Xi and Putin must focus on stability, not opposing West

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 May, 2014, 3:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 May, 2014, 2:24pm

China and Russia are moving closer. The co-operation and support vowed by presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin during talks in Shanghai this week, strengthened by a landmark US$400 billion natural gas deal, were as much agreements to work together as to put on a united front against perceived Western aggression. Given Beijing's concerns over the US' rebalancing to Asia and Moscow's isolation by American and European sanctions over Ukraine, there is justification for believing national interests are being threatened. In joining forces, though, they have to focus on global peace and stability, not contribute to creating a new bipolar world.

Statements made after the leaders' summit gave every impression that Beijing and Moscow are reading from the same diplomatic page. They objected to sanctions, vowed to oppose interference in the domestic affairs of other countries and, in direct reference to Japan and Europe, pledged to counter attempts to "falsify the history" of the second world war. The meeting coincided with the launch of joint naval exercises in the East China Sea. Capping the talks was the deal for Russia to supply China with 38 billion cubic metres of gas a year, a pact that took 10 years to negotiate.

Sino-Russian relations are complex. Since the 1950s, there have been periods of moving closer and apart, ideology, territorial disputes and conflicting interests being at play. Their membership of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation is largely about central Asian influence; there is leadership rivalry in the group of big developing nations, BRICS. Russia's arms deals with India and Vietnam have caused complications.

But for all the difficulties, the West has given China and Russia reason to more closely align their positions. Beijing is suspicious of US intentions with its moving of naval forces to the region. President Barack Obama's administration has unsubtly backed Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and other claimants to contested islands and waters. American and European sanctions against Russia are similarly antagonistic.

China and Russia have much to gain from oil and gas deals and technological and industrial partnerships. But creating an anti-Western alliance will not benefit their cause. US and EU isolation of the nations will further global instability. Just as American and European leaders need to rethink their policies, Xi and Putin have to take careful diplomatic steps.