China, Russia have a lot more in common than just war games

It is also good for Beijing and Moscow to increase economic cooperation as the US trade war rages, because they have complementary strengths and needs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 September, 2018, 6:59pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 September, 2018, 10:19pm

Russia’s biggest military exercises since the cold war, involving China’s largest representation yet in overseas war games, coincided with a meeting between presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a regional economic forum on trade and bilateral cooperation. At any time this would attract intense military and diplomatic analysis of the regional and global implications. During a US trade war with China and tensions between Moscow and the West, it is bound to be seen in terms of Russia and China building an alliance against the West.

There is some truth in this, but the geopolitical reality is more complex. It is good for Beijing and Moscow to increase cooperation on the economic front, because they have complementary strengths and needs spanning energy, agriculture, technology and infrastructure. In that regard greater cooperation leading to improved economic security can only be good for regional stability.

When it comes to military cooperation it may be true that China and Russia both face greater pressure from the West. But it needs to be pointed out that military exercises on this scale can add to tension and suspicions, and the danger of the world slipping into a new cold war, as some observers are calling it. As with the trade war, there may be no winners and, in the end, such confrontations are bad for everyone.

The American side also needs to shoulder responsibility for rising tensions with China and Russia. That said, Moscow and Beijing need to exercise care, particularly given a fundamental change in the nature of their military cooperation. The Chinese contribution of 3,000 elite troops and advanced equipment is unprecedented. In the recent past, amid a new and shadowy threat to global security, military cooperation has been largely focused on anti-terrorism. The shift back towards rivalry involving great powers explains thevos heightened interest from defence analysts.

The rivalry is grounds enough for concern. It underlines the importance of keeping open lines of bilateral communication among the three parties – both official and backchannels – for cooperation and avoidance of any misunderstandings.

The trade war between the United States and China, and new US and European Union sanctions against Russia have pushed Beijing and Moscow closer together. This is reflected in the vow by Xi and Putin to boost bilateral ties and oppose the Donald Trump agenda of unilateralism and trade protectionism. Russia needs new markets, investment and credit, and access to new technology, and sees China as a primary source. China can help offset risks from the trade dispute with the US by expanding trade with Russia.