PRAGUE — Last week, Russia and China held joint military maneuvers in the presence of both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao. But a new strategic alliance between the two countries is not likely, as it is China that poses the greatest strategic threat to Russia, although many in the Kremlin seem blind to this as they rattle sabers at America and the West.

Indeed, China officially considers several regions in Russia’s Far East to be only “alienated” from it. China’s territorial claims on Russia are often noted in Chinese grade-school geography textbooks, which include a number of Russian Far Eastern regions within China’s borders.

This is consistent with the Chinese strategic concept of “vital space,” which includes all spheres of a state’s strategic activities, on land, at sea, under water, in the air and in space. The dimensions of vital space are determined by a country’s economic, scientific, technical, social and military capabilities — in essence, its “total power.” According to Chinese theorists, the vital space of great powers extends far beyond a state’s borders, whereas the vital space of weak countries is limited to strategic boundaries that do not always correspond to the borders of their national territory.

Today, China has territorial claims against 11 of its 24 neighbors, including India, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, in addition to Russia. In China’s relations with all of them, the potential use of military force was and remains an important factor.

In September 2006, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted an unprecedentedly large 10-day exercise, involving the Shenyang and Beijing military districts, the two most powerful of China’s seven military districts. Shenyang abuts the Russian Armed Forces’ Far Eastern District, and the Beijing district shares a border with Russia’s Siberian Military District. During the exercises, Shenyang units advanced 1,000 km into the Beijing district, where they engaged in joint war games.

To military observers, the Beijing/Shenyang exercises seemed to be practice for a possible offensive operation against Russia, because exercises on such a scale are undertaken only at the final stage of a multiyear program to train troops to enact specific strategic and operational plans. The geography of the exercises, and the offensive nature of the tasks undertaken, leaves little doubt that Russia was cast in the role of “potential adversary.” Such a show of force is an ancient, traditional Chinese political technique.

Paradoxically, these exercises were undertaken during a period when bilateral political and economic ties appeared on the surface to be at their highest point. Russia has an important place in Chinese geopolitical calculations, as a supplier of both modern weaponry and energy resources needed to continue its modernization. Therefore, the Chinese are doing everything possible to strengthen their economic and political position in Russia, and to draw Russia into their sphere of influence.

And China is succeeding, most importantly by consistently reinforcing Putin’s anti-American and anti-Western agenda. While Beijing/Shenyang exercise should have indicated to Russian leaders that China’s intentions toward Russia may not always be benign, Russia’s political and military leadership seem not to sense any threat; on the contrary, they continue to sell the Chinese advanced weapons.

Russia’s current diplomatic tilt, indeed, is clearly against its own long-term national security interests. China will never be interested in Russia’s economic and political modernization, for it prefers Russia to remain a source of mineral and energy resources, and a vast “strategic rear” in its looming challenge with the United States. Likewise, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which just concluded its annual meeting, is in China’s eyes a tool of regional policy that helps strengthen China’s influence and control over Central Asia’s natural resources at the expense of Russia.

No nation threatens China’s land borders. China can solve its domestic problems, such as separatism, by itself. China is militarily self-sufficient and needs military cooperation under the SCO framework only in order to free its hands if any conflict should arise that affects its interests.

In fact, conflict between Russia and China is possible precisely in Central Asia, given the clear differences in the two countries’ economic and political interests in that region. Aside from control of the region’s energy supplies, water has become a potential source of conflict, given China’s serious shortages.

Yet, while the Chinese clearly understand these contingencies and are preparing themselves to deal with them diplomatically and militarily, the Kremlin remains myopically obsessed with the phantom threat of America.

Thus, as the Kremlin dreams of re-establishing its domination over what Russians refer to as the “near abroad” (Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic countries, and the other post-Soviet states), China is increasingly looking at Russia as its own “near abroad.” Will the Kremlin finally wake up to this?

Thirty-six years ago, U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Zedong turned world politics upside down, as both America and China realized that it was the Soviet Union, and not each other, that posed the greater threat. Putin needs his own “Nixon moment.” Alienating the West is a foolish strategy when the greatest long term threat to Russia comes from the East.

Andrei Piontkovsky is executive director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow.

Copyright Project Syndicate 2007 (www.project-syndicate.org)

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