By Bobo Lo

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, left, and President Hu Jintao of China at a summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Beijing on Thursday.

President Vladimir Putin’s latest visit to Beijing comes at a time when relations between Russia and China appear to have reached new heights. The two countries are lock-step in their support of the Assad regime in Syria. Bilateral trade is flourishing, boosted by the opening of a key oil pipeline. They are cooperating in various international forums — the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS, and the U.N. Security Council. And Putin has announced Russia’s intention to catch the “Chinese wind” in its sails.

Yet appearances are deceiving. The self-styled “strategic partnership” may look in the pink of health, but beneath the surface there are serious contradictions. Russia and China differ fundamentally in their views of the world and what they want from each other. These differences do not prevent cooperation in certain areas, but they ensure a relationship that is defined principally by its limitations.

For Moscow, partnership with China serves multiple purposes. It counterbalances the strategic and normative dominance of the United States. It confers on Russia a “success by association,” helping to legitimize Putin’s domestic and foreign policies. It strengthens Moscow’s bargaining position with the West, whether in energy negotiations with the European Union or missile defense talks with Washington. And it allays vulnerabilities about the sparsely populated but resource-rich Russian Far East.

Most importantly, with China by its side Russia feels able to promote itself as global great power, one of the “winners” in a post-American century.

China’s expectations from the relationship could hardly be more different. Its Russia agenda is preventative. It wants to ensure a good neighbor and avoid a spoiling and destabilizing presence in Northeast Asia. It seeks a like-minded state to preserve the principle of national sovereignty against Western-led moral universalism and “interference” in its domestic affairs. And it needs Moscow not to oppose its economic and security interests in Central Asia.

On the other hand, it has no interest in revolutionizing an international system from which it has benefited greatly, or of supplanting U.S. global leadership. If there is to be an eventual multipolar order, then it will be led by America and China, not a fading, complacent Russia that is manifestly not up to the job. Read more…

Bobo Lo is an independent analyst and author of “Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing, and the New Geopolitics.”

As published in www.nytimes.com on June 7, 2012 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on June 8, 2012, in The International Herald Tribune).


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