Beijing knows that Kremlin’s “turn to the East” is only a contingency plan and that Russia’s heart is always with the West. Hence it will be watching closely the incipient signs of rapprochement between Russia and the West

While the rhetoric of Russia-China entente remains couched in lofty words – “friends forever” (Vladimir Putin) – their strategic discourse is becoming nuanced lately.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, June 23, 2016. (Xinhua/Li Tao)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on June 23

The Chinese and Russian pundits agree that the raison d’etre of the “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination” between the two countries rests, quintessentially, on their need to push back at the United States.

In an overview on President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Beijing, a leading voice in Chinese foreign policy debates, Shen Dingli, underscored that “China is a realistic country, and it is aware of the power of leverage… China’s wisdom since ancient times will not be lost in the current era.”

Shen saw no conceivable reason for China to spurn Russian overtures, which help to “counterbalance” the US-Japan alliance “against the backdrop of the accelerating” US re-balance strategy. He added:

  • Moscow is now using the same strategy to maintain its own national interests. If there is a way that can help it resist the threat from the US while preserving a certain degree of mutually beneficial collaboration with Washington, cooperation with Beijing is the way forward… Indeed, the Kremlin’s “turn to the East” is only a contingency plan, which was basically put into effect under pressure… Russia’s collaboration with China is more a matter of expediency, instead of a “strategy’”.
  • Russia’s heart is always with the West. Its biggest hope is to earn the respect from the West and integrate into the Western hemisphere… If the next US president shows more respect to Russia and is less tough toward Moscow, the Kremlin’s “turn to the East” will very likely swing to the West.
  • In the meantime, Russia is also on guard against China… Due to the different core values of the two sides, cooperation… is mostly aimed at third parties. Yet history has proven numerous times that any collaboration based on considerations aimed at a third party will be bound to change with the times.

Interestingly, Chinese Communist Party daily Global Times (which featured Shen’s frank assessment) followed up with some useful advice of its own to Washington: “Forced by the US’ relentless efforts to squeeze China and Russia’s strategic room, Beijing and Moscow have to deal with the US back-to-back… The US is unable to beat down the Chinese dragon and the Russian bear at the same time.”

Curiously, Russian pundits also agree with Shen’s perspective. They too see the dynamics of Russia-China summits as a reflection of big-power politics. From their viewpoint, while Moscow should continue to steer clear of the US-China rivalry, it cannot but take advantage of it, since the tension with Washington is “making the Chinese side more forthcoming to Russia’s needs and worries.”

For example, it was only the stepped-up pressure on China by President Barack Obama during his Asian tour in 2014 that finally goaded Beijing to cave in to the Russian demand for much higher prices for the gas to be pumped into the 2,500-km Power of Siberia pipeline, in a mammoth $400 billion deal.

Equally, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims at breaking out of the geopolitical encirclement by the US, needs to pass through the Eurasian space, and it could be turned to Moscow’s advantage if only China is made to work in a multilateral setting.

Hence the idea of a “more extensive Eurasian partnership”, mooted by Putin at the recent meeting of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. To quote Putin,

  • We think that the (Russia-led) EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union) can become one of the centers of a greater emergent economic area… Now we propose considering the prospects for more extensive Eurasian partnership involving the EAEU and countries with which we already have close partnership – China, India, Pakistan and Iran… and certainly our CIS partners, and other interested countries and associations.

But China is unlikely to share its exclusive prerogatives over the Belt and Road and is instead pushing ahead bilaterally with the partners it handpicks such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan or Pakistan and Iran – or for that matter, Georgia and Serbia.

President Xi Jinping has described as a “major achievement of the Belt and Road Initiative” the 20-km Qamchiq Tunnel connecting Ferghana Valley with the rest of Uzbekistan (billed as the longest railway tunnel in Central Asia, piercing the formidable Qurana Mountains), which he inaugurated a week ago.

After all, what is the “additionality” Moscow could have brought into the Qamchiq Tunnel? Technology? Capital? Expertise? Work force?

China needed none of that. To cap it, Beijing enjoys close ties with the leadership of Islam Karimov.

The bottom line is, China cannot be blamed in reaching its important strand of “realist thinking” that Russia is a bird of passage, which is perennially seized with the urge to migrate back westward in search of an assured habitation there, rather than take up habitation in the tough Asian neighborhood.

Significantly, bang on the eve of Putin’s visit, Fyodor Lukyanov, well-known Kremlin pundit, wrote in the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta that a “thaw” is possible in Russia’s relations with the West, and the “atmosphere has changed”. He wrote,

  • The voices of those opposing the anti-Russian sanctions have become louder (in the West)… The Russian side is also showing more interest in reactivating cooperation and making social-economic issues the focus of discussions… If there are no drastic escalations in Ukraine, the sanctions regime will begin to be disassembled in January 2017.

Lukyanov rationalized that the “pseudo-ideological confrontation” between Russia and the West created a contrived atmosphere of adversarial relationship, whereas, in reality, there was “no contradiction in ideas worth mentioning” as in the Cold War era.

Therefore, “a balanced development in both directions (between Russia and the West) is not only normal but also completely necessary.”

Lukyanov summed up:

  • All that remains is for Russia to attempt to convince everyone – including itself – that there are no zero-sum games in the modern world. However, black and white movies are appreciated by movie bluffs only, whereas for everyone else, they are outdated.

Lukyanov is taken very seriously in Beijing – and that might alone probably explain the sharp commentaries in the Global Times.

Unsurprisingly, Moscow is jockeying for space to maneuver as a long sunset seems to begin in the west. The curtain is coming down on the Obama presidency and the European project is getting caught in great disarray.

The heart of the matter is that Moscow also feels disappointed that the economic ties with China have slowed down. Trade has shrunk sharply (from $100 billion in 2014 to just over $60 billion last year) due to a combination of factors such as the devaluation of Russian currency, fall in oil prices and western sanctions.

Ambitious projects envisaging massive Chinese investment have stalled, and Moscow’s hopes of tapping China as alternative to western financial institutions have proved unrealistic insofar as Chinese companies and banks cannot but be wary of the likely negative impact on their business prospects in the western market.

The Associated Press reported that at a recent Russia-China forum held in Moscow, while officials extolled “unprecedented” closeness in the relationship, businessmen and experts were reserved. The Russian tycoon Viktor Vekselberg reportedly voiced criticism that Chinese companies have shown little interest in investing in Russian industries.

Beijing will be watching closely the incipient signs of rapprochement between Russia and the West. But in real life, it may little cause to worry about Moscow’s passion for technicolor adventures in the cinemaland.

Simply put, trust Washington to not only to have a weakness for black and white movies – especially, cowboy films – but to insist that the European allies like them, too.

 Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

(Copyright 2016 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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