Vladimir Putin wrapped up a day of talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing on Tuesday and then attended the two-day meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Observers say ties between China and Russia have seldom been better, and Global Times, a newspaper controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, wrote that the bond between the two countries “can be built into one of the pillars of international relations.” Did Putin finally cement a Sino-Russo axis?
The Dragon and the Bear continually boast of their “strategic partnership,” but they have never been as close as that term implies. More competitors than anything else, the two large states jockey for influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. They may even one day clash over Siberia, once governed by the emperors who ruled from Beijing. They see the world—and their respective places in it—differently. As independent analyst Bobo Lo wrote in the New York Times last week, their differing interests “ensure a relationship that is defined principally by its limitations.”
Lo’s assessment has been accurate up to now; since the end of the Cold War, Beijing and Moscow have seen their respective ties to the West as far more important than their own relationship, and they have let their differences dominate their relations.
Now, however, we are witnessing a new dynamic emerge. Today, both China and Russia are beginning to see their interests converge, especially because each seems to believe the West is finished. Putin apparently thinks it is more important to maintain good relations with Beijing than Washington.
After all, the Russian leader shunned a trip to Camp David in May to participate in the G-8 meeting there, and to Chicago to attend the NATO Summit, but he did participate in the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the so-called “anti-NATO.” And there is no reason for Putin to have skipped the meetings in the US, as they were held more than two weeks before those in the Chinese capital.
In the past, it was most likely Putin’s prickliness that helped keep Russia and China apart. These days, he seems to have repented, signaling the possibility of a new era of cooperation between the two giants. “We do not have a single irritating element in our ties, but we have common interests,” Putin said in April. The most he was willing to admit to was that there were some matters requiring “additional attention.”
We should always be concerned when hard-line states, large or small, start to act in unison. And if this warming of relations between Putin and China’s Hu Jintao does foreshadow an alliance between the two authoritarian powers, then it marks a serious challenge to Washington and its democratic allies. We remember that the Soviet Union’s failure in the Cold War was preceded by China abandoning Moscow in that global struggle. Now, those forces could be joining up again, although political and economic strains in Russia and China could make their combination less formidable than in the past.
In any event, we should remember that America prevailed in the Cold War not because of Mao Zedong’s help but because the US stood for ideals that people around the world shared. And we still do, whether or not China and Russia form the new axis.
Photo Credit: www.kremlin.ru