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Russia and China won't be 'best friends forever'

Moscow's demands to NATO have been tough, but not coordinated with China

TOKYO -- Russia is often symbolized as a giant bear. Some see the nation as deeply cautious, never lowering its guard against the U.S., Europe and neighboring China, but with the potential to suddenly turn violent if threatened. The crisis over Ukraine is bolstering that image.

Russia's military is believed to have deployed 100,000 personnel near the border with Ukraine, stoking speculation of a possible invasion early next year.

On top of that, President Vladimir Putin made a surprising request to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in mid-December.

He is demanding NATO withdraw all its forces from its Eastern European member states and refrain from conducting any military activity in the former Soviet republics of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Putin is effectively saying Ukraine and the countries that broke away from the Soviet Union are Russia's turf and NATO shouldn't tread there.

The West is highly unlikely to oblige, but Putin won't give up easily as Russia's instinct to secure "backyards" is deeply rooted in the country's sometimes traumatic history.

Russia was under Mongol rule for about 240 years from the 13th century. It was invaded by Napoleon in the 19th century and by Nazi Germany during World War II. The Soviet Union was contained by the West during the Cold War, resulting in its collapse in 1991.

Haunted by the past, Putin wants to bring the former Soviet states back into Russia's sphere of influence. The problem is that this would have grave consequences for the security of both Europe and the rest of the world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds video talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping from his residence outside Moscow on Dec. 15.   © Reuters

If the Ukrainian crisis deepens, it could make it tough for the U.S. to move many of its forces from Europe to the Indo-Pacific. That would allow China to become even more assertive on the Taiwan Strait and in the East and South China seas.

Worrying signs are already appearing. On Nov. 29, the U.S. Defense Department released a review of its global military posture. The review seemed to dash expectations the U.S. would make a drastic shift to the Indo-Pacific to counter China.

The Pentagon provided few details, but Washington insiders say the pivot to Asia is on hold for now. That is partly because talks with Japan over U.S. forces in the country have not concluded yet, but the escalating tensions over Ukraine and Iran are also preventing a major realignment.

It would be unreasonable to think China and Russia are complicit in making provocations over Ukraine and Taiwan. Their mutual trust is not deep enough for such a maneuver.

Even so, the Chinese and Russian militaries have been teaming up for a wave of provocative moves in Asia and Europe. In late October, 10 vessels from the two navies passed through the Tsugaru and Osumi straits, almost circumnavigating the Japanese archipelago. Military experts believe the Chinese military invited its Russian counterpart for the operation.

Back in July 2017, Chinese naval vessels sailed all the way to the Baltic Sea for a joint exercise organized by Russia. More such cases are expected as the two countries grow increasingly at odds with the U.S.

How should the world respond? The bottom line is that the U.S., Europe and Japan must show they will never yield to the pressure from Beijing and Moscow. U.S. President Joe Biden also needs to keep taking the stand that he is ready to provide military support for Ukraine to resist Russia's intimidation.

The West should note that ties between China and Russia are not as strong as they seem. The two neighbors share a long border and exchanged fire in 1969. Their partnership is not based on friendship or trust but on shared antagonism toward the U.S.

Russia is becoming more concerned and wary as China outpaces its economic and military might. China's gross domestic product is about 10 times Russia's. According to United Nations data, trade between the two grew by 58% from 2015 to $107 billion in 2020. But the gap in their global presence is huge --- China's total trade reached $4.7 trillion in 2020, eight times more than Russia's.

Although Russia has a far larger nuclear capability than China, Beijing's defense spending is estimated to be three to four times that of Moscow. If that doesn't change, China will have the edge in conventional military power.

Russia must be feeling uneasy. An expert says the Russian military never stops conducting drills and war-gaming to prepare for a possible conflict with China.

The two countries use each other to counter the U.S. But Russia doesn't want to be drawn into a conflict on the Taiwan Strait, and China has no wish to be involved in Ukraine.

A U.S.-China clash over Taiwan would escalate into an all-out war, possibly drawing Russia into it in one way or another. Putin secretly fears such a scenario.

"Putin has expressed opposition to Taiwan's independence in consideration of China, but he has never indicated that he would accept unification by force," said Shinji Hyodo, policy studies department director at the National Institute of Defense Studies in Japan. "Russia has no intention of fighting against the U.S. for China on the Taiwan Strait. In the case of war breaking out between the U.S. and China, Russia would distance itself from the conflict."

China and Russia have a deep need for each other, and it would be a mistake for the U.S., Europe and Japan to think they can drive a wedge between the two powers right away. Still, they should push to understand the complex relationship and find a weak spot in the partnership.

One likely strategy is to impose sanctions against illegal acts by Russia while holding dialogue if Putin wishes. Moscow may be able to disturb the West, but it lacks China's power to change the world order. The best option is to face the giant bear to prevent it from turning to violence, at the same time as focusing on countering China's assertive behavior.

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