Russian President Vladimir Putin has just completed a three-day visit to China, his third as president and the first of his second term. The meetings were cordial and productive, marked by the usual rhetoric with which the former allies, who were once estranged but now eye each other anxiously, are so familiar. Moscow and Beijing need each other, but they cannot escape the rivalry and suspicions that mark their relationship.
China and Russia have searched for mutual accommodation since Mr. Putin took office. The Russian president had figured that a U.S.-dominated world order did not give his country sufficient leverage and global influence. So he looked for partners to build a balancing bloc vis-a-vis the United States and elevate Russia’s international status: Europe was one option, but trans-Atlantic ties limited the possibilities of that relationship. China was another; fortunately for Mr. Putin, a similar logic was at work among the leadership in Beijing.
The two governments sealed their new relationship in 2001 with the Treaty on Good Neighborly Relations, Friendship and Cooperation. Although the treaty was designed to stabilize the bilateral relationship, primarily by ending old irritants, it raised fears among some of a new Beijing-Moscow axis. Those fears have proven exaggerated.
Blame national interest. Both governments know that they need good relations with each other, but not at the expense of relations with the U.S. Since the signing of the treaty, both Beijing and Moscow have invariably sided with Washington when forced to make crucial choices. In a key test, Moscow acquiesced to the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty despite China’s objections. Both governments have used the global war on terror to prove their importance to Washington and establish their value as an ally.
But the complementarity of geography, geopolitics and economics means that Beijing and Moscow cannot afford to ignore each other. They have too many common interests to not work together. Mr. Putin’s visit was designed to develop that agenda. Thus last week the two countries finally settled their outstanding border dispute, one that had prompted armed clashes in the 1960s and brought the countries to the brink of war. Recently, they had reached agreement on portions of the 4,300-km border, but a stretch of river and some islands remained in dispute. They fixed that last week.
The summit also produced a political declaration and a five-year action plan to implement provisions of the 2001 treaty. Much of the burden falls on economic cooperation. Bilateral trade between China and Russia reached nearly $16 billion in 2003, a 32-percent climb from 2002; it is expected to reach $20 billion this year. But Moscow is looking to China for more than just trade — it wants investment to diversify its economy and lessen its dependence on raw-material exports. Beijing obliged, promising to invest $12 billion in Russia before 2020. China also promised to back Moscow’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, another crucial step in Russia’s economic reform process (as it was in China).
China wants to diversify trade, too. Its primary objective is to secure energy supplies — it is the world’s second-largest energy importer — and to lessen its reliance on oil from the Middle East. Central to Beijing’s plans is Russia. The Chinese leadership thought it had a deal in which Moscow would ship oil and natural gas to China. The oil pipeline, however, has been the subject of intense competition with Japan. While Russia has not yet made a final decision, it appears as though the Japanese plan will prevail. China’s readiness to compromise on other issues concerning the border, investments and Russia’s WTO bid was intended to encourage Moscow to be similarly forthcoming on the oil pipeline. That did not happen.
There is also discussion of a natural gas pipeline from eastern Siberia to northern China. It was anticipated that this summit would produce an agreement — surely if the oil deal did not work out — but the two countries only signed a pact that left the future of the pipeline uncertain. It is not clear why, but demand from Europe — another key economic and political partner — may be the answer.
China has been disappointed with the failure to close these deals, and the frustrations are mounting. Nonetheless, both governments understand that they must find a working relationship. They share concerns about economic development on their border and worry about terrorism in Central Asia. That provides common ground for cooperation, but fears of a Beijing-Moscow axis will continue to be overblown. Fortunately, though, the bigger danger of intensified rivalry, rather than cooperation, is not on the horizon either.
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