On August 7, the White House announced the cancellation of a September G20 summit meeting between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, citing a “lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last twelve months,” as well as Russia’s granting of asylum to Edward Snowden – essentially, the failure of Obama’s “reset.” While the U.S. secretaries of State and Defense have both since hosted their Russian counterparts in Washington and worked to smooth bilateral relations, the noted cooling will likely decrease cooperation on arms control, Iran, Syria, and other pressing international issues.
Though many in the U.S. and abroad have supported Obama’s decision as the correct move, as Richard Falk noted, what if the roles had been reversed? If a Russian whistleblower had arrived in the U.S. with information about a secret Russian surveillance system, the individual would have been celebrated and undoubtedly granted asylum.
Meanwhile, preparations for a meeting between Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit continue apace, an event which has been “hailed as a major event for the latter half of the year in the course of Sino-Russian relations,” according to Chinese state media – which also quoted Putin as “eagerly expecting” Xi’s visit.
Spurred in part by the U.S. rebalance to Asia, strategic cooperation between Russia and China has increased noticeably over the past several years, while the two countries have held similar positions in the UN on issues like Iran and Syria. Just as Putin’s first foreign trip after assuming the Russian presidency in 2012 was to China, Xi’s first official state visit was to Moscow on March 22-24, 2013.
During their summit, Xi and Putin discussed forming a comprehensive strategic partnership to advance the interests of both countries, affirming support for each other’s territorial and strategic interests. The two leaders also agreed that the U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile defense system was a concern to both and could perhaps undermine regional deterrence and the balance of power. Xi was the first foreign leader to be allowed to visit Russia’s strategic defense command headquarters and war room.
Xi told Putin that Beijing and Moscow should "resolutely support each other in efforts to protect national sovereignty, security and development interests," while promising to "closely coordinate" on international and regional issues. Putin noted, "The strategic partnership between us is of great importance on both a bilateral and global scale."
At the same time, Russian and Chinese officials ratified the 2013-2016 implementation guidelines of the China-Russia Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation and also signed 30 agreements on cooperation in military exchanges, technology, energy and trade. It was also announced that China would give Gazprom a $2 billion line of credit to expedite a long-term natural gas supply contract. In June 2013, a $270 billion deal with Rosneft to more than double oil shipments to China for the next 25 years was announced, with Russia receiving a $70 billion immediate payment.
China is Russia’s largest trading partner, while Russia is China’s ninth largest. Year-on-year, Sino-Russian trade increased by 11.2% in 2012 to reach $88.2 billion, compared with 6.2% growth in trade for China overall. Xi and Putin announced that bilateral trade was expected to reach $100 billion by 2015 and $200 billion before 2020. According to Wu Hongwei, a researcher with the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, "Sino-Russian cooperation, which is currently over-reliant on energy, has huge potential in agriculture, new energy, aviation and the military, which will likely become a new impetus for future development.”
Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli conducted a follow-up visit to Russia in late June to, according to Xinhua, “give a new impetus to the unprecedented high level of relations between the two neighboring giants.” He also met with Putin, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, and Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, and gave a keynote speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. On August 16, Chinese State Councelor Yang Jiechi met Putin in Sochi as part of the ninth round of bilateral strategic security consultations, with both pledging to deepen strategic ties.
On August 20, during the Joint Commission for the Regular Meetings of Heads of Government of China and Russia – at which Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang said on August 20 that China was willing to cooperate with Russia in a variety of areas, including joint research on jets and helicopters, nuclear projects, faster cross-boarder infrastructure construction, and support for Chinese investment in Russia – especially Russia’s Far East.
While sales of Russian military equipment to China have decreased in recent years as China has increased domestic production and export, they do continue. In June, it was reported that Russia would sell 100 of its latest SU-35 fighters to China. And cooperation between the two countries’ militaries has been increasing. On July 8-10, China joined Russia for its largest-ever naval drills with a foreign partner, the “Joint Sea-2013 exercises,” to which China reportedly sent four destroyers, two guided missile frigates, and a support ship. Russia dispatched 11 surface ships, including a guided-missile cruiser, and one submarine. The exercise coincided with a U.S.-Japanese joint air exercise several hundred kilometers away. China and Russia also conduct joint anti-terrorism drills, the most recent of which, “Peace Mission-2013,” was held July 27–August 15 in the Russian Ural Mountains. Of the drill, Xinhua quoted Russian Rear Admiral Leonid Sukhanov as saying, “China and Russia as two big powers in the Asian-Pacific region can strengthen cooperation to face security threat together. I think the joint drill is held to safeguard our own interests and maintain regional stability.“
Despite the visibility of growing Sino-Russian ties, it is likely that actual bilateral strategic and economic cooperation will be weaker than has been proclaimed in various news reports. There has also been increasing U.S.-Chinese military cooperation. Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan visited the Pentagon and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on August 19. The two sides agreed to increase high-level visits, joint exercises, and training programs – admittedly a far cry from the cooperation currently underway or planned between China and Russia; one Xinhua editorial noted, “The journey toward a new type of China-U.S. military relations is not going to be easy.” In the increasingly complex regional and global context, and with the Obama-Putin summit cancelled and the Putin-Xi summit still on track, the U.S. needs to recognize and better take into account the expanding Chinese-Russian relationship.
Ashley Hess is a Kelly Korean Studies Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.