(Chinese and Russian Defence Ministers at Vostok 2018 exercises, September 11-17)
Prime Minister Modi’s annual meeting with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe takes him to Tokyo next week. But this time around, it will be an Official Working Visit, dispensing with the frills of bonhomie. The signal is that the discussions will be largely devoted to bilateral issues. This is just as well, since the tectonic plates of the geopolitics of the Far East are shifting and India must tread softly.
During the past week, within the space of three days, Chinese President Xi Jinping received two senior Russian officials – Anton Vaino, head of the Administration of the President in the Kremlin and Sergey Shoigu, Russia’s Defence Minister.
Russia is the only country with which the General Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, which comes directly under Xi, has an institutionalized mechanism of interaction. This means that Vaino’s Chinese counterpart Li Zhanshu, member of the Politburo Standing Committee (ranked No. 3 in the leadership heirarchy) also acts as XI’s personal liaison to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This unique arrangement (for both Russia and China) underscores the exceptionally close relations between the two countries. Xi noted at the meeting on Wednesday with Vaino that the mechanism “serves as a special channel in bilateral exchanges… and also reflects the particularity and importance of Sino-Russian relations.”
Xi’s meetings with Shoigu and Vaino took place in the backdrop of the rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. The US is pushing Russia and China into a de facto alliance. A recent essay titled A new world order: A View from Russia, co-authored by two prominent Moscow pundits Sergey Karaganov and Dmitry Suslov noted, “Given Beijing’s pace of growth, its level of investment in science, education, and technology, and its ability to maintain an authoritarian political system—which is more effective in international competition when combined with a market economy—China is likely to become the world’s number one power in fifteen years.”
However, profound issues arise. The pundits explained, “Pressure from the east and the south and an increase in rivalry with the United States has forced Beijing to progress westward and south-westward. This will have a dual effect. On one hand, this will spur the emergence of new clusters of development in central Eurasia and the formation of the comprehensive Eurasian partnership. But on the other hand, this will simultaneously intensify the opposite tendency, stoking concerns among China’s neighbours about its growing power. To mitigate these concerns, China will need to allow greater multilateralism in its foreign policy and accept engagement in regional systems of rules and institutions, i. e., not rules imposed from the outside, but rules developed together with China. This is the kernel of the concept of Greater Eurasia.”
Meanwhile, there is an increasing danger of regional crises with the US taking steps to besiege China from the south and east through its Indo-Pacific strategy and an attempt to weaken Chinese positions by threatening trade and energy-supply routes in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. On the other hand, the roots of anti-Russian policy run deep in the US strategic calculus and a thaw in bilateral relations cannot be expected in the near future. Russia’s strategy is to keep the US at bay through pre-emptive deterrence. Overall, strategic stability is in decline and there is growing risk of a nuclear conflict.
The Trump administration’s latest move to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987) with Russia can only fuel tensions further. During the talks in Moscow on Monday, US National Security Advisor John Bolton will reportedly convey Washington’s decision to the Russian side. This development has serious implications for both Russia and China. Quite obviously, the collapse of the INF treaty would likely open up a missile race in Europe and in the Asia-Pacific. (The 1987 treaty between Washington and Moscow bans all land-based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.)
The US is reportedly preparing to modify existing weapons, including its non-nuclear Tomahawk missiles to deploy them first in Asia – possibly in Japan, Guam etc. Meanwhile, the US deployment of missile defence system in Central Europe already includes launchers at the base in Deveselu, Romania, whose specifications enable them to launch not only interceptor missiles but also strike missiles like Tomahawks. In 2018, the Pentagon made similar deployments of identical launchers in Poland (although installing them on land is contrary to the INF Treaty.)
Quite obviously, in this context, Moscow is setting aside the nascent moves to usher in a new era in Russia’s relations with Japan. The well-known Russian strategic analyst Fyodor Lukyanov wrote recently, “US administration’s pressure on allies and opponents in Asia has accelerated political shifts. China, which only two years ago was cautious about relations with Russia, is now encouraging them, even in defense. There is no question of a full-blown alliance, but cooperation is increasingly close, the latest example being the large-scale joint Vostok 2018 military exercises.”
“With U.S. President Donald Trump promoting global competition instead of cooperation, Beijing is more interested than before in partnership with Russia. The Kremlin, too, increasingly values cooperation with China now that the US is cranking up the pressure on Moscow, for example, with sanctions. Russia is less interested in balancing China, with or without Japan, as common interests with Beijing have become stronger.”
“Meanwhile, Japan wants to strengthen relations with the US. Abe is one of few allies to have managed to build good relations with Trump. Russia and Japan are simply on different sides of a growing global standoff.”
Xi’s remarks at the meeting with Shoigu on Friday conveyed a strong desire for closer military coordination between China and Russia. Xi said deeper strategic coordination will “serve as the ballast for stabilizing the international order so as to safeguard individual and common interests.” He stressed that “the military relationship between China and Russia is a significant symbol that reflects the high level and special nature of the China-Russia relationship, and also is the highlight and pillar of their bilateral strategic cooperation.” Therefore, Xi urged, the two militaries “should enhance cooperation and focus on addressing common security threats and creating a favorable external environment for the two countries’ national development and rejuvenation, to provide strong support for the bilateral relationship.” Xi described China and Russia as “key factors and constructive forces in promoting world peace and stability.”