Xi Goes and Visits Putin – Oh Uh!

This weekend’s big news will be the results of a two-day meeting between China’s newly installed President, Xi Jinping and President Putin of Russia.  The meeting has Washington, DC all aflutter, with hundreds of analysts and reporters trying to interpret if this meeting is the beginning of a new strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and Russia. 

It makes a kind of sense for China and Russia to consider a stronger strategic partnership.  Both countries find themselves on the same side of several international issues – the Syrian civil conflict and Iran sanctions leap to mind – and both have been chaffing against international pressures regarding democratic development and human rights protection.  Finally, both China and Russia remain wary of American global power.

I have no doubt that China and the Russia will improve bilateral ties, for no other reason than China needs access to the ample petroleum deposits resting in Siberia.  Yet, the relationship will never mature as many in China and Russia hope and many more in the United States and Europe fear.  First, China is overt in its immediate interest in Russia – fossil fuel.  China’s economy, spurred by rapid urbanization and infrastructure development, needs access to ample resources.  China prefers to find these energy resources near its boundaries (partially explaining its spread into the South China Seas, seduction of Indonesia, and continued presence in Burma) and to avoid having to provide for the security of a region in order to gain access to resources (i.e. Africa and the Middle East).

China maintains its long-standing policy of openness to all, but committed to none.  With the exception of North Korea, China has no mutual defense treaty with any other country – and it does not wish to pursue such with other countries.  Chinese leaders and analysts think they can rise to supremacy by being clever in diplomacy and throwing its weight around economically.  It may be right, but that means it will invest in the types of strategic alliances that the United States crafts throughout the world. 

Finally, the game remains in East Asia for China.  It flirts with new foreign policy directions (such as the much discussed “March West” policy), but the country’s focus will remain for the foreseeable future in East Asia.  Regional preeminence is a necessary condition for the country’s long-term plans.  Russia, for all its continued importance in global affairs, is not an Asian power.  Vladivostok, Russia’s eastern port city, is a dilapidated mess and its eastern military units (particular the eastern fleet) remain minimal.  Russia is far more interested in Central Asia and the Middle East than in East Asia.  The Russians simply do not have the option of providing substantial assistance to the Chinese.

Going forward, the bilateral meeting between these leaders may lead to greater strategic cooperation.  China and Russia may agree to continue to hold the line regarding Assad’s regime in Syria and ratify some general guidance for mutual cooperation in Central Asia.  Thus, for the United States, the meeting this weekend may be of little immediate impact for strategic positioning.  In the long-term, it is Russian oil pouring into China that may prove to be the most important development.  Access to those deposits will allow the Chinese to continue to be a free rider in the Middle East – using US security structures to serve their own interests.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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