Global Insights: In Sochi, Xi and Putin Put China-Russia Ties on Display

By Richard Weitz, on 11 Feb 2014,
In addition to the magnificent opening ceremony and the admirable performance of the athletes on display at the Winter Olympics, Sochi has seen a remarkable show of solidarity between the host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his most important visitor, Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Chinese government is underscoring the foreign policy significance of Xi’s decision to go to Sochi, which marks the first time a Chinese leader has attended a major foreign sporting event. The visit is Xi’s first foreign trip this year, and Russia was also his first foreign destination after becoming president last year. Since then he has met Putin at four additional major international events, taking care to hold separate bilateral talks on each occasion. Clearly, despite a generally realpolitik foreign policy, China has made targeted personal diplomacy with Putin a priority.

To underscore the point, the Chinese media have taken pains to underscore Beijing’s support for Putin’s Olympics in the face of a de facto Western leadership boycott of the games due to objections to Russia’s anti-gay laws and other Russian domestic practices. Putin likewise made a show of attending the Beijing Summer Olympics in August 2008 in the face of international calls for a boycott due to Beijing’s support for the Sudanese government’s repressive policies in the rebellious region of Darfur.

Though it would be a mistake to view Russia-China relations through the prism of a shared ideology, Putin and Xi’s repeated profession of solidarity over many key issues, especially their insistence on respect for national sovereignty and independence, stands in notable contrast to their clashes with Western leaders. Indeed, Russian and Chinese sources maintain that their close ties serve the global interest as well as their own.

For example, they have suggested that the Moscow-Beijing partnership helps moderate Western aggressiveness. To this end, in Sochi, Putin and Xi made a show of jointly calling the captains of their respective warships that are escorting vessels removing chemical weapons from Syria. China backed Russia’s plan to avert a U.S. military strike in Syria by having the international community destroy these weapons instead. The two countries have also been discouraging Western pressure on Iran.

Until a few years ago, analysts of the Moscow-Beijing relationship could point to Russia’s declining arms sales to China as evidence that their strategic ties might be weakening. On the one hand, China’s improving domestic arms industry meant that Beijing was no longer interested in buying the excess Soviet-era weapons that the Russian government was eager to dispose of on international arms markets. On the other, Russian policymakers were resisting Chinese demands to obtain more-advanced post-Soviet weapons that Russia’s recovering defense industry was struggling to develop and produce; Moscow’s refusal was in part due to fears the Chinese would try to copy and resell the weapons to potential Russian clients.

However, during the past year, Russia’s arms sales to China have returned to their multibillion-dollar levels of the 1990s. Part of the surge is due to the sheer size of China’s military buildup, which has caused a massive demand for Russian engines, specialized steel and other key components. But Moscow has also decided to transfer some of its most advanced military technology to Beijing in the hope, if not the expectation, that their Chinese comrades will better respect Russian intellectual property.

Russia and China are also pursuing parallel arms and defense buildup programs. They have jointly denounced U.S. missile defense programs and are developing advanced nuclear and conventional weapons systems to balance U.S. military superiority. Both countries have displayed new offensive strike systems in recent months.

Still, the Russia-China relationship remains strategically limited in important respects. Their energy partnership continues its halting progress, with one step back for every step forward. Although China has now become Russia’s main trading partner, their bilateral exchange of goods, less than $100 billion in 2013, is much lower than that between China and its major Western partners. Russia-China military exercises are intermittent and not well-integrated. At the U.N. and other international forums, their diplomats more readily agree on which Western proposals they oppose than on how to advance a more proactive positive agenda.

Nonetheless, Washington needs to take care to keep the Russia-China relationship from building on its new foundations to become a more serious threat to U.S. interests. Rhetorical denunciations of various U.S. policies are perhaps inevitable, but genuine joint moves to counter Japan, develop anti-U.S. military technologies or exploit the U.S. military withdrawal from Central Asia could prove more problematic.

The natural constraints to the Russia-China partnership should limit this possibility, as will Russia’s desire to maintain its role as the swing vote among the three powers. In the Asia-Pacific region, in particular, Russian policymakers hope to benefit from China’s rising economy without becoming a resource appendage to China, which has proved challenging, or seeing Beijing become a new regional hegemon. Since Beijing fears alienating one of its few friendly neighbors, Russia’s presence in Asia-Pacific diplomacy helps moderate China’s regional foreign policies. Moscow’s refusal to support Beijing’s claims to islands contested by Beijing and Tokyo is one reason why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe broke with the informal Western boycott of Sochi to attend the Opening Ceremony and engage in his own personal diplomacy with Putin. Russia’s leverage in the regional balance of power is also evident in its ability to either provide or withhold weapons to India and Vietnam.

To play this role more effectively, Russia needs to reduce tensions with Japan, a natural economic and strategic partner, over the Kurile Islands dispute. In addition to assisting this process, Washington can also mobilize Russia’s pivot potential with China by treating Moscow more as a potential partner in Asia rather than excluding it or, as is most often the case, treating Russia as an afterthought.

There is nothing inevitable about the Russia-China partnership, and prospects for a strict and durable alignment should be viewed with circumspection. Nevertheless, both sides see clear advantages in closer ties, and that could present challenges for both the U.S. and its Asian allies.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.

Source: World Politics Review, 11 Feb 2014,

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