Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Vietnamese couterpart Truong Tan Sang attend a joint press conference in Moscow on July 27, 1012. Russia is holding talks about opening naval bases in Moscow’s Soviet-era ally Vietnam.

One way of conveying that things aren’t quite all right in China-Russia relations would be to say that this isn’t as warm a relationship as it once was. Another would be to quote Ariel’s song about Ferdinand’s "drown’d father" in William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest , "Those are pearls that were his eyes … ."

China seems to prefer the first option for the present, while drawing attention to the emerging truth regarding its "comprehensive strategic cooperation and partnership" with Russia. "Once warm Sino-Soviet relationship can be revived" - this was the intriguing title of an article featured in the leading Chinese dailies on August 22.

The strange article contained a synopsis of the rise and fall of the friendship between communist China and the former Soviet Union, explaining how the latter’s journey on the "road of revisionism" was the "decisive factor" in the eventual rift in the relationship."

Even more intriguing was that the article appeared in the wake of what appears to have been a round of highly sensitive consultations in Moscow by China’s State Councilor Dai Bingguo on August 20.

It took a decade for the Central Intelligence Agency to convince its consumers in Washington that Moscow-Beijing relationship had in fact begun to fray badly already by the early 1950s and a Sino-Soviet break was appearing, and a significantly changed strategic situation was developing. Neither the Soviets nor the Chinese side said a word about what was going on behind the scenes, although "the Sino-Soviet heresy in CIA ranks began as early as 1952", as the spy agency later recounted proudly.

Stunning frankness

Moscow still largely keeps that old tradition of evasive silence when it comes to Russia’s relations with China. But for its part, China has changed. It has become garrulous - almost like the rest of us - when it speaks about the problems of life. And it has begun telling anyone who cares to listen (in particular, plausibly, the consumers in Washington), as plainly it possibly could, that things aren’t all that honky-dory as the rhetoric of Sino-Russian relationship might suggest.

The People’s Daily "de-classified" in an extraordinary article last Friday the nature of the sensitive mission to Moscow undertaken by Dai last month. It must have been a considered decision to do that since Dai reports directly to President Hu Jintao. It stands to reason that the stocktaking of Dai’s mission to Moscow is over and important conclusions have been drawn.

The article pointed out that Dai’s consultations in Moscow took place against the backdrop of the "worrisome" security situation in China’s periphery following Washington’s strategic "rebalancing act" which is primarily targeted at Beijing. However, to Beijing’s disappointment, Dai apparently turned out to be "more eager than his Russian counterpart [Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s security council] to discuss mutual support in ’core issues’ of national sovereignty and security."

The People’s Daily pointed out that against the backdrop of the US containment strategy toward China, Beijing views Russia "as the only significant country that is not part of Washington’s strategic matrix" and indeed "many in China urge an alliance with Moscow" - although "there seems an equally strong counter-argument [in Beijing] for caution".

In sum, China is drawing some important conclusions regarding its ties with Russia and the US. At any rate, the article underlined that during the talks with Dai, Patrushev "appeared more evasive as he talked about ’consensus’ on many important issues." With a touch of bitter sarcasm, the commentary adds:

"Russia’s posture is understandable, as Moscow is assessing its relations with Washington. There is no question that [Russian president Vladimir] Putin is not liked in the West but it is in Russia’s interests to have a more stable relationship with Washington. This is why Putin carefully manages relations with the US: deflecting critique of Russian domestic issues, while allowing NATO supplies to go through its territories to Afghanistan and participating in the US-sponsored largest-ever ’Rim of the Pacific’ naval exercise in July in Hawaii.

"For a variety of reasons, a Sino-Russian alliance as seen in the 1950s is out of the question, unless the core interests of the two are simultaneously jeopardized by a third party. This does not necessarily mean, however, the two should not cooperate strategically."

The direct reference to Putin is noteworthy. The commentary concluded with stunning frankness that even a "normal" relationship which "allows considerable space between" China and Russia can be maintained only with "political wisdom and pragmatic skills", given the fluidity in "both domestic and foreign affairs." Simply put, the bottom line is that the relations based on the so-called strategic partnership "cannot, and should not, be taken for granted." For, the ground reality is that the people in the two countries "seem more interested in looking to the West than to each other." Without doubt, it is a word of caution addressed directly to the Kremlin that the onus is on the two leaderships to do some course correction.

Separately, while in Moscow, in an exclusive interview with the Russian government daily Rossiyiskaya Gazeta, Dai also has pointed out that the focus of the China-Russia relationship in the period ahead ought to be on the two countries extending political support mutually on "core issues, such as safeguarding national sovereignty and security," which, he recalled pointedly, was what Chinese President Hu Jintao had agreed with Putin at their meetings.

Interestingly, the Kremlin has not put out to date any account so far of Dai’s call on Putin during his visit to Moscow, breaking its customary practice after such high-level meetings. However, perceptive observers couldn’t have been surprised. They could sense for a while already that something was amiss in the Sino-Russian relationship notwithstanding the rhetoric over it or even the wonderful chemistry Moscow and Beijing displayed in Turtle Bay in the recent months when they whacked the West twice with double-veto of the latter’s resolution on Syria.

Beijing seems to harbor a grouse that China went along with Russia in goose steps on the Syrian issue although it has no bases in Syria or any special interests to safeguard, leave alone that it isn’t a stakeholder in the Bashar al-Assad regime by any stretch of imagination. But when it came to the Asia-Pacific situation, as tensions began mounting dangerously between China on the one side and the US and Japan on the other, Russia was nowhere to be seen.

Punching above its weight

Not that Moscow was caught unaware of the rapidly worsening Asia-Pacific situation. On the contrary, a steady flow of Russian media reports in the recent months continued to give highly alarming prognosis of a potential flashpoint arising in the US-China rivalry. The Russian official media, in fact, was quite noisily played up recently the Wall Street Journal reports regarding the deployment of the US missile defense system in Japan and evaluated that Washington has achieved absolute nuclear superiority over China and the latter’s second-strike nuclear capability no more exists in reality.

But official Moscow has kept a deafening silence about the tensions in the Asia-Pacific. Even after Dai’s visit, the silence has not been broken. On the other hand, Fyodor Lukyanov, Moscow commentator for the official Novosti news agency, wrote three days after Dai’s visit to Moscow that Russia has a role cut out for it the Asia-Pacific - that of an honest broker of the region’s territorial disputes.

He said Moscow could bring to bear on the Asia-Pacific situation its immense "European experience" in conflict resolution during the Cold War era. To quote Lukyanov, "the majority of these conflicts [involving China, US, Japan, etc.] are extremely confusing and intractable, and a decision to support one of the sides will have less to do with historical truth than raw politics." He, therefore, rationalized the Russian policy:

"In light of the global shift of influence to the east, Russia simply cannot ignore its position as a Pacific power, and its presence in Asia as a major payer is vital. The only way to achieve this status is to use the advantages of its ’transitional’ position as a Euro-Asian power… To boost its influence, Russia will have to be much more active in Asia and orientate itself not only toward China, for all of its importance for Russia, but to the whole spectrum of interests and opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region - from Japan, South Korea and the United States to Indonesia and Australia."

It may seem to outsiders that Russia aspires to punch above its weight in the Asia-Pacific, but on the contrary, Moscow is in all seriousness on a proactive course, convinced that "it carries enough weight in Asia to make a difference." In the last week of July, in an unusual diplomatic move, Moscow hosted the Vietnamese President and the Japanese Foreign Minister in overlapping visits.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart Koichiro Gemba hold a joint press conference after their meeting in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Russia, on July 28, 2012.

The political symbolism of the Vietnamese president and the Japanese foreign minister arriving on Russian soil for talks simultaneously even as the Asia-Pacific was hotting up couldn’t have been lost on Beijing. While the Chinese assessment is that the Kurile Islands dispute doesn’t offer an easy solution and will continue to stymie the prospects of a full-blooded Russia-Japan partnership anytime soon, the recent Russian build-up of strategic ties, especially in the sphere of military cooperation, with Vietnam is causing concern to Beijing.

China is particularly concerned about Russia’s efforts to return to the Cam Ranh Bay naval base and Vietnam’s emergence as the "world’s second largest importer of Russian weapons" and the likelihood of the two tracks reinforcing each other in a strategic embrace that works to Beijing’s disadvantage in the South China Sea. But Beijing is deliberately playing down the Russian moves in Vietnam by choosing to interpret them as directed less against Chinese interests but more as a matter of post-Soviet Russia’s "return" to the South-East Asian region - something that ought to be of greater concern to the US and the ASEAN rather than to China.

The People’s Daily pointed out that the "Russia connection" enables Hanoi to negotiate with the US from advantage and also to assert its leadership role within the ASEAN, which would have deleterious impact on the regional alliance’s unity. To quote from the commentary (written after the visit of the Vietnamese president to Russia),

Vietnam promised it will provide Russia with the Cam Ranh Bay as a material and technical support station, and said it will strengthen bilateral military cooperation.

"The permission to use Cam Ranh Bay again means Russia gains a foothold to expand its influence in Southeast Asia; Russian military analyst believed this may cause US dissatisfaction and suspicion toward Russian policies. As a result, US-Russia, US-Vietnam relations will be affected. On the other hand, former Soviet Union had once backed Vietnam to practice hegemonism on the Central South Peninsula. So, the return of Russia will inevitably cause psychological impact on the Southeast Asian countries… and some countries may take countermeasures to contain Vietnam’s attempt to ’take the lead’ in the ASEAN. ASEAN will once again fall into troubled times."

Trust deficit

Clearly, serious problems are arising in the China-Russia ties and the fine rhetoric cannot put a gloss over this growing reality. The bottom line is that if the innocents abroad had ever thought that a Russia-China alliance against the US’ "imperialist hegemony" is the natural thing to happen in the contemporary world situation, they are barking up the wrong tree.

Reviewing the four months of the Putin presidency, it becomes apparent that Gazprom is forever on the lookout to boost its cooperation with other countries but the deadlock in the negotiations over the supply of gas from Russia to China continue and Moscow is not in any tearing hurry to reach an accord. On its part, Beijing also seems to be getting the message that its expectations that Putin will accelerate the negotiations on the mega gas deal after his return to the Kremlin were proving unrealistic. Beijing senses that no matter who occupies the Kremlin, there is a remarkable consistency in the policy priorities of the Russian elites, which are focused on Russia’s integration with the Western world.

Indeed, what it all finally comes to is that there is a growing trust deficit between Beijing and Moscow. Russia is caught in a bind when it comes to the development of Siberia and the Far East. The logical thing would be to draw foreign investment from the major economic powers and integrate the region with the dynamic Asia-Pacific market. But Japan remains lukewarm pending the resolution of the Kurile Islands dispute and South Korea by itself has limitations to be the locomotive of growth for Siberia or the Russian Far East.

India lies far away. Whereas, it is China that is raring to go in developing trade and investment with Siberia and the Russian Far East. But the catch is that Russia doesn’t trust Chinese intentions in the long term and the fear of Chinese migration to the vast expanse of Siberia and the Far East is only increasing. In short, Russia is unable to get the correct mix of foreign investment that would bring in Chinese capital in large volumes but would "balance" any towering Chinese presence in Siberia and the Far East.

An article in the Global Times - attributed, ironically, to a Russian businessman based in Beijing - pointed out recently that Russian media have been disseminating "horrifying stories" about China that contribute to negative impressions about it - "such as that Chinese lied to and beat customers, Chinese kidnapped their own compatriots, and that Chinese took away Russia’s oil, wood and women."

The article said that nationalism in Russia has been soaring from the Boris Yeltsin era and Sinophobia is pervasive. "Ordinary Russians saw China as the biggest threat, and the stereotype remains. Many Russians still believe that Chinese goods are poor quality, Chinese immigrants are endlessly thronging to Russia and China seeks to expand into Russian territory. In ordinary Russians’ eyes, typical Chinese is an uneducated, rustic and sloppily dressed peasant."

Whereas, the article pointed out, the unpalatable truth, which Russia finds hard to accept, is that "Russia now needs professional talent from China" and China’s scientific and technological progress can help production Russia’s capacity "just as the Soviet Union once helped China build its factories."

The article said, "If there is any potential risk in developing ties with China, it lies in Russia’s weakness, rather than any imagined plans by China. The Far East and Siberian areas have loose ties with the central regions of Russia" and it is "very important" for Moscow to develop relationship with China in the Far East.

On the other hand, "some political forces [in Russia], largely liberal and nationalistic parties, call for closing down Russia’s Far East regions to Chinese immigration and investment. But this isolation would never work. Neighboring ties with China feed thousands of Russians, especially those working in fields like transportation, tourism, wholesaling and retail trade." The article lamented:

"Many [Russians] are easily influenced by emotional thoughts and biased media reports. The historical friendship between the two countries seems to be fading, especially with the passing away of older generations in both countries. Today young people in both China and Russia tend to look to the West and fail to take up the historical friendship between the two countries."

Unwarranted ecstasy

According to the Chinese interpretation, Moscow was administering a stern warning to Beijing recently in an incident where when the Russian border guards fired on a Chinese fishing boat flying the national flag and fishing illegally in the Russian economic zone in the Sea of Japan in mid-July. The Global Times felt outraged that the Russian act was unacceptable, was boorish and that such "aggressive behavior… [not] only harms Chinese confidence in fostering a long-term friendship with Russia, but also provides excuses for forces seeking to undermine China-Russia ties."

In a second commentary a week later, the daily revisited the subject and put the incident in the Sea of Japan in the broader political context of the China-Russia partnership:

"There is strategic cooperation on major international issues… especially on issues of international security, including opposition to efforts at the UN Security Council to enact tougher measures against Russia. China views Russia as the most important strategic partner.

"However, problems do exist between the two nations. China and Russia have a comprehensive and coordinated strategic partnership. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that there is no gulf or conflict between the two. China and Russia both have own national interests. Just like any other bilateral relationship in the world, Sino-Russian relations are finally determined by national interests. Conflicts or even confrontations are inevitable."

The comments were unusually sharp even for the daily and by coincidence or not, they appeared on the eve of the visits of the Vietnamese president and the Japanese foreign minister to Russia.

To be sure, a certain impression grew when Putin snubbed United States President Barack Obama’s invitation to the G8 summit in Camp David in May and then chose to head for Beijing in June for the first state visit of his new presidency. China probably helped such an impression come about in the first instance by being so openly ecstatic about Putin’s return to the Kremlin in the last Russian presidential election - almost as if it were a stakeholder in the quick sands of Russia’s domestic politics.

However, in the light of subsequent developments, China is revising its opinion. When Hu and Putin meet on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Vladivostok next week, the ground beneath their feet would have shifted from the time they last met in Beijing in June.

Beijing has measured Moscow’s response to the rising tensions in the Far East and found it falling far short of the support it expected for the Chinese stance on the territorial dispute - while overlooking that Russia has its own legitimate reasons stemming from its self-interests for not taking sides. Thus, China has been left to draw the conclusion that Russia is in no mood to be drawn into China’s diplomatic storms with its neighbors or the US.

All sorts of fallouts

This can prompt a whole lot of diplomatic moves on the part of not only China but all major players in the Asia-Pacific. Already, there is a certain mellowing of the Japanese attitude toward Russia becoming apparent - notwithstanding Moscow’s repeated provocative actions with regard to the Kurile Islands (such as Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visiting the disputed region and Moscow beefing up its military deployments on the islands.)

Arguably, Moscow is testing the waters of Japan’s patience and probing the frontiers of an assertive policy toward Kurile Islands’ integration without jeopardizing Japan’s goodwill. This could be a prelude to making a compromise with Tokyo in due course. Putin has been keen on a normalization of Russia’s relations with Japan. One formula that Moscow has floated is that there could be Russian-Japanese collaboration for the development of the Kurile Islands.

Russia would hope to tap into China-Japan tensions to encourage greater Japanese investments and commitment to the development of Siberia and the Russian Far East, which would offset China’s presence and diminish Russia’s current over-dependence on Chinese investment and trade.

Again, Russia is making good progress already in expanding business ties and generating military exports to Vietnam, which has also agreed to the use of Cam Ranh Bay by the Russian navy.

A point of immediate interest in the coming weeks will be how the respective "national interests" of Russia and China would play out in the Middle East, especially over Syria. On August 14, the first round of the US-China Dialogue on the Middle East was held in Beijing. Reviewing the prospects of the newly created forum, Chinese commentaries have attempted to harmonize the US and Chinese approaches on the Middle East situation.

People’s Daily noted that the Dialogue held in Beijing was "actually natural", since the US and China have "common interests" and "it will be good" for solving the Middle East’s problems if the two countries "strengthen their dialogue and communication."

In the recent interview with Rossiyiskaya Gazeta, Dai spoke at length regarding the Chinese stance on Syria. Interestingly, he stressed that China has no "self-interest in dealing with the crisis, and had always maintained an objective and just stance." Dai added, "We respect the choice of the Syrian people and do not take sides. What we are against is interference with internal affairs."

Indeed, there is going to be all sorts of fallouts if cracks develop in the Russian-Chinese mutual understanding. China’s perceptions of the changes in Egypt significantly differ from Moscow’s. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s choice of Beijing as his first destination for state visit after assuming office is indicative of China’s relative openness toward the tidings of the Arab Spring in comparison with the extreme distaste and reserve in Moscow’s judgment of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Again, Russia’s ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council states have touched a low point as ties with Qatar and Saudi Arabia nosedived over the Syrian question. Russia, arguably, has little to lose in comparison with its stakes in Syria. On the contrary, China is keen to maintain robust ties with the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. Saudi Arabia, for instance, is the primary source supplying oil for China’s Strategic Reserve. Qatar has invested in China while China is investing in Kuwait. In comparison, China has hardly any stakes in the Bashar Al-Assad regime’s continuance.

Indeed, unlike in the 1950s, Washington is not going to lose time to probe any signs of new thinking in Beijing on the range of regional issues. The "unexpected visit" by a senior Chinese military official to the US last month coincided with Dai’s mission to Moscow.

The government-owned China Daily reported on August 23 that Cai Yingting, deputy chief of the general staff of the PLA’s visit to the US, which began four days earlier, was not announced in advance in Washington or Beijing and it related to "escalating tension between China and Japan" and hoped to "work on more specific and transparent development plans for the two militaries".

The China Daily report said Cai’s delegation included "several chiefs of Chinese military areas and Chen Shoumin, deputy head of the strategic planning department of the PLA General Staff Headquarters." Its itinerary included a visit to the US base in Hawaii and the bases at Fort Hood, Texas, and in Missouri, followed by talks at the Pentagon.

Most certainly, Cai’s discussions will provide the input for the forthcoming visit by the US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to China in mid-September.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has included a halt in Beijing during her current tour of the Asia-Pacific. Interestingly, she will be touching Beijing en route to Russia to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. Senior US officials have said that Clinton hopes to discuss with the Chinese leadership the North Korea problem, Iran nuclear issue, Syrian crisis and Afghanistan. Obviously, the once-in-a-decade transition in China due in a matter of weeks or the hurly-burly of the US presidential election in November wouldn’t hold back the two countries from quickening the pace of their diplomatic engagement.

To be sure, the meetings on the sidelines of the APEC summit meeting this weekend in Vladivostok promise to be far more engrossing and fateful for the Asia-Pacific region than the outcome of the tepid regional process itself. The statesmen gathering in Vladivostok will be keenly assessing the rumblings as the tectonic plates of the Russian-Chinese "comprehensive strategic cooperation and partnership" show signs of moving.

Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online