As the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa — meet in Durban for economic strategy talks, it worthwhile to direct some attention to the recent fanfare surrounding the bilateral talks between the C and the R in the acronym. Russia and China concluded bilateral talks March 22-24 with promises of greater economic and military cooperation. In a statement published in The Global Times during the talks, the two states claimed “an unprecedentedly high level” of agreement around issues like trade and energy, and also revealed mutual expectations about how states should handle Asia-Pacific issues.
Namely, their opposition “to any unilateral and unrestrained building of anti-missile capabilities by a single country” or a group of countries because such moves jeopardize strategic stability. Read: the U.S. missile defense expansion in Alaska to counter threats from North Korea. China and Russia insist that the “international community should jointly cope” with missile-related threats and challenges. In what can only be a pointed reference to the U.S., Russia and China rejected “the practice of defending some countries’ national security at the price of others.” However, the same statement noted that when it comes to Asia-Pacific conflicts (the China-Japan dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands comes to mind), Russia and China prefer “relevant countries” in the region to settle their disputes through “bilateral dialogues and negotiations.”
Why the divide? If it makes sense to have partners in security around North Korea, why wouldn’t it make sense to have partners around issues of territorial disputes? Particularly as they would add international credibility to any resolution agreed on by the community?
The answer: the different approaches to missiles defense and territory disputes by China and Russia give both countries the maximum chance of successfully maintaining or advancing their position in the region.
For example, China used ‘bilateralism’ to its own benefit in July 2012 when it succeeded in getting its ally, Cambodia, then the chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations, to prevent the communiqué from its annual meeting including language about the need for a multilateral dispute resolution in the South China Sea. That move, in turn, has helped stymie a comprehensive approach to South China Sea disputes. And there are other territorial issues that would favor the larger powers in Asia, too.
But for missile defense, China and Russia oppose any single nation building of anti-missile capabilities. Rather, they want the international community to “jointly cope” with missile threats. Such a requirement leaves U.S. missile defense deployment plans open to multi-party, consensus-driven agreements — the kind that can drag on for years.
Which suggests that if there is any principle unifying the two approaches embraced by Russia and China in the statement, it’s that, where possible, might makes right. And where that’s not possible, one should call in the locals. These contradictions make the joint statement less an enunciation of shared purpose than a wish-list.
For all the noises about the strategic closeness of China and Russia, what the two countries have in common is opposition to U.S. influence in their own region. Putin apparently believes that since the invasion of Iraq the U.S. has been pursuing a policy of “strategic insanity.” The Chinese, for their part, tend to see intrigue in all of the U.S.’s moves, resulting in an image of America in “some nefarious campaign against China,” as Asia Group chief Kurt Campbell noted in a recent speech.
While the U.S. jostles for position in Asia, expect China and Russia to sound similar notes of protest on American engagement. But given the background of these countries — even when they were both communist nations they were bitter rivals — there is no shortage of differences between them including in the area of intellectual property and even maritime clashes.
Finally, what the “international community”/”bilateral” split of Russia and China’s declared statement has in common is that they are the goals of would-be hegemons, and countries desiring to dominate their neighbors are not likely to compromise too deeply with each other over time.