Donald Trump’s touting of his friendship with Xi Jinping has always been tough to fathom, especially at a time when trade tensions have been getting nasty.
Last week he admitted as much, telling reporters that Xi “he may not be a friend of mine anymore but I think he probably respects me”.
Disappointingly for Donald, Xi has already described Vladimir Putin as a better buddy, celebrating him as his “best, most intimate friend” in June.
Ten days ago there was confirmation of the old axiom that ‘three is a crowd’ after the Chinese cancelled approvals for an American naval ship to make a port visit to Hong Kong. It seems to have been a response to Washington’s decision to name a unit in the Chinese military as busting US sanctions by buying fighter jets and missiles from the Russians. China reactedly furiously, saying that the Americans had no right to interfere in defence cooperation between other nations. Already riled by the announcement of another $330 million in US arms sales to Taiwan, Beijing further semaphored its displeasure by cancelling a visit by a senior admiral to Washington and telling American Defence Secretary Jim Mattis not to bother turning up for a security summit in Beijing this month.
The backdrop to the row is last month’s Vostok 2018 war games, the biggest military exercises for Russian forces in 40 years, which were joined by 3,200 PLA troops in China’s largest ever involvement in a joint exercise overseas.
The Russians have a long history of selling military hardware to the Chinese, mostly surplus Soviet-era arms because they were cautious about sending them their best weapons. That seemed to change three years ago with a groundbreaking deal for the Su-35 jet, a high-performance fighter that has now gone into deployment with the Chinese air force.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Alexander Gabuev says that the Kremlin realises that the Chinese are investing so heavily in their own defence capabilities that they won’t need Russian-made systems for much longer, leaving a short window to maximise profits.
There are also signs that the Chinese prefer to work with the Russians to develop new hardware, the South China Morning Post reports. “Sino-Russia bilateral ties have changed from big weapon drives to technological cooperation projects, including a floating nuclear power plant and big aircraft,” Song Zhongping, a Beijing-based analyst, told the newspaper.
Talk of a fuller military alliance is going too far, however. “To borrow a word from the past century, it is best described as an entente – a basic agreement about the fundamentals of world order supported by a strong body of common interest,” Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, explained in the China Daily last month.
Critics of Trump say that the Chinese are finding much more common interest with the Russians because relations with Washington are souring so spectacularly. But the view from the Pentagon is that a history of mistrust won’t allow bonds to blossom in a meaningful way – something that Mattis summed up in comments in September that there is “little in the long-term that aligns Russia and China”.
Here analysts cite complications in the relationship like the lengthy land border between the two nations, which triggered military clashes in 1969. Moscow has also been paranoid about the imbalance in population along the Siberian frontier (see WiC287). Another challenge is the growing gulf in economic power, with China’s economy already 10 times the size of Russia’s. The disparity means that Moscow is destined for the junior role in any partnership, which it will always find difficult to accept.
In the meantime, the maritime tensions between China and the US showed no sign of improving on Sunday after an “unsafe” interaction between a US navy vessel and a Chinese warship in the South China Sea. A spokesman for the US Pacific Fleet told CNN that the Chinese destroyer had sailed within 45 yards of the American ship, which swerved to prevent a collision.
“I just think it’s part of reality,” Mattis later told reporters. “We have various issues: diplomatic, economic, security. We’re going to have to find ways to work them out. We will.”
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