May 26, 2014 7:00 pm JST

Nothing inevitable about a Sino-Russian alliance

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- Many observers of global politics are convinced China and Russia are destined to develop cozier ties. By this reasoning, the two countries could build a united front against the Japan-U.S. alliance. But this is hardly set in stone, and Tokyo should avoid jumping to conclusions.     

     Edward Luttwak, a well-known American political scientist, historian and U.S. military strategist, questions the view that the Ukraine crisis has brought Moscow and Beijing closer together -- and that the bond will only grow stronger. Luttwak says Russia still sees China as a threat that could challenge its control of Siberia and other territories. 

     Russia, Luttwak has been quoted as saying, would probably rather broaden its cooperation with Japan and the U.S. to keep China in check.

     While in Japan for a speaking engagement, Luttwak stopped by the office of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last Tuesday. Their conversation touched on the relationship between China and Russia.

As close as they appear?

Events that took place the same day seemed to contradict Luttwak's analysis. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in China for an official visit. His meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping yielded a series of agreements, including a large natural gas deal that will see Russia become a major energy supplier to China.

     Putin and Xi were also united in their objection to Western sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine situation. And the leaders agreed to hold a ceremony next year celebrating the 70th anniversary of their victories in war -- China against Japan, Russia over Germany.

     But not everything went smoothly. Russia and China did not seal a rumored arms deal. 

     China wants to buy the Sukhoi Su-35, Russia's latest fighter jet. In addition to 24 of the aircraft, China is said to be interested in acquiring S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

     Ahead of Putin's trip, this deal was the highest concern for Japanese and U.S. security officials. But Russia and China were reportedly unable to agree on the terms.

     There may be more to this than a mere disagreement on the details.

     Multiple Russian security experts close to the Kremlin said Putin is "irritated" by China. These insiders said the Russian leader has been concerned about China's rise for some time, and that his distrust deepened in December when Beijing singed a friendship accord with Ukraine. 

     In the document, signed by Xi and then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, China guaranteed it would shield Ukraine if it faced a nuclear threat.

     China's gross domestic product is now more than four times larger than Russia's. Putin was apparently unhappy about having this massive country extend its nuclear umbrella over his backyard.

Soviet-esque

China and Russia share a long border, but their relations have often been less than neighborly. When the communist leadership first took hold in Beijing, Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin met in Moscow and agreed to form an alliance. But the honeymoon lasted barely a decade.     

     "Today's China is similar to how the Soviet Union was under communist rule," one Russian official said, revealing a perception that would never be acknowledged publicly. "It is impossible to know from the outside what the leadership is thinking, and the country often makes unexpected moves out of the blue."

     Tension between China and Russia could create diplomatic openings for Japan. Yet Tokyo needs to play its cards carefully and avoid overconfidence. Just because Beijing and Moscow are rivals, it does not mean the latter will team up with Japan or, say, offer concessions in negotiations over territory.

     "Japan," one U.S. government official warned, "had better not become overly optimistic about Russia."

     In the last days of World War II, recognizing that a Japanese surrender was imminent, Russia dropped its neutrality pact with Japan and invaded Manchuria, and the so-called Northern Territories after Japan's surrender. Referring to this incident, the U.S. official added, "Japan should not forget its experience from the war."

     Tokyo needs to learn from history and keep a cool head as it strives to figure out where the China-Russia relationship is going.