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China and Russia build anti-US 'axis,' but Moscow has concerns

The relationship between the two powers has huge implications for the world

China's President Xi Jinping and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Qingdao, Shandong Province, China, on June 10.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Prior to World War II, Japan, Germany and Italy formed a coalition to challenge the established world order, which was largely controlled by Britain and the U.S. The Axis, as this coalition was called, was determined to change the status quo, eventually starting a world war against the Allied Powers and suffering a devastating defeat.

Now, China and Russia are forging a similar strategic partnership to undermine American supremacy. The two countries are forming their own "axis," seeking to break up the U.S.-dominated world order and create a multipolar world.

How will this China-Russia axis work out? The question has huge implications for the future of the world.

On the face of it, China and Russia appear solidly united in their goal of undermining U.S. dominance. Beijing and Moscow came together to rebuke both U.S. attacks in Syria and its withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. The duo also seeks to undercut U.S. leadership in negotiations with North Korea.

During a June 8 meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded the relationship between the two countries, saying bilateral cooperation "has reached an unprecedented level." The two leaders signed a statement aimed at putting diplomatic pressure on the U.S.

But it is difficult to believe the relationship between China and Russia -- which share a long border over which they fought an armed conflict in 1969 -- is totally friendly and harmonious.

Listen closely to the tune that the two countries are playing, and you will detect a subtle but unmistakable strain and discord that cannot be masked by their rhapsody of friendship.

Signs of potential conflict are clearest in Central Asia, a region comprised of five countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

In late June, representatives from the region, along with Western politicians and experts, gathered in the Azerbaijan capital of Baku for an international conference on regional cooperation.

The CAMCA Regional Forum 2018 provided various signs of deep Russian anxiety about China's rapid rise as a global power.

On the sidelines of the conference, one participant from Central Asia told Nikkei of an intriguing episode of Russia waging information war against China. Using Russian-language broadcasters and media in Central Asia, Russia disseminated stories about the threats posed by China. It has been trying to raise the alarm that China will take advantage of its infrastructure investments in the region to take land away from the local residents, the person said.

Much of Central Asia was once part of the Soviet Union. It is rich in natural resources and vital to Russia's strategic interests. But the region is being rapidly integrated into China's economic sphere through growing investments and exchanges.

Trade between Central Asia and China grew to $30 billion in 2016, compared with $18.6 billion between the region and Russia. Central Asia is geographically important for China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative to build trade routes spanning Asia and beyond.

Beijing plans to spend huge sums to build highway and railway networks -- plans that could further widen the gap in influence between Beijing and Moscow in the region.

So far at least, Putin has expressed support for the Belt and Road project, despite his growing concerns about China's geopolitical strategy. Moscow seems to think such massive Chinese infrastructure investment will be a boon to its own economic interests as well.

But Beijing's strategic ambitions may soon appear more menacing to Russia. Part of China's regional transport infrastructure plans include an "Ice Silk Road" initiative to build a shortcut between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic via the Arctic. The project would run from the Sea of Okhotsk -- located between Russia's east coast and northern Japan -- to Europe through the Arctic Ocean.

But Russia can never tolerate the influence of another country in the sea, which it considers crucial to its security.

The strategic importance the Kremlin places on the area is underlined by the nuclear submarines equipped with strategic nuclear weapons it deploys in the sea. The Arctic Ocean is also becoming more important in Russia's military strategy.

The Putin administration has shown a willingness to cooperate with China in developing the Arctic, apparently wishing to maintain cooperative ties with Beijing. But the Ice Silk Road proposal has put the Russian military on alert to the threat implied by the Belt and Road initiative, a diplomat close to the Russian government told Nikkei.

Signs of concern about China's strategic ambitions within the Russian government appeared this past spring, when the Russian military conducted an exercise along the border with China involving drills for using tactical nuclear arms. It was a thinly veiled warning to China.

Beijing has been making a modest effort to avoid provoking Russia by not encroaching on its turf. It has limited its activities in Central Asia to economic matters without intervening in security affairs.

But China is already an economic giant that dwarfs Russia. China's economy is about eight times larger than Russia's, and its population is 10 times larger.

The wider the power gap between the two countries becomes, the more strained the relationship.

Bonji Ohara, senior fellow of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, who once served in China as a military attache of Japan's Self Defense Forces, says cooperation between China and Russia is based solely on their common interest in checking the U.S.

"But situations in Central Asia and the Russian Far East are fraught with risks of conflict between them," Ohara says. "Russia is wary of the prospects of China's economic inroads into Central Asia and military supremacy in the Russian Far East. Tensions between the two countries are doomed to intensify."

Japan should work with the U.S. and Europe to take advantage of this sore point in the China-Russia relationship to prevent an expansion of the power and influence of the "axis" between them.

Such an undertaking is crucial for protecting the current world order, which is based on promoting freedom and openness within the international community. The question is: what kind of strategy should the leading democracies adopt to achieve this?

The simplest approach would be concerted diplomatic pressure on China and Russia to weaken their coalition. But containing the two powers is virtually impossible, and any attempt to do so could end up strengthening their sense of unity.

A more realistic approach would be to drive a wedge between them, seeking to win over one or the other. Targeting Russia would be easier, since Moscow is worried about China's growing power, which is already huge.

From this point of view, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's diplomatic efforts to build close personal ties with Putin through frequent meetings -- there have already been 21 -- is not a bad policy approach. Nor is the summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Putin scheduled for July 16.

According to an Abe foreign policy adviser, the prime minister's efforts to build friendly ties with Putin are not solely aimed at pursuing negotiations with Russia over a territorial dispute over the Northern Territories, a chain of islands off Hokkaido that Russia controls. Abe also seeks to improve Japan's relations with Russia to weaken unity between Moscow and Beijing, the adviser said.

A grave risk is that Moscow could win over the West, reconciling without the resolution of disagreements over Russia's annexation of Crimea and interference in elections in Western countries. That would plant the seeds of serious problems in the future.

In particular, it could accelerate the rise of authoritarian rulers around the world, a poignant concern as Trump rushes to mend ties with Russia.

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