Putin’s China pivot: All tactics, no trust

Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Beijing this week, Minxin Pei writes: The fragility of the budding Sino-Russian partnership was on full display during Putin’s visit, the centerpiece of which was supposed to be the signing of a long-term agreement for China to purchase Russian natural gas.

At first, negotiations were deadlocked, with neither side willing to budge on prices. The Russians were insisting on setting a high price while the Chinese, sensing Russian weakness, were trying to bargain the rate down significantly. Disaster was averted at the last minute when both sides reached an opaque agreement that would enable Russia to export $400 billion worth of gas to China over 30 years, starting in 2018.

Although the price was not disclosed, Russian media reported that it will be around $350 per thousand cubic meters, roughly the average for Russian gas exports to Europe but lower than the price for gas exported to Germany and other rich Western European countries (which have to pay over $400 per thousand cubic meters).

If anything, the Sino-Russian gas deal epitomizes the nature of the ties between Moscow and Beijing. Their relationship is purely utilitarian and lacks enduring foundations of mutual interest and shared values.

Nations become strategic allies not simply because they share the same potential opponents. They need to have deep trust in each other. At a minimum, trust is easier to build when potential allies have no fear of each other. And such trust becomes unshakeable if they share the same values.

Unfortunately, none of these conditions applies to the Sino-Russian relationship. Russia fears China, which borders on Russia’s sparsely populated far eastern region, part of which was, in the eyes of the Chinese, stolen from China in the late 19th century. Many Russians worry that China will take over that land, either through migration or more sinister means. Unlike the West, which has facilitated China’s rise and has come to recognize it as a reality, the Russian elite has trouble accepting China, impoverished and impotent only a generation ago, as a great power. [Continue reading…]

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