Dhaka Courier

Why the Xi-Putin bromance bears watching

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The relationship is growing warmer and Russia’s value is rising as both countries find common cause against the United States

Global Affairs Correspondent

LONDON They are busy heads of state with hectic schedules, yet they still found time to meet no less than three times last month alone. They attend each other’s birthday parties and, when they do meet, they often act like adorable little • children, treating themselves to dollops of ice cream.

The bond between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin was again on display in Japan at the weekend, during the Group of 20 Summit of the world’s biggest economies - the two were inseparable, beaming broadly across the negotiating table, holding hands or patting each other on the back.

Of course, some of this is hype. To paraphrase a 19th century politician, countries do not have enduring friendships, just enduring interests. Still, the strong personal link between presidents Xi and Putin is backed by a seriously deepening Russian-Chinese alliance which, if sustained, has the potential to change the world.

And for the first time in decades, the advantages which China and Russia seek to obtain from this alliance coincide.

A LOVE AFFAIR IN REVERSE

Most love affairs start with a burst of emotions and then settle down to a predictable pattern. But with the Russia-China bromance, the sequence was in reverses: The relationship started hesitantly, and it was only lately that it had acquired greater intensity.

The reason for this is that for at least half of the Cold War period, China and Russia (in the guise of the Soviet Union), were sworn enemies who periodically came to blows and even occasionally contemplated an all-out war.

It says a lot for the selective historical memory of China’s Communist Party that today, all that Chinese youngsters are told about Russia are stories from the 1950s, when the Soviet Union helped build China’s industry; the fact that this was followed by decades of insults between the two countries has now been conveniently expunged from the official history books.

Relations between Moscow and Beijing began to normalise after the collapse of the Soviet Union but even then, only very slowly and hesitantly.

The Chinese could not understand how Russia’s once mighty communist party simply gave up power and vanished in a puff of smoke, together with the entire Soviet empire in Beijing, Russia’s fate served as a warning on how not to exercise leadership and power. And from the other perspective the Russians, marginalised, impoverished and often humiliated, could not bring themselves to see what they could gain by befriending China, which they were accustomed to dismissing as just a strange Third World basket case.

It was only over the past two decades that the Sino-Russian nexus has begun to acquire real significance, but even then, this occurred because both sides wanted to limit friction, rather than i necessarily increase cooperation.

As China’s clout grew throughout the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, it suited Beijing to lock Russia into a cooperative structure which could reassure Moscow that China had no intention of stepping on Russia’s toes; that was the genesis of the so-called Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

And, as China rose rapidly to global economic importance, it suited Russia to engage the Chinese, if only in a defensive, pre-emptive way, in order to ensure that Russia stays on good terms with the rising giant.

Russia’s increasing sense of inferiority and lingering suspicions about China’s trajectory are evident from the one area where the interests of two neighbours were entirely complementary and when a major cooperative project could have emerged - namely in the oil and gas sectors, where Russia is a major exporter and China a major importer.

In theory, that is where the two should have connected best. Yet, that is precisely where progress remained slow: the main customers for Russia’s efiergy products remained in Europe, and all of Russia’s oil and gas pipelines led to Europe, rather than southwards to Chinese customers, largely because the Russians were afraid to become too reliant on Chinese markets.

And even when Mr Putin turned in desperation to China after Russia was hit with economic sanctions by the West in the wake of the Ukraine war in 2014 and raised the possibility of building a network of pipelines which will tie Russia’s energy sector to China for decades to come, Beijing played hard ball: the Chinese insisted not only that Russia should pay for the pipelines, but also that Russia should offer deep discounts for its oil and gas. In short, even as recent as a fewyears ago, people in Beijing did not see the relationship with Russia as either of great strategic importance, or as one which merited a great financial investment.

GROWING MILITARYTIES

However, fast-forward to today, and almost everything has changed. It is not only that the frequency of visits between the two leaders accelerated significantly or that Russia and China have run out of decorations or honorary university doctorates to bestow on each other’s leaders. For the relationship is now taking shape and acquiring substance at almost every level.

A network of pipelines is being built, and huge, long-term contracts for the sale of oil and gas have been concluded, albeit at prices which are not revealed, and which are probably lower than those prevailing on open markets. The military of the two countries is exercising increasingly frequently, and not only within the confines of the SCO; last year, Chinese troops took part in a Russian military exercise conducted on the borders of Nato, the US-led military alliance in Europe.

More spectacularly still, Chinese ships recently staged an appearance in the Baltic Sea on Europe’s northern approaches, just about one of the most sensitive - and fragile - areas of Nato, and the spot where Western military planners predict is most likely to be vulnerable to a potential Russian attack. And not to be undone, Russian vessels are in the South China Sea; one Russian ship almost rammed a US Navy vessel recently, an incident which probably met with discreet satisfaction in Beijing.

MOSCOW'S CALCULATIONS

The Russians have pushed for a closer relationship with China for a number of years, largely because they are running out of options. President Putin realises that although the European Union is unlikely to intensify its pressure on Russia with further sanctions, it is unlikely to lift the current sanctions either, so Moscow’s relationship with the European continent will remain frosty.

And Russia’s relations with the US are not likely to improve either, regardless of next year’s American presidential election. If a Democrat defeats Mr Donald Trump, she or he would be reticent to relaunch relations with Russia; allegations of Russian interference in the US political process will make that too sensitive.

But if Mr Trump wins a second term, he will also be hobbled on dealing with Russia, just as he has been prevented from doing so until now. Whichever scenario comes to pass, therefore, Russia cannot expect an improvement in its global relations for years to come. An alliance with China is no substitute for relations with key Western nations, but it at least acts as a partial compensation and provides Russia with additional political levers.

Until fairly recently, the Chinese were the ones who tended to be more reticent. Although they saw the advantages of the link to Russia, they often considered Russian behaviour - such as the outright annexation of territory belonging to Ukraine - as a reckless gesture with which China should not be associated.

BENEFITS TO BEIJING

And in any case, the benefits which China could derive from a link with Russia could be obtained without China positioning itself as Russia’s open ally.

But the calculations have now changed. For it suits Mr Xi to hint to the Americans that, if the US is gearing up for a sustained trade war with China, Beijing has the ability to escalate this confrontation and raise the cost which the US will have to pay for seeking to corner China. A close security relationship with Russia, and one which indicates to both the US and to America’s European allies that Russia and China can cooperate around the world, suits Beijing perfectly.

No outright military alliance between Moscow and Beijing is in the offing. For behind the scenes, the militaries of the two nations view each other with suspicion.

The Russians worry about the sheer size of the Chinese military and its increasingly sophisticated missile defence capabilities, as well as China’s ability to copy and reverse-engineer Russian military technology. Meanwhile, the Chinese have their own doubts about Russia’s military; Chinese soldiers attending last year’s Russian military exercises were apparently surprised by the shoddy state of Russian logistical supplies.

Still, there is a lot the Chinese military can learn from its Russian counterpart, especially about mounting long-range expeditionary operations and about Russia’s talent for deploying small special forces with devastating effect, both capabilities which Beijing considers handy additions for the future.

But the political message sent by the sight of the two countries standing shoulder-to-shoulder remains the most important aspect: both China and Russia are seeking to warn the US that America is not pre-eminent, and that the more it tries to act as such, the more it will encounter a pushback.

The Sino-Russian bromance will never end up as a marriage of love. But it could certainly become a marriage of consequence.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

From Straits Times

  • Jonathan Eyal
  • Why the Xi-Putin bromance bears watching
  • Vol 36
  • Issue 2
  • DhakaCourier

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