By M K Bhadrakumar
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated last Friday that the crisis in Syria was impossible to settle if the international community ignored the positions of Russia and China.
Russia obviously feels frustrated that the "international community" is bent on discrediting the United Nations observer mission in Syria and keeps undermining Moscow's efforts to bring about an "all-inclusive" Syrian dialogue.
However, the striking thing was that Lavrov also spoke up in a media interview on behalf of Beijing. His warm words coincided with the visit by China's Vice Premier Li Keqiang to Moscow. And Li lost no time endorsing what Lavrov said, expanding on it to say, "The [Chinese and Russian] sides hold 100% coinciding positions on the issues of North Korea and Syria."
Meanwhile, Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times
The biggest significance of the China-Russia partnership, in the foreseeable future, may be that it establishes an obstacle to the Western monopoly and protects the basic rights of the non-Western world, including the independence of national interests and the diversity of political systems.
Li is regarded as the possible successor to Premier Wen Jiabao this October and his mission to Moscow signified an early attempt by Beijing to reset the compass of the China-Russia partnership in anticipation of Vladimir Putin returning to the presidency on May 7 after serving as prime minister for the past five years.
Beijing has already secured the scheduling of an official visit by Putin to China in June, which will be his second visit in the past year. Beijing is going all out to strengthen its comprehensive strategic partnership with Moscow when the US's "pivot to Asia" is beginning to grate on Sino-American ties.
But Moscow's focus is somewhat different. The consensus among Russian elites is that access to Western technology is the key to modernizing Russia's economy and Moscow should prioritize its partnerships with the US and Europe. Russian elites and the middle class do not regard China as a substitute to the West. Nor do they succumb to China's "soft power". Russia indeed has its definite (and valuable) uses for China, a big neighbor and an economic powerhouse.
Russia's predicament lies in that Washington has so far adopted a policy of selectively engaging it on issues of critical interest - principally, Afghanistan - and this falls short of Russian expectations of an equal partnership between two great powers.
Washington needs all the transit facilities it can get from Moscow within the Northern Distribution Network to allow goods into and out of Afghanistan, but it doesn't see the need to consult Russia on the post-2014 regional scenario for Afghanistan and Central Asia. Nor is it paying heed to the Russian demarche on US military bases in Afghanistan after the scheduled withdrawal of troops in 2014.
From the Russian viewpoint, the missile defense issue becomes the litmus test of US intentions. But the US aims at neutralizing all strategic missile capability from any quarter - not only from Russia, but China or Iran as well - that may make it vulnerable.
This has been a longstanding US objective and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is realizable. On the other hand, global strategic balance lies at the core of the Russian military doctrine. A recent opinion piece in the Moscow Times framed the paradigm:
The United States' pursuit of an advanced global missile defense system is tightly intertwined with the idea of US global dominance. This goes to the very heart of US foreign and defense policy. For that reason, all negotiations with the US in limiting missile defense end up going nowhere ... Given that Russia is the weaker party in bilateral relations, there is no compelling reason for Washington to tie its hands on an issue it considers central to its military and national security strategy just for the sake of good relations with Russia.
On Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said, "So far, we have not found a mutually acceptable solution to the missile defense issue, and the situation is at a dead end ... There is a dilemma facing our countries now. Either we pass this test of cooperation and respond together to new missile challenges and threats, or we [Russia] will be forced to undertake the necessary military measures."
There is a fundamental contradiction in the US-Russia relationship, which is not easy to reconcile. However, paradoxically, China is unable or unwilling to exploit it.
Neither Moscow nor Beijing (which is also coming under pressure from the US missile shield in the Asia-Pacific) is interested in working jointly. A senior Defense Ministry official in Moscow heading the military cooperation department was quoted on Thursday as saying, "China's nuclear potential will be 'neutralized' [by the US] much sooner than Russia's. China has a far limited capability ... But clearly they have a different philosophy for guaranteeing national security, which ought to be commented on by the Chinese themselves."
The heart of the matter is that Moscow prefers to work on its problems with Washington on its own steam. In a major interview with the Russian media last week before laying down office in the Kremlin, President Dmitry Medvedev went out of the way to caution against "demonizing" America.
Lavrov took the point further in another interview cautioning against dramatizing the "rough patches" in Russia's ties with the US. He estimated that Russia-US relations were "probably at their best" in recent years. Lavrov claimed that Moscow had been "able to improve the situation with the [US President Barack] Obama administration". (Medvedev also claimed in his interview that the Obama presidency had been "the best in the history of Russian-US relations".)
Hearts of iron
Meanwhile, Russia has also begun courting Big Oil. Vice Premier Igor Sechin, who is close to Putin and is billed as Russia's energy czar, paid his first visit to Washington last month on an investment promotion tour. A fortnight ago, Putin personally presided over the signing of a joint venture agreement with ExxonMobil estimated at half a trillion dollars through the coming three or four decades.
Having said that, Moscow places high importance on economic cooperation with China. Sino-Russian trade touched almost US$80 billion last year, showing a 42.7% year-on-year jump. During Li's visit to Moscow, the two countries signed 27 trade contracts worth $15 billion. The energy ties spearhead China-Russia strategic cooperation and it may play an even bigger role for meeting the bilateral trade target of $100 billion in 2015 and $200 billion in 2020.
Nonetheless, Li could not resolve the price deadlock that has been blocking the trillion-dollar gas deal with Russia's gas giant Gazprom. Moscow demands tariffs on a par with what it gets from Europe, while China thinks that is excessive. Under the pending gas deal, Russia would sell up to 68 billion cubic meters of pipeline gas annually to China, making China its single-biggest customer.
Moscow's deal with ExxonMobil would have come as a surprise to Beijing. It carried the imprimatur of the Putin presidency. Li reportedly proposed "a completely new model" of cooperation in the natural gas sphere and "received a positive assessment from the Russian side" - according to a senior Chinese official in the Chinese entourage visiting Moscow. Beijing will be pinning hopes on wrapping up the gas deal during Putin's visit to China in June.
However, Moscow isn't in any obvious hurry. No sooner had Li departed from Moscow, Gazprom announced that Russia and Japan were in talks to build a gas pipeline from Russia to expand gas supplies."The parties have discussed prospects of increase of natural gas supplies from Russia to Japan in terms of higher liquefied natural gas production at the Sakhalin Island and implementation of an LNG plant construction project in Vladivostok. The parties also discussed the opportunities for a gas supply project from Russia to Japan through pipeline." The future pipeline could be laid on the seabed.
Welcome to the land of the rising sun. Clearly, Moscow is signaling to China that it is but one of its major clients for natural gas and currently not even the main Asia-Pacific client. Gazprom is already implementing a $7 billion project with a Japanese consortium of companies to build a LNG plant and gas chemical complex in Vladivostock, which is scheduled to be launched in 2016 and will produce 10 million tonnes of LNG out of which 7 million will by supplied to Japan and three million to South Korea.
That is to say, contrary to what the Global Times has written, Putin is not in the business of aligning with China for tilting at Western windmills with the aim of protecting the "basic rights of the non-Western world". He may well tilt at windmills, but it will be a highly motivated act and strictly for safeguarding Russian interests.
Moscow would rather take a leaf out of Washington's copybook and have an engagement of China that optimally dovetails with Russian interests. Thus, on Syria, the answer to Chinese advances for both to act in unison simply happens to be "yes" (for the present, at least); but on North Korea, it could at best be "maybe"; and, on Vietnam, it is most certainly "no".
In sum, the key to radically shuffling this Sino-Russian equation lies in Obama's pocket. Obama needs to make up his mind whether he should "re-reset" relations with Russia against the historic backdrop of the US's "pivot" to Asia.
It is entirely up to him to assess the caricature of Putin that is embedded in Western perceptions. Indeed, Li's visit to Moscow has sprung some surprises.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.