Calling the China-Russia split by its right name

Published on, by Melkulangara K. Bhadrakumar, SEPTEMBER 4, 2012.

As China and Vietnam lurch increasingly towards crisis, Beijing is not amused at the Kremlin’s refusal to reciprocate over the United States’ “pivot” in the Asia-Pacific, especially since returns from its diplomatic support for Moscow’s embattled ally in Damascus are expected. The symbolism of Russia hosting the Vietnamese president and the Japanese foreign minister in quick succession in July was not lost on China either. Detecting a chill descending on Sino-Russian relations, Ambassador Bhadrakumar throws light on the situation … //

… Stunning frankness:

  • Moscow still largely keeps that old tradition of evasive silence when it comes to Russia’s relations with China. But for its part, China has changed. It has become garrulous – almost like the rest of us – when it speaks about the problems of life. And it has begun telling anyone who cares to listen (in particular, plausibly, the consumers in Washington), as plainly it possibly could, that things aren’t all that honky-dory as the rhetoric of Sino-Russian relationship might suggest.
  • The People’s Daily “de-classified” in an extraordinary article last Friday the nature of the sensitive mission to Moscow undertaken by Dai last month. It must have been a considered decision to do that since Dai reports directly to President Hu Jintao. It stands to reason that the stocktaking of Dai’s mission to Moscow is over and important conclusions have been drawn.
  • The article pointed out that Dai’s consultations in Moscow took place against the backdrop of the “worrisome” security situation in China’s periphery following Washington’s strategic “rebalancing act” which is primarily targeted at Beijing. However, to Beijing’s disappointment, Dai apparently turned out to be “more eager than his Russian counterpart [Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s security council] to discuss mutual support in ’core issues’ of national sovereignty and security.”
  • The People’s Daily pointed out that against the backdrop of the US containment strategy toward China, Beijing views Russia “as the only significant country that is not part of Washington’s strategic matrix” and indeed “many in China urge an alliance with Moscow” – although “there seems an equally strong counter-argument [in Beijing] for caution”.
  • In sum, China is drawing some important conclusions regarding its ties with Russia and the US. At any rate, the article underlined that during the talks with Dai, Patrushev “appeared more evasive as he talked about ’consensus’ on many important issues.” With a touch of bitter sarcasm, the commentary adds:
  • “Russia’s posture is understandable, as Moscow is assessing its relations with Washington. There is no question that [Russian president Vladimir] Putin is not liked in the West but it is in Russia’s interests to have a more stable relationship with Washington. This is why Putin carefully manages relations with the US: deflecting critique of Russian domestic issues, while allowing NATO supplies to go through its territories to Afghanistan and participating in the US-sponsored largest-ever ’Rim of the Pacific’ naval exercise in July in Hawaii.
  • “For a variety of reasons, a Sino-Russian alliance as seen in the 1950s is out of the question, unless the core interests of the two are simultaneously jeopardized by a third party. This does not necessarily mean, however, the two should not cooperate strategically.”
  • The direct reference to Putin is noteworthy. The commentary concluded with stunning frankness that even a “normal” relationship which “allows considerable space between” China and Russia can be maintained only with “political wisdom and pragmatic skills”, given the fluidity in “both domestic and foreign affairs.” Simply put, the bottom line is that the relations based on the so-called strategic partnership “cannot, and should not, be taken for granted.” For, the ground reality is that the people in the two countries “seem more interested in looking to the West than to each other.” Without doubt, it is a word of caution addressed directly to the Kremlin that the onus is on the two leaderships to do some course correction.
  • Separately, while in Moscow, in an exclusive interview with the Russian government daily Rossiyiskaya Gazeta, Dai also has pointed out that the focus of the China-Russia relationship in the period ahead ought to be on the two countries extending political support mutually on “core issues, such as safeguarding national sovereignty and security,” which, he recalled pointedly, was what Chinese President Hu Jintao had agreed with Putin at their meetings.
  • Interestingly, the Kremlin has not put out to date any account so far of Dai’s call on Putin during his visit to Moscow, breaking its customary practice after such high-level meetings. However, perceptive observers couldn’t have been surprised. They could sense for a while already that something was amiss in the Sino-Russian relationship notwithstanding the rhetoric over it or even the wonderful chemistry Moscow and Beijing displayed in Turtle Bay in the recent months when they whacked the West twice with double-veto of the latter’s resolution on Syria.
  • Beijing seems to harbor a grouse that China went along with Russia in goose steps on the Syrian issue although it has no bases in Syria or any special interests to safeguard, leave alone that it isn’t a stakeholder in the Bashar al-Assad regime by any stretch of imagination. But when it came to the Asia-Pacific situation, as tensions began mounting dangerously between China on the one side and the US and Japan on the other, Russia was nowhere to be seen.

Punching above its weight: … //

… All sorts of fallouts:

  • This can prompt a whole lot of diplomatic moves on the part of not only China but all major players in the Asia-Pacific. Already, there is a certain mellowing of the Japanese attitude toward Russia becoming apparent – notwithstanding Moscow’s repeated provocative actions with regard to the Kurile Islands (such as Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visiting the disputed region and Moscow beefing up its military deployments on the islands.)
  • Arguably, Moscow is testing the waters of Japan’s patience and probing the frontiers of an assertive policy toward Kurile Islands’ integration without jeopardizing Japan’s goodwill. This could be a prelude to making a compromise with Tokyo in due course. Putin has been keen on a normalization of Russia’s relations with Japan. One formula that Moscow has floated is that there could be Russian-Japanese collaboration for the development of the Kurile Islands.
  • Russia would hope to tap into China-Japan tensions to encourage greater Japanese investments and commitment to the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East, which would offset China’s presence and diminish Russia’s current over-dependence on Chinese investment and trade.
  • Again, Russia is making good progress already in expanding business ties and generating military exports to Vietnam, which has also agreed to the use of Cam Ranh Bay by the Russian navy.
  • A point of immediate interest in the coming weeks will be how the respective “national interests” of Russia and China would play out in the Middle East, especially over Syria. On August 14, the first round of the US-China Dialogue on the Middle East was held in Beijing. Reviewing the prospects of the newly created forum, Chinese commentaries have attempted to harmonize the US and Chinese approaches on the Middle East situation.
  • People’s Daily noted that the Dialogue held in Beijing was “actually natural”, since the US and China have “common interests” and “it will be good” for solving the Middle East’s problems if the two countries “strengthen their dialogue and communication.”
  • In the recent interview with Rossiyiskaya Gazeta, Dai spoke at length regarding the Chinese stance on Syria. Interestingly, he stressed that China has no “self-interest in dealing with the crisis, and had always maintained an objective and just stance.” Dai added, “We respect the choice of the Syrian people and do not take sides. What we are against is interference with internal affairs.”
  • Indeed, there is going to be all sorts of fallouts if cracks develop in the Russian-Chinese mutual understanding. China’s perceptions of the changes in Egypt significantly differ from Moscow’s. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s choice of Beijing as his first destination for state visit after assuming office is indicative of China’s relative openness toward the tidings of the Arab Spring in comparison with the extreme distaste and reserve in Moscow’s judgment of the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Again, Russia’s ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council states have touched a low point as ties with Qatar and Saudi Arabia nosedived over the Syrian question. Russia, arguably, has little to lose in comparison with its stakes in Syria. On the contrary, China is keen to maintain robust ties with the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is the primary source supplying oil for China’s Strategic Reserve. Qatar has invested in China while China is investing in Kuwait. In comparison, China has hardly any stakes in the Bashar Al-Assad regime’s continuance.
  • Indeed, unlike in the 1950s, Washington is not going to lose time to probe any signs of new thinking in Beijing on the range of regional issues. The “unexpected visit” by a senior Chinese military official to the US last month coincided with Dai’s mission to Moscow.
  • The government-owned China Daily reported on August 23 that Cai Yingting, deputy chief of the general staff of the PLA’s visit to the US, which began four days earlier, was not announced in advance in Washington or Beijing and it related to “escalating tension between China and Japan” and hoped to “work on more specific and transparent development plans for the two militaries”.
  • The China Daily report said Cai’s delegation included “several chiefs of Chinese military areas and Chen Shoumin, deputy head of the strategic planning department of the PLA General Staff Headquarters.” Its itinerary included a visit to the US base in Hawaii and the bases at Fort Hood, Texas, and in Missouri, followed by talks at the Pentagon.
  • Most certainly, Cai’s discussions will provide the input for the forthcoming visit by the US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to China in mid-September.
  • Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has included a halt in Beijing during her current tour of the Asia-Pacific. Interestingly, she will be touching Beijing en route to Russia to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Senior US officials have said that Clinton hopes to discuss with the Chinese leadership the North Korea problem, Iran nuclear issue, Syrian crisis and Afghanistan. Obviously, the once-in-a-decade transition in China due in a matter of weeks or the hurly-burly of the US presidential election in November wouldn’t hold back the two countries from quickening the pace of their diplomatic engagement.
  • To be sure, the meetings on the sidelines of the APEC summit meeting this weekend in Vladivostok promise to be far more engrossing and fateful for the Asia-Pacific region than the outcome of the tepid regional process itself. The statesmen gathering in Vladivostok will be keenly assessing the rumblings as the tectonic plates of the Russian-Chinese “comprehensive strategic cooperation and partnership” show signs of moving.

(full long text).


Putin looks East, on, Source: The Voice of Russia, SEPTEMBER 5, 2012;

SCO steps out of Central Asia, on, by Melkulangara K. Bhadrakumar, JUNE 18, 2011.

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