London - “China is our reliable friend,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday in an interview ahead of a conference in Shanghai. “To expand cooperation with China is undoubtedly Russia’s diplomatic priority.” Most evaluations of the bilateral relationship begin by reciting the historical border disputes, rift between Mao Zedong and Nikita Khrushchev, opening to China by Richard Nixon, and the perennial problem of reaching an agreement on gas pricing. But these are all essentially backward looking and ignore the growing community of interests between the two countries. The case for a closer bilateral relationship on energy, trade, security and diplomatic issues is compelling. In the energy sphere, the two countries are an almost perfect match: the world’s largest net energy exporter and its second-largest net energy importer (2011) with a long land border.
China is already Russia’s largest single trading partner, with bilateral trade flows of $90 billion in 2013, and the two neighbours aim to double the volume to $200 billion by the end of the decade, according to Xinhua, China’s official news agency. The Obama administration’s strategic pivot towards Asia and shifts in the energy market are pushing China and Russia closer together as both react to fears of encirclement and energy security. Russia’s political disagreements with the United States and its allies over Ukraine as well as China’s territorial disputes in the East and South China seas have left them isolated and searching for friends to counterbalance Washington’s network of alliances in Europe and the Pacific. It is classic balance of power politics. My enemy’s enemy is my friend. On Tuesday, the Russian and Chinese navies will begin seven days of joint exercises in the East China Sea. It is the third time the two navies have held joint drills since 2012, according to Xinhua, and underscores the increasingly close cooperation between them as relations with the western powers deteriorate.