By Li Lifan and Raffaello Pantucci
First published in the South China Morning Post March 20, 2012
Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in Russia was predictably controversial in Europe and America. In Beijing, the official read-out provided by Xinhua highlighted a positive conversation, with President Hu Jintao stating with “confidence that Putin’s new presidential term would see faster progress in building a stronger and richer nation”. That statement affirmed the importance of the Sino-Russian axis as a pole in international relations. Putin, the quintessential Russian chess master, has a very clear sense of where Russia’s future must lie, and needs Beijing onside if he wants to carry this out.
The Sino-Russian relationship has had its ups and downs. As Putin put it recently, “there are some sources of friction”. The joint Chinese-Russian veto last month of a UN resolution on Syria attracted attention. But, beyond this, tensions persist as Russia proves implacable in discussions over energy pricing, and tries to develop a “Eurasian Union” to counter China’s successful inroads into Central Asia. The resultant price increase is detrimental to Chinese interests and delays economic integration under the auspices of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO).
But these contradictions are perfectly adapted for both the Chinese and Russian political system, where shadow chess games are seen as the antidote to erratic Western policy strategies. Rather than make dramatic shifts and pronouncements, both sides forge long-term alliances of convenience, focusing on their mutual interests, where possible, while recognising unresolved tensions remain.
This malleable alliance is something that both countries will need in the next few years, as problems over Iran’s nuclear programme come to a head and the US withdraws from Afghanistan, leaving potential chaos in both China and Russia’s backyard. Neither China nor Russia have any interest in seeing the Iranian situation escalate.
In Afghanistan, neither is interested in seeing the nation fall back into chaos, but they will be relieved to see a reduced American military footprint in their immediate neighbourhood. Figuring out how to manage the situation post 2014, the deadline for US withdrawal, will probably require a joint effort, which Russia and China have started to explore within the SCO format. The security drills to be held in Tajikistan in June will showcase the grouping’s capacity to address threats regionally and help improve co-ordination ahead of the American withdrawal.
Domestically, the abutting regions of Xinjiang and Siberia are their respective nations’ most underdeveloped regions and will require close attention from Beijing and Moscow. Xinjiang is a cauldron of ethnic tensions that China is trying to calm with economic development, while Russia’s east is a largely empty space that gets ever more depopulated as its youth go west to Moscow and Europe.
Establishing better prospects and opportunity there will help stabilise the administration of both nations, and better economic co-operation and regional stability are key to long-term development. Of course, underlying this is a competition for resources and markets in Central Asia, with unresolved energy pricing issues and the Russian fear of mass Chinese immigration colouring debates.
But these are known tensions, and carefully managing them is something that leaders on both sides recognise as important.
The two are each other’s biggest allies in the United Nations Security Council and are members of the new BRICS club. As such, they see a close alignment on international issues. At the same time, regionally, they see elements of peer competition.
Striking a balance is the essence of realist international relations. The result is a considered game of chess between a Chinese leadership used to deliberative policymaking and a newly minted Russian leader who has long shown his capacity for an unemotional approach to international relations.
Li Lifan is a senior fellow and Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences