Putin meets Hu

I feel like the title of this post could be the beginning of a corny geopolitics-themed Abbot and Costello parody.

But seriously, the Japanese media seems to be keeping a close eye on the meeting in Moscow between Presidents Hu and Putin. This Mainichi article, for example, calls attention to the two countries agreeing to strengthen their “strategic partnership. Yomiuri, meanwhile, ran two articles about the China-Russia summit, this one on the facts of the meeting and a longer, analytic article that does not appear to be online.

While it is entirely appropriate for the Japanese press to watch discussions between two of the four powers constituting the East Asian strategic quadrangle — the subject of this book by Robyn Lim — I suspect Japan’s media, particularly conservative publications like Yomiuri, are interested in part because closer relations between China and Russia plays into the “antagonistic Asia” storyline. Two large continental empires with illiberal political system versus…the maritime democratic allies, standing shoulder to shoulder as they did during the cold war, except this time Japan would no doubt love to play a more active military role.

I think, however, that observers should not overestimate the value of the China-Russia partnership. While there are a number of areas in which Beijing and Moscow have reasons to cooperate — perhaps starting from their joint defense of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states — neither state, but Russia in particular, will benefit from being tied too closely to the other. And let’s not forget that there is plenty of friction between the two, not least the millions of Chinese flowing into Siberia. Frankly, the less fettered Russia’s position in the region, the better. Following up last month’s visits to Japan by several Russian officials to talk energy, I would not be surprised if momentum builds towards a Japan-Russia rapprochement. The more Russia can triangulate between energy-hungry China and Japan, the more it will gain and the more secure its position in the Far East will be.

So while Russia and China may find international cooperation useful in, for example, the UN Security Council, I have doubts about whether Beijing and Moscow will be especially chummy in East Asian matters. The regional security environment is becoming increasingly fluid, militating against a firmer Sino-Russian partnership, and, I fear, more intense political cooperation between the US and Japan.

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