

Too much is made of Vladimir Putin’s trip to China. This isn’t the beginning of an alliance.

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Hu Jintao of China addresses a press conference after meeting in Beijing, June 6
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Hu Jintao of China addresses a press conference after meeting in Beijing, June 6 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Much has been made of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s trip to China. Commentators wonder whether we’re seeing the beginning of a Sino-Russian alliance. Probably not.

China and Russia are natural allies on some fronts in the arena of world politics. Both are wary of Western dominance in global institutions like the United Nations. Neither has warmed up to the doctrine of humanitarian intervention and they insist that the sovereignty of states cannot easily be breached, even if the head of such a state is butchering his own people, as in Libya and Syria recently. Which is a very Western notion of how the international system should work, by the way.

But there is rivalry on other fronts. Chinese and Russian interests are increasingly divergent in Central Asia where the two will soon likely be competitors for access to oil and natural gas. Their relations with India are completely asymmetrical and their desire for an American presence in Eurasia is ambiguous.

China doesn’t mind that American troops are permanently stationed in Europe where the United States are also constructing a missile shield which will dilute Russia’s nuclear menace. The Russians, on the other hand, will not object to America’s burgeoning military presence in East Asia which serves as a balance against Chinese expansionism.

The Russian president’s trip to Beijing is still of some significance. As Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes in the China Daily, “Putin is the ultimate global balancer.” He is expanding ties with China at the same time that he is upgrading cooperation with India, Vietnam and trying to normalize relations with Japan. “This list does not suggest geopolitical promiscuity,” according to Trenin, “rather, Putin’s keen sense of the complexity of contemporary international relations.”

Moreover, Putin seeks to spur economic development in Russia’s Far East, a region that is now heavily dependent on natural resources exports to China. “Russian companies will need to work hard to win niches in China’s nonenergy sectors,” writes Trenin, “and they will have to demonstrate a combination of mettle and tact to compete with China in Central Asia.”

None of this reeks of a Sino-Russian entente except when it is convenient. It is just Putin doing what he does best: being realistic about Russia’s interests as well as its weaknesses.