Whenever Russian and Chinese officials shake hands, Washington takes notice, and renewed concern over a potential anti-Western Sino-Russian axis gains fresh momentum. The annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Moscow- and Beijing-dominated Central Asian security forum, generated headlines earlier this month when special guest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used the occasion to again denounce U.S. foreign policy.
The SCO has gotten the Bush administration's attention before. In 2005, Russia and China used the organization to push for the eviction of U.S. troops from an airbase in Uzbekistan. Joint SCO military exercises again raise the specter that the organization might become a military bloc.
Are Russia and China finally forming the much-dreaded partnership? Neither the Soviet collapse nor China's embrace of capitalism fully buried U.S. fears that a Sino-Russian alliance would threaten American interests across the vast Eurasian landmass.
Russia has added to American worries over the past several years by actively opposing U.S., European, and NATO plans; meddling in the political lives of its neighbors; and moving toward authoritarianism at home.
China has invested considerable sums in recent years to expand its military capabilities. Uncertainty in Washington over just how considerable those sums are has provoked high-level criticism from U.S. officials.
Yet the Russian and Chinese governments are highly unlikely to substantially align their foreign policies anytime soon. They will continue to cooperate when cooperation serves them, but their fundamental interests are not compatible.
First, Russia is one of the world's leading exporters of oil and gas. China's demand for both has grown enormously in recent years—and will continue to rise as its economy expands. The two countries are building a solid buyer-seller energy relationship.
But the differences in their foreign-policy goals emerge when we remember that Russia needs high energy prices, while China would like to see them fall. So many international conflicts today have potential implications for energy prices that Russia and China will frequently find themselves on different sides of key issues.
Neither government supports tough U.N. sanctions on Iran. But if Tehran were to retaliate against Western attempts to thwart its nuclear ambitions by deliberately pushing oil prices to new heights, Russia's economy would profit while China's would suffer. That's why Russia and China, no matter how forcefully they resist the imposition of severe U.N. sanctions, cannot view the international conflict over Iran in quite the same way.
Second, China's economic and military expansion inspires dread among Moscow's military and security elite, which fears, among other things, that Russia's resource-rich Far East could eventually become a zone of intense Sino-Russian competition. There are some 18 million ethnic Russians in Siberia; there are now about 300 million Chinese across the border in China's northern provinces.
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