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The Bear and the Panda: awkward but not impossible strategic bedfellows

Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on 20 May 2014. This will be the fourth time that the two leaders have met since Xi Jinping became president in 2013. Most recently, the Chinese leader was in Sochi in February for the Olympics, an event that most Western leaders shunned, inter alia because of their concerns about human rights abuses in Russia, in particular the “anti-gay propaganda” laws passed by the Russian Duma. China is at one with Russia on this issue. This is just another in a series of questions where the two countries’ political leaderships apparently see eye to eye.

In terms of strategic issues, there are three areas in particular where their interests converge.

First, both leaders find themselves in extremely challenging internal political circumstances. Putin is in his 10th year at the helm. He faces an election for a second six-year term in 2018 (after two earlier four-year terms and the Medvedev interregnum from 2008-12). A decade in power is when atrophy tends to settle in, even for the cleverest of politicians (think Thatcher after ten, Obama even after six). Of course, Stalin was in power for almost thirty years but without the Second World War, probably even the Generalissimo would have had an earlier end.

Putin is trying to compensate for a flagging economy with an unfurled flag of nationalism and irredentism, and an emphasis on traditional values guided by a purportedly strong but weakening state. Putin can only survive if he moves the Russian discussion from the economy to the country’s resurgence and glory. This is what he is trying to do in Ukraine and what he will try to do elsewhere, if he feels he has half a chance.

Xi Jinping, in his second year at the helm, faces different set of challenges but they are similarly daunting. The historical experience of succession in communist countries suggests that this process takes at least four years and can be rife with instability and risk for the emerging leader. That this is ongoing in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is underscored by the widespread purges of top leaders in the political and security apparatus. For Xi Jinping to come across as a foreign policy weakling would be suicidal. He has no choice but to be strategically macho. That said, I expect he is not itching for military confrontation. The Chinese military has next to no practical expertise in the field. It will need time before it can viably flex its muscles in the East and South China Seas – unless, of course, it only has to face regional powers and is unopposed by America. Like Russia, China can be a bully on the block but not beyond.

Second, both countries are also looking to one another for economic reasons: Russia wants to diversify its customers for its energy products, especially as the US is likely to become a major energy exporter over the next five years or so. Potentially, this means that Russia will no longer have a stranglehold over the security polices of European Union (EU) countries heavily reliant on its energy products. China is looking for more reliable suppliers. Currently, it imports energy products from an array of mostly far away and/or not necessarily stable energy producers. The two sides have been talking about a major energy accord for some ten years but it now seems that the upcoming talks in Beijing may clinch a deal.

That said, while the Russia-China trading relationship has been on the upsurge, it is still puny in comparison with that of the US-PRC and the EU-Russia. China and the US are each other’s second biggest trading partners. The EU is Russia’s largest trading partner, accounting for almost half of its total commercial turnover. Even EU trade with the PRC is roughly four times higher than Russia’s trade with the PRC. Trade volumes are not necessarily determinant, however; in the 1930s, the US and Japan were also each other’s largest trading partners.

Third, and crucially, Russia and China are striving to assert themselves as regional hegemons. Russia wants to build a Eurasian Union, gathering up as many of the former Soviet republics as possible: Ukraine is the jewel in this crown. China wants to reign supreme in the seas around its shores. Like Russia, it will also make a pitch to its Diaspora that is strong throughout its region. Both are revisionist powers, prepared to overturn sovereignties and borders as needs be. Their key obstacle is America. Yet the United States comes across as fiscally wasted, inwardly focused, estranged from some of its traditional allies, and strategically exhausted after two long wars of questionable usefulness. Russia and China are understandably preying on America’s current preoccupation with issues other than the strategic balance. The temptation is too great.

At the same time, Russian and China are unlikely allies. The Russia-China relationship is replete with contradictions and inconsistencies. They rub up against one another along one of the world’s longest borders, where Russia has a small and dwindling population and China quite the opposite. The two countries share a difficult history, with border disputes going back to the nineteenth century. In 1969, they came to blows on a remote part of their common frontier along the Ussuri River – at the same time, curiously, when Soviet military supplies to the North Vietnamese were still being transited through China. Their proximity and dissymmetry are likely the stuff of future conflict.

As the recent UN vote on Crimea underscored, Beijing – which abstained – is playing the coy mistress. It wants to take advantage of the current strategic constellation of forces but on its own terms. Russia is a similar position but its cards are much weaker. It has initiated a conflict situation on its frontiers; thus far, China has been more prudent. Beijing can still step back, but Russia has already crossed its Rubicon.

Russia and China are awkward but not impossible strategic bedfellows. But so too were Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, in a very short-lived relationship that sent the world to war.

Bottom line: Russia wants China to create a situation in the East China Seas that would absorb America’s attention. China wants Russia to create a situation along its near abroad that would have the same effect. Neither wants a global conflagration but these things have a tendency to get out of hand. Once you are on a slippery slope, well, it is slippery.

In relationships among even the closest of allies, the mechanics revolve more often than not around who is trying to fool whom and how; usually, the short answer is that both sides are and in any way they can. The key question then is who will be fooling whom most in Beijing?

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