The Bear and the Dragon Strengthen Economic Ties
It appears that the highly publicized stand-off between China and Japan over the detention of a Chinese boat captain is over. Both sides are requesting what they believe to be fair financial compensation, but for the most part their spat seems to have been quelled. A far more interesting and longer term issue is the effect that this incident will have on regional and global relations.
At first glance, this disagreement only involved Japan and China, but the longstanding strategic alliance of the United States and Japan necessarily tempers the long term affects. Though not immediately obvious, one of the most important developments occurred when U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen stated, “[O]bviously, we’re very, very strongly in support of… our ally in that region, Japan.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed this sentiment, stating that the United States will “fulfill our alliance responsibilities” toward Japan. While these comments did not come directly from the president, they served to remind the Chinese that any negative action taken against Japan will be viewed as a threat against the United States. Thus, the most important implications of this crisis were related to strategic geopolitics.
Meanwhile, the Russians made an interesting play. President Dmitry Medvedev scheduled a trip to the Southern Kurils, the subject of ongoing territorial dispute between Japan and Russia. Medvedev was unable to actually visit the Kurils, because of adverse weather, but claimed that they are “a very important region for our country,” adding, “I will definitely go there in the near future.” While these actions and comments fall short of overt support for the Chinese position, they are evidence that the Russians and Chinese share a common territorial interest contrary to Japan’s.
Further, China and Russia have been strengthening their economic ties recently and have plans to continue this growth. On September 27, Russia and China signed a joint agreement to boost an energy cooperative that will link the growth of both countries for years to come. The agreement was signed at a ceremony to open a newly constructed oil pipeline that will transport Russian oil to China for consumption. This 20-year deal is substantial on its own, but an even more significant development is the likelihood of a deal that would send Russian natural gas to China beginning in 2015. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Sechin, says, “Russia is ready to meet China’s full demand in gas.”
Overall, the previous points do not necessarily prove that the continued alliance of the United States and Japan has pushed China and Russia closer together, but there are some indications that this is true. At the very least, the evidence points to the Russian government supporting China economically and, to a lesser degree, politically. The question that should be in the minds of American policymakers is whether the current ties between Russia and China are simply a marriage of economic and political convenience or if they indicate the beginning of a more profound strategic relationship.
This section of the Weekly Political Forecast is authored by PAI’s Fellow in Energy Security Policy.