TOKYO – Relations between China and Russia are about to enter a new phase.
Sometimes referred to as “opportunistic partners,” the neighbors have shown that they are beginning to form a united front, with their foreign ministers repeatedly criticizing the United States.
As nations face US and European sanctions, they raise concerns that they will become aggressive to counter the democratic world.
When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov met in Guilin, China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, for two days starting on March 22, both vehemently criticized Western countries, saying that the United States should not form blocs to intimidate other countries.
They also said that there were no unified standard models of democracy and that sovereign countries had the right to choose their own model.
Their meeting came with the West intensifying its aggressiveness.
On March 12, the four nations of Japan, the United States, Australia and India held an online summit with the intention of containing China and Russia in their minds.
Five days later, in a television interview, US President Joe Biden said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “killer”.
On March 18 and 19, senior U.S. and Chinese officials exchanged beards at a meeting in Alaska.
And on the same day, Wang and Lavrov began their meeting, European countries and the United States decided to introduce new sanctions against China.
Russians have mixed feelings towards China, which followed the Soviet Union in embracing communism. The neighbors have had a difficult relationship at least since the 1960s, when a border conflict erupted into a military clash. In 1996, however, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the countries announced a strategic partnership. In 2001, Putin invited President Jiang Zemin to Moscow for the signing of the China-Russia Friendship Treaty.
In the process, Russia’s advantage over China diminished, as the positions of neighbors ended up being reversed. According to the International Monetary Fund, China’s gross domestic product in 2019 was more than eight times that of Russia.
As the Chinese economy has grown at breakneck speed, Russia’s dependence on its neighbor has grown. China is now the largest buyer of Russian exports and the largest source of its imports.
What worries Russia is the risk of falling under Chinese rule. The Putin administration, which tries to instill pride in Russia’s greatness, operates on a principle of rejecting the influence of all other countries over its domestic policies.
This means never allowing Russian pride and dignity to be tarnished.
Some Central Asian countries which were formerly part of the USSR and which Russia considers to be part of its sphere of influence have come under the influence of China. Now China, seemingly oblivious to how it has shaken Putin’s pride, is trying to approach Russia.
The Global Times, affiliated with the Communist Party of China, recently ran an op-ed that said, “No country in the region can stand alone against China or Russia, let alone fight both powers at the same time.” He also claimed that China and Russia can counter the Quad. The editorial seems to indicate that China, which the United States sees as the West’s greatest threat, would feel more secure with a great military power like Russia at its side.
An event later this year could prove to be a touchstone for predicting whether China and Russia seek to form a military alliance in the future.
After two decades, the Sino-Russian Friendship Treaty expires in July. But at the end of last month, the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers agreed to extend and broaden the pact. They also announced that the leaders of the countries would issue a joint statement.
A focal point will be how Chinese President Xi Jinping – who described relations between nations as neither allies nor antagonists during the treaty’s 15th anniversary ceremony – characterizes the ties this time around.
Another will be a big military exercise in the fall, an event that Russia holds in a different military district every year. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army first joined the exercise in 2018, which took place in an eastern region relatively close to China.
China has been invited to participate every year since. This year, the exercise will take place in a western district close to Europe. If China does participate, it undoubtedly irritates Europe – and shows that China and Russia are forging military ties.
China and Russia have started to call Western democracies “the West” – Xifang in Chinese – and calling itself the anti-Western camp. If the opportunistic partners move towards a military alliance, an East-West confrontation could develop.
Asked about a possible military alliance with China, Putin said in October: “Theoretically, it is quite possible.”
Did he think so?
Russia is a tough and seasoned negotiator. He seizes every opportunity to improve relations with the West through dialogue, using issues such as nuclear management, the fight against terrorism, energy, technology and the situation in the Middle -East. A honeymoon with China could be interpreted as a sign that it is ready to enter a new round of dialogue with the West.
That said, maintaining political power is the top priority of the Putin administration as it grapples with a sluggish economy and growing public discontent. This hints at the possibility of Russia crossing the red line and signing an alliance with China. Such a move is even more likely if Moscow felt ignored and under pressure from the West.
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