Neither Russia nor China has one inch of coastline on the Mediterranean Sea, making it an unlikely and provocative venue for their first joint naval war games.
The 10 days of maneuvers that got underway Monday will include live-fire exercises in the strategic sea connecting Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The point is lost on no one: A powerful new alliance of eastern giants is flexing its muscles in the very backyard of Western Europe — much as China has done on its own in the Pacific.
The war games follow Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow, where he headlined Victory Day celebrations and spent three days making billion-dollar deals with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia’s World War II allies mostly stayed away.
Russia has been driven into the arms of its communist neighbor by Western sanctions imposed for its role in the bloody Ukraine crisis. The United States and European Union have cut off Russia's businesses and its government from international lending and provoked tit-for-tat trade embargoes that have hurt both sides.
In response, Putin has steered his country away from a U.S.-dominated post-Soviet world order, pivoting instead toward China, its not-always-friendly eastern neighbor.
“People who call this an axis of convenience ... are missing the bigger picture,” said Gilbert Rozman, a Princeton University professor who writes and teaches on Northeast Asian affairs. “This is a relationship about national identity and the big efforts in both countries to establish a different kind of international order.”
The emerging Sino-Russian alliance remains fragile and its partners wary, political analysts note. Both Russia and China are vying for influence in Central Asia, for instance. But Putin’s push to work with those now-independent former Soviet states has gained little traction against the reality of Beijing’s head start in sewing up energy contracts and infrastructure projects with the “stans” that flank its western border.
The most conspicuous hang-up, though, may be the failure of Xi and Putin to fine-tune the terms of their massive energy deal of a year ago. That $400-billion compact includes plans to develop remote Siberian oil and gas fields and deliver their output to China for the next 30 years.
The 32 agreements signed by the two presidents Friday showed no progress in resolving disputes over the price China will pay for the natural gas, which projects will take priority and how the supplies will be delivered to China’s far-flung industrial centers.
Russia’s state-controlled media paid little attention to the differences standing in the way of implementing the historic energy pact. But independent analysts suggest the impasse is evidence that Beijing can drive hard bargains with a Russian government isolated by Western sanctions and immersed in an economic crisis.
“Russia is acceding to demands that China has been making for a long time,” said Rozman, who added that major differences between Moscow and Beijing are now being papered over. The two powers still have disputes over territory, migration, relations with Vietnam and other matters.
Russia favors a more bipolar relationship with China, Rozman said, while Beijing appears to prefer simultaneously keeping up the momentum in improving ties with the United States in a “triangular” foreign policy model. But the neighbors have much to gain from their strengthening economic ties. And they have seen the power of their ability to influence world affairs through their veto authority as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
“The Russians’ claimed sphere of influence, their domestic characteristics, the revival of pride in the Soviet history, including Stalin — all this is connected, and China is reinforcing that pride, saying, ‘We support your view of the world,’” Rozman said.
The all-smiles display at the Moscow meetings ignored the ups and downs of Sino-Russian ties over the last four centuries. A documentary, “Russia and China: The Heart of Eurasia,” that aired on state-run television Friday night suggested that any historical animosity between the two powers was largely behind them.
Among the deals signed during Xi’s visit are a Chinese-financed and Russian-guaranteed investment fund aimed at drawing $25 billion in Chinese projects to Russia, a nearly $6-billion investment by Beijing in a high-speed rail line from Moscow to Kazan, $2 billion for agricultural projects and a $3-billion joint venture to build 100 long-haul Sukhoi jumbo jets for lease to carriers throughout Asia.
Talks are still underway on China’s plan to purchase two dozen Su-35 fighter jets and to jointly upgrade the Mi-26 helicopter. In addition to diversifying Russia’s energy-intensive trade, the deals are forecast to double Russia-China annual trade to $200 billion within a few years. China’s trade volume with the United States, its most significant economic relationship, was $592 billion last year.
Despite the upbeat outlooks, the shift from West to East can’t happen overnight.
Russia’s main market for its energy exports has long been Europe, and the pipeline network that carries supplies to the West isn’t going to be easily redirected, said Sijbren de Jong, an analyst of Russian and Central Asian affairs at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies.
“China profits off the fact that the negotiating position of Russia is weak,” said De Jong, explaining that Putin has been unable to prevail in the negotiations to get the energy projects underway with any hope of meeting the 2017 target delivery start.
Putin used the weekend talks to push his Eurasian Economic Union as a component of regionwide collaboration, suggesting the bloc uniting Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Armenia could be extended to the rest of Central Asia, where it could dovetail with Beijing’s Silk Road Economic Belt.
The Chinese initiative is aimed at creating more efficient resource extraction, as well as transportation to the underdeveloped states on China’s western flank.
An agreement signed Friday by Xi and Putin called vaguely for cooperation between the two countries’ plans for Central Asia, which Putin said “means reaching a new level of partnership that envisages common economic space on the entire Eurasian continent.” Xi was less effusive, saying only that China will “coordinate closely” with Putin’s alliance.
“The Chinese will not want to play second fiddle to Moscow in the quest for primacy in Central Asia,” De Jong said, noting that Beijing has been winning the battle of one-upmanship that shows “China and Russia don’t really trust each other.”
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