China, Russia congratulate each other on Syria at APEC

The two nations presidents say they are deepening ties after opposing Western military intervention in Syria

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping, right, attend the Leaders Retreat during theAsia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Sunday.
Mast Irham/Reuters

The presidents of China and Russia congratulated each other at the APEC summit in Bali, Indonesia this week for coordinating a successful effort to prevent a U.S.-led military strike in Syria and developing their overall economic and geopolitical partnership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded Beijing and Moscow's "coordinated decisions" on the Syria issue as a chief example of how the two powers are developing ties.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called his government's cooperation with Russia on Syria an example of how the two nations "are cooperating very closely to resolve urgent and acute international and regional issues."

Putin also said his administration is working with China to develop "military technology cooperation and military affairs."

"Our service members have already conducted two major trainings, on land and in the sea," he added.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who pushed in September for congressional approval of military intervention in Syria, chose not to attend the APEC summit, a regional trade talk that launched Monday, amid the United States' ongoing government shutdown.

After Moscow and Beijing's vocal opposition to Obama's effort to cull international support for an intervention in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people on Aug. 21, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed on a political solution, by which Damascus would relinquish its chemical-weapons arsenal.

Together, China and Russia vetoed three United Nations Security Council resolutions designed to address Syria's two-year-old civil war, which has killed an estimated 100,000 people and created more than 2 million refugees.

Russia and China "are completely disconnected from what's happening in Syria," said Muhannad Barazi, a Syrian-American who has travelled to the restive Levantine nation multiple times in recent years to work with refugees. "It's a shame to me that these nations make these moves without any inkling of humanitarian interest toward Syrians."

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Barazi said Russia and China were working in their own self-interest.

Bilateral trade between the Syria and China rose to almost $2.5 billion in 2010, a surge of nearly 12 percent from the previous year, just before the conflict broke out. Syria and Russia have a long-running historic partnership, based on military and geopolitical ties.

Russia and China also opposed military action in China, because both of the nation's government have traditionally favored a anti-interventionist stance on the international stage, according to Christopher Chivvis, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. 

Still, "from the Russian perspective, the single most important reason they continue to take the position they take is it gives them the appearance of being a world power," Chivvis said.

"As long as they can continue to get to play a role in one of the world's largest crises, it's unlikely they will change their position."

Some analysts say China and Russia's cooperation on Syria marks the beginning of political and economic rapprochement between the two powers.

"What we are seeing is a growing awareness that Russia and China have some shared interests in aligning with each other," said Arthur T. Dong, a professor of international relations at  Columbia University.

Dong explained that although Russian and Chinese relations have ebbed and flowed over the past several decades, cooperation on Syria has allowed them to strengthen ties.  

"It's a relationship that has potential strategic significance," Dong said, noting that futurists often describe the economic potential of a united Eurasia.

"Syria is symbolic. Using back channels and their own diplomatic means, they found a solution to the Syrian problem that preserves their interests in Syria and the present regime and got the United States to back down from its very real intention of military action," Dong added.

RAND's Chivvis remains skeptical that Syria represents a new chapter in Sino-Russian relations.

"There are a lot of things that divide these countries. The status of Russia's tactical nuclear forces, which most people would assume are there to deter conflict with China, is an example of military tension between the two countries. The number of Chinese who live in the Eastern Part of Russia, less populated and less easy for Moscow to assert its control over, is a long-term security concern."

Chivvis said that at a time when the U.S. government is wrapped up in fiscal woes, "it's an easy time for powers like Russia and China to feel triumphalist."

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