China’s state media were jubilant last month over the signing of a $2 billion arms deal to buy from Russia the much-coveted Sukhoi-35 combat aircraft. That comes on the heels of another landmark arms deal in April between the two “strategic partners” for the sale of six battalions of Russia’s most advanced anti-aircraft missile system, the S-400 Triumf, giving Beijing the capability to shoot down aircraft over the skies of the Senkakus and the entire island of Taiwan, and as far away as New Delhi and Hanoi.
In both deals, Chinese military analysts are eager to point out that Beijing was the first foreign buyer of the advanced Russian weapons systems hailed as “the game-changers.”
But the public celebration belies the fundamental rifts, distrust and suspicion that still divide the two neighbors. In a larger sense, China and Russia hold fundamentally different strategic visions and are fierce competitors for regional and global dominance in key areas.
While happy to sell advanced weapons to China, Russian President Vladimir Putin is more eager to sell his more lethal and advanced big-ticket weapons to buyers such as India and Vietnam to help them build up their defenses against Beijing. In recent years, Russia has sold India and Vietnam advanced submarines, aircraft carriers, missiles and combat aircraft. With the ink barely dry on the S-400 missile deal with China, Moscow is said to be poised to sign a similar deal with India for twice as many S-400s, and with Vietnam for just as many S-400 missiles as those going to China.
More tellingly, Mr. Putin has steadfastly refused China entreaties for a mutual defense alliance in Asia and has refused to take China’s side in multiple regional territorial disputes. Moscow is working on a diplomatic breakthrough with Japan, China’s archrival in the region, and boosting military ties with North Korea at a time when China is cold-shouldering the Kim Jong Un government.
The much-hyped Sino-Russian economic cooperation pact has also proved to be more hot air than concrete actions. Bilateral trade for 2015 has been on a downward spiral, decreasing by as much as 30 percent so far this year, according to The Diplomat, a Tokyo-based journal.
In May 2014, China and Russia signed a gargantuan $400 billion gas agreement, yet the deal has gone sour in some key areas. China stalled for over a year a promised prepayment to Russia for a proposed Siberian pipeline, angering many Russian energy officials.
It was only three weeks ago that China finally heeded Moscow’s demands and paid out $14.4 billion — far short of the promised $25 billion prepayment for the $55 billion Siberian project. Moscow and Beijing are also sharply divided over the promised Altai pipeline. Moreover, Chinese leaders have been angered by Mr. Putin’s emphatic rejection of Chinese requests to buy substantial ownership shares in Russian energy firms, as China has been doing elsewhere.
But more important, emboldened by the mindless talk in the capitals of the West about a U.S.-China duopoly of world affairs, China has moved to reduce Russia to relative irrelevance in major regional security and economic organizations. Beijing has already replaced Moscow as the dominant player in the Shanghai Cooperative Organization. After President Xi Jinping’s grandiose promise of $40 billion to build a “One Belt, One Road” trade project through Central Asia, China has pressured Russia to give up Moscow’s dominant place in Mr. Putin’s favorite and only geopolitical and economic alliance, the Eurasian Economic Union. Similar Beijing power plays are underway in the so-called BRICS group of emerging powers and in the new China-sponsored Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank.
China has also left Mr. Putin alone to face the world’s wrath over the Ukraine crisis, in part because Moscow’s seizure of the Crimea cut off a source of rampant pilfering by China via Ukraine of a wide range of leftover Russian military technologies and Soviet-designed weapons, including aircraft carriers, long-range missiles and the Zubr-class LCAC amphibious landing ships.
And China also has another reason to let its “strategic partner” in the Kremlin become the world’s leading anti-West villain.
“China wants to use Putin’s anti-West chutzpah and lupine virility to quietly alleviate the [West’s] strategic pressure on China,” explains Hu Xianda, a Chinese strategist, in the Beijing-based Global Times, “As long as we have Putin out in the open covering for us with his fight against the West, it will be impossible for the U.S. to carry out its ‘Asia pivot’ to focus on dealing with China.”
Mr. Putin, the analyst wrote, is “taking the bullet for China.”
So far, the Chinese calculation seems to be working. The U.S. national security establishment, laboriously built up in the Cold War, is still oriented toward, and obsessively vigilant against Russia, giving China, a far more ambitious and powerful revisionist state, the great gift of “benign strategic neglect.”
• Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com and @Yu_miles.