Keeping on the right side of the bear and the eagle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 May, 2008, 12:00am

Beijing and Moscow are growing ever closer. The trend began under Vladimir Putin and it looks set to continue under his protege, new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. As Mr Medvedev stressed yesterday on a visit to China, the alliance is a strong one. But there are some simmering tensions in the relationship that make it subject to sudden change.

On one issue, however, both sides are in complete agreement - their opposition to the US plan for a defensive missile shield. Both countries are right to single out the ill-conceived idea for criticism. Their joint message is that the shield, if put in place, is more likely to encourage global weapons proliferation than stifle it. The first joint statement issued during his visit to Beijing contained a warning against the missile plan. It says the plan is likely to produce a global defence system that will threaten the strategic balance and stability around the world and undermine international efforts at arms control and non-proliferation.

Moscow is, understandably, alarmed about a US plan to put interceptor missiles in Poland and a high-powered defence radar system in the Czech Republic, both former satellites of the Soviet Union. The peoples of the two Central European countries are sceptical. But no such scepticism exists in Japan, which has enthusiastically embraced the defence system, elements of which are already operating in parts of the country. Japan, not surprisingly, is worried about the missile capability of North Korea, which has been developing, and may already have acquired, nuclear bombs. But in the broader context, it is seen by Tokyo as a way to re-engage the US in East Asia - after being distracted by the war in Iraq for so long - and to check the growing economic and military might of China.

What one country sees as a defensive move is, of necessity, interpreted as a provocation or as offensive by another. Since the shield must involve advanced tracking satellites, it will mark another step in the militarisation of space, which every country but the US has said should be abjured.

There is a limit, though, to the strategic co-operation between Moscow and Beijing, and this is nowhere more evident than in the sphere of energy. Energy-related exports from Russia to China grew from US$500 million in 2001 to more than US$6.7 billion last year. China is energy-hungry and Russia is happy to meet that demand. But Beijing is also wary of the way Moscow has used its energy supplies to leverage its foreign-policy influence not only with former Soviet satellites across the Caucasus and in Central Europe, but also with member states of the European Union that depend on its oil and natural gas. Once China is hooked on Russian energy supplies, there is no guarantee Moscow would not play east against west according to the dictates of its foreign policy. In any case, the mainland economy is so inextricably linked to that of the US that it must pursue a more circumspect and cautious policy than Moscow.

Beijing wants a calm international environment so it can pursue its domestic agendas and economic reforms. For this, it needs to maintain good relations with both Russia and the United States.