China and Russia are presenting a united front against the West to boost their firepower on issues from Syria to Iran, but analysts say their alliance belies deep divisions.
The two countries’ leaders used a regional summit in Beijing last week to put on a very public display of solidarity over the Syrian conflict and Iran’s nuclear drive, which has placed them at loggerheads with Western powers.
However, Beijing and Moscow have long had an uneasy relationship dating from when each jostled to dominate the communist world and analysts say their closeness now marks a marriage of convenience as they look to counter Western influence.
“Both Beijing and Moscow are become increasingly negative about the US and the EU,” said Jonathan Holslag, head of research of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies. “The West has elicited the increasing anger of Moscow on a number of issues, ranging from missile defense, the modernization of tactical nuclear weapons, to the intervention in Libya. Beijing sees its interaction with the US souring on maritime security and trade. It’s aversion to the West that drives them closer.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Beijing after pointedly canceling a trip to the US, told Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) last week their interests “align perfectly in a great many areas, including in cooperating on the world stage.”
Hu said a vow to bolster cooperation in the UN — where veto holders China and Russia face pressure to act against Syria — would allow them to “set the global political and economic order in a more fair and rational direction.”
The US has been a leading voice in pressuring Russia and China to do more on Syria -- an ally of both states.
“Both China and Russia want to send a message to other greater powers, particularly the US: ‘don’t push me too hard,’” said Zheng Yongnian (鄭永年), a professor at the National University of Singapore.
China and Russia declared they were “decisively against” intervention or regime change in Syria and opposed the use of force over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The display of unity also results from unease over a US decision to focus more on the Asia-Pacific.
“China and Russia seem to be coming under a lot of pressure from the US, which is pulling out of Afghanistan and Iraq and putting more resources in the Asia-Pacific,” said Willy Lam (林和立), professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“So there is a need to display a common front ... But China and Russia also have mutual suspicion — both are giants in the same region of the world, so they also see themselves as long-term strategic competitors,” he said.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a politics professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, pointed out that the two countries displayed a common strategy “on issues that for them are quite easy.”
“But there are lots of issues that divide them ... particularly oil and gas prices and the completion of pipelines,” he said.
The two sides, for instance, have for years failed to sign off on a huge natural gas deal that could see Russia supply 70 billion cubic meters of gas a year directly to China, due to pricing disagreements.
Lam said another indication of their “mutual suspicion” was a marked fall in China’s purchases of Russian weapons over the years.
“China’s PLA [People’s Liberation Army] is quite unhappy about the fact the Russians refuse to sell them the most sophisticated type of weapons,” he said.