- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2015

From the moon to the Mediterranean to the heart of Moscow, China and Russia in recent days have announced a striking number of moves to strengthen military, financial and political ties, raising the specter of a deeper alliance between the U.S. rivals.

Adversaries during the long Cold War, Beijing and Moscow have increasingly found common cause in challenging the U.S. and Western-dominated order in Europe and Asia, finding ways both symbolic and concrete to challenge what they see as Washington’s efforts to contain their rise.

The latest sign of closer ties emerged Thursday with the announcements of the first joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean and that Russia will be one of the biggest outside investors in China’s proposed development bank, which the Obama administration tried to undercut.

“Russia and China are now becoming, as we wanted, not only neighbors but deeply integrated countries,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told reporters on a trip to the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou this week.

The two sides discussed making China the “main partner” in a Russian program to establish a scientific station on the moon by 2024. Russia has been trying to revive the space program carried out under the Soviet Union, and China has been gearing up its own manned lunar mission.

Analysts even see a budding “bromance,” as the BBC recently put it, between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

President Obama and virtually all other Western political leaders declined Mr. Putin’s invitation to attend commemorations in Red Square next week to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, so Mr. Xi is perhaps the most prominent foreign leader who will be there.

The two men met five times last year and “will meet at least as many times this year,” said Andrey Denisov, Russia’s ambassador to Beijing.

“While the Russians and the Chinese expect the United States to continue to be the most powerful nation in the world for several more decades, they see its grip on the rest of the world rapidly loosening,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in a lengthy analysis of the “Sino-Russian entente” in April.

“Both Moscow and Beijing see the world going through an epochal change away from U.S. domination and toward a freer global order that would give China more prominence and Russia more freedom of action,” he wrote. “They also see the process of change gaining speed.”

Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi sparked talk of a major change in bilateral relations in April 2014 with the announcement of a 30-year, $400 billion deal to sell Russian natural gas for the first time to China, followed by the announcement in November of plans to build a second major pipeline to bring Russian oil and gas to Chinese customers.

Going deeper

At the time, some portrayed the deals less as an alliance than a desperation move by Mr. Putin, who is facing international isolation and economic sanctions from the United States and Europe over the clash in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. But this year has brought a string of signals that the rapprochement between the two capitals is going much deeper.

Those moves include:

In March, Russia’s state-owned airplane manufacturer announced the production schedule for a joint venture with Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China to build a long-haul wide-bodied commercial airliner by 2025, with the bulk of the $13 billion project coming from China. In April, China became the first foreign customer for the advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, in a $3 billion deal set to be completed by 2017. The S-400 sale “underlines once again the strategic level of our relations,” Anatoly Isaikin, chief executive of the state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, told the Russian business newspaper Kommersant.

Russia has emerged as a founding member and major backer of Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a proposed $100 billion development bank widely seen as a challenge to the U.S.-dominated World Bank and other Western-led financial institutions. Russian Deputy Minister for Economic Development Stanislav Voskresensky told reporters this week that Russia could be the third-largest contributor among the dozens of nations — not including the United States or Japan — that have joined the investment bank, and that Russia could be given a seat on the board of directors.

Mr. Rogozin and Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang discussed in depth this week plans to collaborate on space exploration in the decades ahead. Mr. Rogozin said Beijing and Moscow share “deep mutual understanding and mutual interests” in space-related joint ventures. In February, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping said Beijing is planning to boost its cooperation with Russia in a number of spheres, including space, as Beijing develops its Long March-9 rocket ahead of the country’s first manned lunar mission by 2028.

The Joint Sea 2015 exercises announced Thursday are the latest in a growing web of informal military collaborations between China and Russia, military analysts say. The mid-May, live-ammunition exercises will feature nine surface ships and involve rescue, resupply and other missions, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng told reporters in Beijing.

While denying that the first Mediterranean joint mission was aimed at any other country, Mr. Geng used the same briefing to harshly condemn the far-reaching U.S.-Japanese defense pact signed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on his U.S. visit this week.

“What kind of impact will it have on world and regional peace and stability to beef up the U.S.-Japan military alliance and expand their defense cooperation to the whole world?” Mr. Geng asked, according to an Associated Press report. “That is a question that needs to be asked by all sides.”

Analysts caution that past predictions of a closer Moscow-Beijing axis have proved to be overstated dating back to the days when the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China clashed repeatedly and even fought a brief but bloody border war in 1969. Russian strategists openly fear that Moscow would be relegated to a “junior partner” in any alliance, given China’s rising wealth and economic clout.

But Carnegie’s Mr. Trenin said the warming may prove more significant because neither side has other obvious major allies as they seek to expand their clout and challenge the U.S.-designed global order in Asia and Europe. Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi, he added, have the incentive, clout and job security to move an alliance forward.

“From its new levels reached in 2014, the relationship between Moscow and Beijing is likely to move forward in a number of key areas,” he wrote. “In lieu of a Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, a Greater Asia from Shanghai to St. Petersburg is in the making.”

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

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