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Xi tightens bonds with Moscow

Wednesday 17 April 2013

By Brendan O’Reilly

Xi Jinping highlighted the essential nature of the Sino-Russian relationship by making Moscow his first foreign destination after his appointment as president. In talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, Xi promised to expand economic, military, and strategic cooperation between the two nuclear powers.

The deepening bond between Beijing and Moscow has immense implications for the entire world - especially the United States. Indeed, it appears that Washington may have made a failed attempt at a "divide and rule" stratagem before Xi’s Russian trip.

Xi followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, by traveling to Moscow soon after his ascent to the highest halls of power in Beijing. Xi delivered a speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations that outlined his foreign policy vision and contained a thinly veiled condemnation of recent American doctrine: We are now living in a rapidly changing world...Peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit have become the trend of our times. To keep up with the times, we cannot have ourselves physically living in the 21st century, but with a mindset belonging to the past, stalled in the old days of colonialism, and constrained by zero-sum Cold War mentality. [1] Xi went on to assert that close Sino-Russian relations help to "guarantee balance in the world". Xi’s speech echoed official Chinese media, which often condemns the United States’ attitude towards China as reminiscent of a "Cold War mentality". Clearly, from the Chinese perspective, solid ties with Russia serve to counterbalance America’s unilateralist ambitions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin echoed Xi’s optimism for the enhanced Sino-Russian bond. Putin stated, "We can already say this is a historic visit with positive results."

During a joint press conference, Xi and Putin jointly expressed concerns about America’s ballistic missile defense system. They also pointedly addressed the issue of the "defeated powers" of World War II. This statement was in all probability an implied message of Russian support for China in Beijing’s ongoing territorial dispute with Japan. (It must be noted that Russia also contests territory with Tokyo).

China and Russia have been bitter rivals for most of their shared history. During the Tsarist times of expansion into Siberia, Russian and Chinese armies often warred over territory. Even during the Cold War, when both powers were nominally communist, there was a dangerous rivalry between Moscow and Beijing that occasionally devolved into large-scale border skirmishes. Why has the Sino-Russian relationship taken such a friendly turn, especially in the last decade?

Russian Yin, Chinese Yang

On the economic front, the strengths and weaknesses of the two powers compliment each other nicely. Russia is a vast, energy-rich, and increasingly under-populated land with significant scientific expertise. Meanwhile, China’s rapidly expanding urban centers are hungry for the natural resources and technical knowledge found in abundance throughout Russia.

Energy politics featured heavily during the Xi-Putin summit. China agreed to lend Russian state-owned energy company Rosneft US$2 billion in exchange for a planned tripling of Russian oil exports to China. Xi Jinping also made a call to expand Sino-Russian trade from the sphere of raw materials into other realms: It is rational now to stimulate developing relations not only in raw economic, but also in investment, high technologies and finances, to start cooperating not only in trade but also in joint research and manufacturing. [2] Annual trade between Russia and China currently stands at around $88 billion. Both sides have a clear interest in increasing this figure.

While economics is an important factor of the Sino-Russian relations, the primary driver of ties between Moscow and Beijing is strategic. Both powers feel immense pressure from the world’s sole "hyperpower". Russia has long viewed expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization deep into Eastern Europe as an aggressive move. China now has very similar concerns about Washington’s militarized "pivot" to Asia and support for Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with Beijing. Moscow and Beijing have immense interests in countering Washington’s expanding military presence in what is perceived as their strategic backyards.

However, Washington’s positioning of conventional military forces near the heartlands of China and Russia is not nearly as perturbing as America’s push for full strategic nuclear superiority. Moscow and Beijing jointly view Washington’s development and deployment of missile defense systems as an existential threat to their nuclear deterrents.

If the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction no longer held true, then the strategic environment of the globe’s major powers could enter a new and dangerous phase - even in the absence of a full-blown Cold War style confrontation.

Why Xi and Putin are MAD

Russia has long condemned US and NATO missile defense plans in Europe as a peril to Russian nuclear deterrence. The United States claimed the system was in response to an Iranian nuclear threat - a threat that the United State’s own intelligence services report does not currently exist.

China has even more to fear from American missile defense systems. While Russia maintains an arsenal of well over 1,000 nuclear warheads, China is widely believed to have only several hundred. In the (unlikely) event of full-scale nuclear war, Russia could almost certainly overwhelm any America’s missile defense system with sheer numbers. It is not clear whether China could do the same.

Interestingly enough, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel publicized a change to American missile defense deployments just before Xi’s trip to Moscow. Hagel announced a probable repositioning of missile defense systems from Poland to Alaska in order to counter North Korean threats. Secretary Hagel also confirmed plans to enhance missile defense capabilities in Japan. Chinese Foreign Minister Hong Lei quickly denounced these moves: "All measures seeking to increase military capacities will only intensify antagonism and will not help to solve the problem." [3]

While North Korea talks tough, there are serious doubts as to whether its missiles pose a credible threat to the American mainland. On the other hand, American missile defense systems in Alaska and Japan would certainly pose a challenge to China’s very real long-range nuclear capabilities.

The timing and very public nature of the US repositioning is significant. It appears that the American redeployment of missile defense systems from Europe to the Pacific may have been, at least in part, an effort at dividing Russian and Chinese strategic opinion on the system.

If that was indeed a motivation behind the American move, the attempt appears to have failed. Speaking on the planned repositioning of missile defense systems from Poland, Russian Deputy Defense Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, "That is not a concession to Russia, nor do we regard it as such. All aspects of strategic uncertainty related to the creation of a US. and NATO missile defense system remain. Therefore, our objections also remain." [4]

While no major power is seeking nuclear war, Russia and China must carefully review and amend their military doctrines in the light of American attempts to deploy an effective shield against inter-continental ballistic missiles. Washington’s deployments of conventional forces near the frontiers of China and Russia cause further concerns for the potential loss of a credible nuclear deterrent. China and Russia are being pushed into their strategic embrace by a shared perception of American pressure.

Russia and China serve to compliment each other economically and strategically. In the past, Russia worried about the vast Chinese population in close proximity to Russia’s resource-rich Far East. China looked north and saw the threat of advanced military technology and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

Now these asymmetries are viewed as strategically useful. For the time being, Washington appears intent on simultaneously antagonizing the largest and the most populous nations on the planet. Any attempts to divide Russia and China are doomed to failure, so long as both countries feel pressure from a more powerful rival.

1. Xi calls for new-type int’l relations, China Daily, March 24, 2013.
2. China’s Xi Jinping urges for stronger investment, high-tech ties with Russia, Russia Today, March 24, 2013.
3. China warning after US missile defense plans, The News, March 18, 2013.
4. Russia unfazed by US missile defense, United Press International.

Brendan P O’Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony. He may be reached at oreillyasia@gmail.com

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