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The Sino-Russian Superpower

Construction workers walk past a billboard in Chinese and Russian, in Beiijng's Russian district of Yabaolu, a thriving commerical neighborhood based on Sino-Russian trade. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Edward Lanfranco
Beijing (UPI) Mar 21, 2006
Vladimir Putin's trip to Beijing Tuesday for the opening ceremony of the "Year of Russia in China" is a key evolution in the geopolitical economy America faces. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union 15 years ago, neither Russia nor China by itself could effectively compete with the United States.

Besides its military and economic might, the soft power projection of U.S. culture, and a widespread perception abroad as a force for good, made America a Teflon-coated colossus.

The alliance began when presidents Jiang Zemin and Boris Yeltsin, leaders of unsavory regimes trying to keep respective lids on domestic discontent, ran scared into each others' arms and forged a "strategic partnership of cooperation" in 1996 as a form of mutual support.

The momentum of ex-empires looking for ways to maintain control over restive territories hearkens back to China's Qing and Russia's Romanov dynasties when the two first met in the 17th century.

A plethora of officials from both sides have averred that the alliance is "not directed against any third country," since its inception. However one would have to live in denial to not see the tangible benefits that accrue to China and Russia acting in concert as a strategic counterweight to the U.S.

At the same time one of the primary objectives stated in the Sino-Russian alliance is to promote the creation of a multi-polar world, meaning America shares the limelight rather than act as the unilateralist starring role.

Policymakers in Washington grapple with trying to figure out how to deal with China's rise and Russia's role helping both its neighbor and ultimately itself to regain respect competing with the U.S.

Putin's stay in Beijing contains several tripwires to watch as the "strategic partnership of cooperation" enters its second decade. Most analysts will be surprised if a true sea change agreement to the status quo is publicly achieved any the following areas.

Number one on everyone's radar screen is energy. The question here is mutual commitment to pipeline construction that culminates in a deal. Last week Russia's ambassador to China promised his country would ship 15 million tons of crude oil in 2006, slightly more than a tenth of the PRC's needs by imports in 2005.

Transneft and China National Petroleum Corporation have talks underway, but finalization depends on several factors: the point where the pipeline crosses the Chinese border; estimated construction time; the volume of crude at capacity once completed; and most importantly, financing.

Russia has kept China dangling on tenterhooks for years over sealing this strategic deal. If Putin and his people call for more "research" citing environmental or scope of the scheme reasons, it means China still needs to sweeten the pot.

The next area to look for anything significant in Sino-Russian cooperation is with ongoing nuclear diplomacy. China and Russia have long fuelled North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions. Both countries have pocketed myopic profits in deals boosted by technical training which had application beyond peaceful energy purposes.

This issue illustrates equal partnership component of the Sino-Russian partnership quite well. Russia takes the lead on Iran with China's support. The roles are reversed with North Korea as China assumes the dominant role with Russia happily takes a secondary stance.

One area to watch where both countries' penchant for imperfect transparency will be apparent is military cooperation. In 2005 China and Russia held groundbreaking joint military exercises. Their defense ministers spun the event as efforts to combat terrorism.

Most defense analysts view it as China taking new weapons systems for a test drive, not unlike when one drives a car out of the dealers' showroom. The PRC only has one source for sophisticated military hardware: Russia. Europe and the U.S. have embargoed China since it turned army guns against its own people in 1989.

There are plenty of other facets in the long-standing Sino-Russian relationship worth keeping an eye on: movement for new membership on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which China sponsors in Central Asia (and Russia is in); any joint statement regarding Japan, a country both have territorial disputes with mired in history; plus anything mentioning greater bilateral trade that doesn't involve Russia sending more natural resources to China.

China, despite rhetorical claims to the contrary, waits in the wings gagging to regain its historical position as the predominant power on the planet. The PRC's nervous Communist leadership sees its survival as the ruling party predicated on an ability to combine cheap quiescent labor, continued infusion of unquestioning foreign capital, and newfound nationalist ideology based on exploiting resources (human and natural) with a view towards "scientific development."

While China continues to claim leadership of the third world as a developing country, it is a nation with priorities and enough wealth to afford a manned space program. Russia's partnership with the U.S. leads many to wonder what it shares with China, and at what price.

At the end of the day Putin is the one facing the most delicate balancing act. China wants to challenge the United States for pre-eminence on the planet, but after Mongolia, Russian territory is the final frontier.

Lenin once said that capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them; Russia might ultimately confront this same question in their partnership with the Chinese.

Source: United Press International

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