Stephen Harner, Contributor
The Xi-Putin Summit, China-Russian Strategic Partnership, And The Failure Of Obama's 'Asian Pivot'
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping shake hands during their meeting in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, on March 22, 2013. Xi Jinping arrived today in Moscow on his first foreign trip, to cement ties between the two countries by inking a raft of energy and investment accords. (Image credit: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife)
A lot of people in the State Department, the White House, and the Pentagon have been squirming in their chairs this weekend, as persons responsible for U.S. policy toward Asia, toward Russia, and most importantly toward China, have listen to and read reports of the March 22 Xi Jinping-Vladimir Putin summit in Moscow.
What these persons—if they are intellectually honest—must have been thinking, if not daring to speak, is that what transpired between the leaders of China and Russia was a great setback, if not utter disaster, for U.S. interests. It was brutally plain evidence of the folly of the Obama/Clinton/Panetta “pivot to Asia.” It was evidence of the gross ineptitude of the Obama administration in what many—including former U.S. Assistance Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt M. Campbell, reputably the “father of the pivot”—have said is and must be the highest foreign policy priority of the United States: i.e., forging a cooperative and constructive relationship with China.
Observers in Tokyo were, if anything, even closer to panic after the China-Russia summit. The results could not have been worse from Japan’s perspective. That the Xi-Putin summit—the success of which, the Russians remarked, exceeded everyone’s expectations—took place exactly one month after Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s short, perfunctory, cold, and largely fruitless February 22 audience with President Obama in Washington, added insult to injury.
How the truly historic and important Xi-Putin summit got scheduled at the same time as Obama’s headline grabbing trip to Israel—such that U.S. media hardly noticed or covered it—is an intriguing topic for investigation. Maybe it was a coincidence, but maybe it was not. And if not, it would have been the U.S. side that sought to divert attention elsewhere.
For, to repeat, Xi’s March 22-24 official state visit—his first overseas visit since attaining the Chinese state’s highest office–may very well have marked the beginning of an historic, and regrettable, new and potentially anti-American geopolitical alliance in East Asia.
So what did China’s and Russia’s supreme leaders talk about and what did they do? Essentially they spoke about forming an “all around strategic partnership” in to meld and advance the two countries’ interests. Pointedly, they explicitly affirmed support for each country’s strategic and territorial interests, including claims to disputed territories. For China these include the Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands also claimed by Japan, and islands in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. For Russia the territories include the four islands designated by Japan as its “Northern Territories” and by Russia as the Southern Kuriles.
In a joint press conference after their meeting, Xi and Putin emphasized that verdicts and resolutions delivered against the “defeated powers” (read Japan and Germany) in WWII by the victorious powers (read Russia and China) cannot be overturned. What these references suggest is coordination and mutual support between Russia and China in international dispute resolution and particularly in the United Nations where both are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council with veto power.
Chinese and Russian officials signed 30 agreements on cooperation in the areas of energy, trade, technology, and military exchange. All are strategically vital and, more importantly, irreplaceable for both countries. In military technology in particular, Russia has proven an invaluable and indispensable source for China against which the West, led by the U.S., still blocks military technology transfers.
Continued, if not enhanced, Chinese-Russian cooperation in strategic military matters was signaled by Xi’s visit to Russia’s strategic defense command headquarters and “war room,” the first visit allowed for any foreign leader. To ensure that the point was made, both internationally and at home, Chinese media were allowed in to video Xi’s being briefed while looking at computers and giant screens tracking military intelligence targets.
One focus of joint China-Russian military concern, pointedly mentioned in the Xi-Putin press conference, is the U.S.’s building of an intercontinental ballistic missile defense system that could conceivably undermine that current strategic military balance based upon deterrence.
A big part of the China-Russian relationship will be joint development of Russian coal, oil, and gas resources to feed China’s massive current and future energy requirements. The shale gas “revolution” and other trends in the global energy market are threatening Russia’s present markets and revenues. Energy is Russia’s most strategic economic resource. The new China-Russia partnership aims to bind the two countries in the energy field.
The day before Abe called on Obama, on February 21, former Japanese prime minister Mori Yoshiro was received by Putin in the Kremlin. Abe had sent Mori to Moscow to lay the groundwork for a visit by Abe scheduled for April. We do not know what, if anything, Mori had to say to Putin about Abe’s visit to the U.S., or about Abe’s announced goal of strengthening the Japan-U.S. mutual defense “alliance.” We do know that Mori and Putin touched on the “Northern Territories” issue, and that Putin hinted—using the judo term for a “draw” (hikiwake)—at some opening for a settlement if Japan would accept reversion of perhaps two of the four islands. (A Russian proposal to this effect was previously made in the 1950s but rejected by Japan.)
When Abe gets to Moscow he will be aiming, like Xi, to acquire for Japanese interests long term agreements on energy development and purchase. Russia should be motivated, but to the extent resources are limited, we have to wonder whether Chinese-Russian strategic partnership has erected hurdles that will increase costs and limit access for Japan.
What we do know, what the Xi-Putin summit attests, is that U.S. diplomacy over the past four years has failed to effectively engage and motivate China to chart a course that is positive for U.S. interests. Rather, the Obama administration’s overly militarized and threatening “pivot” policy, combined with pronouncements about strengthening U.S. “alliances”—relics of the anti-Soviet Cold War and lately often subtly if not blatantly anti-China—has provided impetus to a Chinese-Russian embrace seemingly intended as a counterpoint to U.S. regional military hegemony and alliances, particularly the alliance between the U.S. and Japan.
History shows that many great geostrategic turning points are hardly recognized as such at the time. Could it be that–as the world was watching Obama in Israel–the Xi-Putin summit in Moscow was one of these points?