Much is made of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s trip to China. Commentators wonder if we’re seeing the beginning of a Sino-Russian alliance.
China and Russia are natural allies in some areas. 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 be breached even if the head of state is butchering his own people, such as in Libya and Syria recently.
But there is rivalry on other fronts. Chinese and Russian interests diverge in Central Asia, where the two will 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 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 for 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; 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 heavily dependent on the export of natural resources to China.
Russian companies will need to work hard to win niches in China’s non-energy sectors, 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 — and its weaknesses.