A fly in China’s Russian ointment

Por • 20 abr, 2012 • Sección: Internacionales

 M K Bhadrakumar

China would know that climbing the greasy pole of global power politics isn’t easy. Rivals play rough. But China couldn’t have expected to see Russia among them. The backdrop is poignant.

 Russia-China strategic coordination has touched a high level. Beijing has been joyful about the prospect of Vladimir Putin returning to the Kremlin as president in early May after a spell as premier. Beijing sees Putin as the best thing that ever happened to «post-Soviet» Russia. Maybe it was sheer naivety, or brilliant guile, but China preferred to see Putin as a one-dimensional figure consumed by a hatred of the West. Beijing saw a dark Western conspiracy to discredit him as he reclaimed power in the Kremlin.

 Therefore, Russian natural gas company Gazprom’s announcement on April 6 that it had signed a deal to take a minority stake in the development of two gas projects off the coast of Vietnam would have a Shakespearean touch about it – Et tu, Brute?

The Gazprom deal was certainly Putin’s decision. Gazprom will explore two licensed blocks in the Vietnamese continental shelf in the South China Sea. It takes a 49% stake in the offshore blocks, which hold an estimated 1.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and more than 25 million tons of gas condensate.

Beijing is apparently taken aback. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin was guarded in his response: «China hoped companies from countries outside the South China Sea region would respect and support efforts by directly concerned parties in resolving disputes through bilateral negotiations.»

Beijing was left guessing as the bear waded into the choppy waters of the South China Sea. True, the two exploration blocks are within Vietnam’s waters and for Gazprom it is a lucrative business deal. But Gazprom is a state-owned company and is widely regarded as one of Russia’s «geopolitical tools».

Chinese commentaries have signaled that Beijing doubts Moscow’s intentions. The Global Times pointed out:

Vietnam and the Philippines are both trying to seek help from countries outside the region, making the bilateral negotiations into a multilateral confrontation. China cannot be too cautious about any other superpower involvement in the South China Sea region. Russia should not send any wrong or ambiguous signals about the South China Sea. It will not only make the dispute even more difficult to settle for China, but also raises doubts about Russia’s real intentions behind the gas deal.

Besides, Gazprom’s gas deal is not a flash in the pan. Russia is systematically rebuilding its Soviet-era ties with Vietnam (which tapped into shared antipathies toward China), especially since 2009 when Putin told his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Tan Dung that the relationship had assumed «strategic significance».

Moving eastward
Moscow has given an US$8 billion loan for the construction of Vietnam’s first nuclear power plant. Russia is Vietnam’s most important source of advanced weapon technology. And the weapons systems include the SS-N-25 Switchblade/Kh-35 Uransubsonic anti-ship missile, the Ka-27 naval helicopter, the SU-30 MK multi-role fighter aircraft, upgraded Kilo Class attack submarines, Gepard Class Corvettes, the Molnia/Project 12418 fast attack craft packed with Moskit/SS-N-22 Sunburn supersonic anti-ship missiles, Svetlyak export class patrol boats (originally developed for the KGB’s border guards) equipped with anti-aircraft missiles, and so on – all of which help boost Vietnam’s capability to defy China.

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has promised Moscow’s help for Vietnam to build a submarine base for its Kilos, a loan to help Hanoi buy rescue and auxiliary vessels from Russia and planes for Vietnam’s navy as well as build a ship repair yard that will also service visiting Russian navy ships.

Moscow hopes to regain access to its Soviet-era military base in Camh Ran Bay. An editorial in the Chinese daily The Global Times last week said:

All the cooperation … goes beyond economic interests and is chiefly related to political and security concerns. That is the main consideration of Russia when developing the strategic relationship with Vietnam. The importance of the South China Sea [for Russia] depends not only on the abundant resources but also its strategic significance, where the Russian strategic foresight lies. With the economy recovering and military reform advancing, Russia has begun to move eastward.

Vietnam is definitely the springboard … In essence, Russia standing behind Vietnam is not that different from the US, which is coveting the South China Sea [from] behind the Philippines.

The editorial foresees that Russia’s forays will begin to grate on China’s vital interests once Russian military prowess is fully restored. What could China possibly do? The editorial says, «China must improve its own strength and seek as many common interests as possible with Russia. National strength is the premise and assurance for a mutually respectful relationship, and within the constraint of common interests, Russia could be cautious in any decisions related to China.»

The common wisdom is that Russia is nervous about «rising China» – about becoming its raw-material appendage, about the demographic imbalance in Siberia and the Far East, and so on. Instead, how about a China feeling insecure about Russia’s surge in the Asia-Pacific and a Russian-American entente cordiale at some point?

Indeed, influential voices in the US strategic community like former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argue that the US should «welcome into the West» the democratizing Russia and in turn aspire to play the role of a «regional balancer and conciliator» in Asia. He wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine recently:

It is not unrealistic to imagine a larger configuration of the West emerging after 2025. In the course of the next several decades, Russia could embark on a comprehensive law-based democratic transformation compatible with both EU [European Union] and NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] standards … [Russians] would then be on their way to integration with the transatlantic community. But even before that occurs, a deepening geopolitical community of interest could arise among the US, Europe (including Turkey) and Russia.

Raging storms
Whether a genuine US-Russia concord is possible during Putin’s presidency remains a debatable point. However, China also worries that there are Moscow elites who are wedded to «Atlanticism». Arguably, as Brzezinski said in an interview recently, «It’s 2012, not the mid-1970s» and Russia and the US are not the enemies they once were; their current ties form a «mixed relationship» – a combination of practicality, antagonism and indifference. They may have political differences over Syria or Iran but they have just as many shared national security interests, which could one day include «rising China».

There is indeed a «residual resentment» in the Russian psyche – as Brzezinski put it. But US President Barack Obama intends to work on it if he gets re-elected. Obama was overheard recently on the sidelines of the a nuclear security summit in Seoul seeking Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s help to convey to Putin that he needs «space» until the November presidential election gets over to deal with missile defense (ABM – anti-ballistc missiles) and other discords in the US-Russia reset.

Moscow has since piped down its rhetoric on the ABM dispute with the US. On the other hand, China has stepped up its criticism of the US’s ABM program. Luo Zhaohui, director general of the department of Asian Affairs in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told the People’s Daily on Wednesday that the deployment of the ABM system in the Asia-Pacific would have a «negative effect on global and regional strategic stability, and go against the security needs» of the countries in the region.

Therefore, Gazprom’s deal with Vietnam comes as a reality check to Beijing as regards Russian intentions. The Global Times editorial’s caption says it all – «Putin looks to Soviet past in South China Sea strategy.» The editorial was fairly blunt: «Russia’s intentions and activities deserve attention. China must clarify Russia’s strategic intentions in the South China Sea. In fact, over the past decades, Russia’s attention has never moved away from the region and its has a vested interest in the area.»

These Chinese articles appeared on the eve of a visit by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on Friday to Moscow, where he met his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and possibly raised the issue of Gazprom’s dealings in the South China Sea. Interestingly, on Friday, Jiechi also telephonically spoke with his US counterpart, Hillary Clinton, to convey China’s «willingness to cooperate closely» with the US in efforts to reach an early political solution to the crisis in Syria.

Did Yang hint at course correction on Syria? It’s hard to say. Beijing did go out on a limb to support Russia’s line – which is based on Russia’s specific interests in Syria – and put at risk its expanding ties with petrodollar Gulf monarchies. Such enthusiasm was probably unwarranted, as the raging storms that lie beneath the «comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination» between China and Russia would suggest.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.


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