- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

MOSCOW — Amid worsening relations with the West, the Kremlin is boosting its political, economic and military ties with China as both countries look to counterbalance U.S. global influence, analysts said.

On a recent visit to Beijing, Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed the burgeoning relationship as a model of international cooperation.

“Russia and China are two of the largest powers in the world, and our relations are more than just a factor of geopolitical stability. They are an example of an open international partnership that is not directed against any third country and that helps develop a better and more just world order,” Mr. Putin said in a March 21 speech broadcast live on Chinese television.

Mr. Putin’s visit marked the fifth time he had met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in less than a year and led to a Russian pledge to step up energy supplies to China by opening a gas pipeline within five years.

“As relations with the West have worsened, Mr. Putin started pursuing this idea of a Eurasian strategic alliance between Russia and China,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, an independent analyst and visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. “He’s become obsessed with pushing an anti-Western, and especially anti-American, foreign policy.”

Russia has been coming under increasing fire from Western governments, including Washington, for backsliding on democracy. Since coming to power in 1999, Mr. Putin has stifled an independent press, cemented Kremlin control over parliament, eliminated elections for regional governments and imposed new restrictions on nongovernmental organizations.

At the same time, his support for autocratic leaders in Belarus and Central Asia has strained relations with Western governments seeking to promote democratic reform in the former Soviet Union. Some critics have called for Russia to be expelled from the Group of Eight club of wealthy democracies, of which Mr. Putin is chairman this year, or for Western leaders to boycott July’s G-8 summit in St. Petersburg.

“Russia is moving away from basic Western values and increasingly moving toward the Chinese model, so Putin feels more comfortable dealing with the Chinese,” said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation’s Moscow office. “Also, they share the common goal of countering American influence, especially in Central Asia.”

Analysts said it was to be expected that the two countries, which did about $30 billion in trade last year, would seek to boost economic ties. The Russian economy is largely dependent on oil and gas production, while China is the world’s second-largest energy consumer behind the United States.

On Monday, Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko predicted that about one-quarter of Russia’s gas exports will go to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020, compared with about 5 percent today, and that the proportion of Russian oil exports to the region will increase tenfold from 3 percent to 30 percent. China is the second-largest buyer of Russian weapons after India and last year helped boost Russian arms exports to a record $6 billion.

Cooperation between the two countries is moving far beyond business. Under programs aimed at increasing political and cultural ties, unprecedented numbers of Russian and Chinese officials are shuttling between Moscow and Beijing.

In August, the two countries held their first joint military exercise, in which nearly 10,000 troops took part in land, air and naval war games. A second round of joint exercises is planned for next year. On the international level, Russia and China have been at odds with Western governments over issues such as imposing sanctions on Iran and meeting with representatives of the radical Palestinian group Hamas.

Analysts say some Russian policy-makers remain wary of China’s growing strength, especially in Russia’s Far East, a sparsely populated zone that shares a 2,700-mile border with China. Regional politicians in the Far East have lobbied against Chinese companies grabbing Russian assets and called for bans on cheap Chinese goods.

Meanwhile, nationalist politicians have accused China of plotting to take over the Far East and called for Russia to stem an influx of Chinese migrants, who already number nearly a half-million. Russia also fears losing influence in the former Soviet countries of Central Asia, which have been developing strong relationships with Beijing independent of Moscow’s control.

“There are still some who understand that in any long-term strategic alliance, Russia will be the junior partner and that China always acts in its own national interests,” Mr. Piontkovsky said.

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