As Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Shanghai to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the battle spaces of the 21st century are coming into focus in Eurasia. It is the Kremlin’s opinion that the balance of power at this moment is shifting away from the U.S. and its reluctant NATO allies, which dominated the second half of the 20th century, eastward to Russia, China and their Shanghai Cooperation Organization allies.
Evidence of the transformation is not only in Ukraine and Eastern Europe — where Moscow holds a strong position to win what it wants in a decentralized Ukraine as well as to lay claim to a say in the affairs of the near abroad states of the old Soviet empire — but also in East Asia, where the reawakened potency of the Kremlin can be seen in the behavior of Russia’s rising ally, China.
After a year of standoffs in the East China Sea between China and its traditional rivals Japan and South Korea, there is fresh conflict in the South China Sea. On May 1, China suddenly moved an oil platform into contested waters 150 miles off Vietnam in the Paracel Islands. This is well within Vietnam’s claimed exclusive economic zone, yet China is enforcing a 10 kilometer security perimeter around its rig.
Anticipating trouble, China surrounded the drilling platform with coast guard vessels and, all told, more than six dozen ships of all sizes. This swift, calculated swarming into contested territory closely resembles other maneuvers by China against its neighbors, especially against the Philippines, such as the recent news of China’s building a landing zone on the cross-claimed Johnson’s Reef.
Vietnam erupted at the news of the Chinese aggression. Fierce anti-Chinese demonstrations in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and other locations led to the deaths of Chinese nationals and a diplomatic fusillade that has not died down, despite calls from Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung for order. China, not trusting that the Vietnamese nationalist reactions have played out, has launched the evacuation of thousands of Chinese nationals.
The well-paced Chinese provocations against important U.S. allies in East Asia are designed to show both Asia and the world that the U.S. cannot be trusted to honor its mutual defense treaties.
China is also not taking risks with its Chinese National Offshore Oil Corp. property in the Paracels. Vietnamese media report that the Chinese navy has dispatched two of its largest amphibious ships, Jinggangshan and Kunlunshan, each packed with hundreds of troops, hovercraft, missiles and helicopters, in order to defend the rig from attack. In addition, the missile frigate Mianyang, carrying an ASW helicopter, will join the coast guard vessels to protect what China regards as its territory.
China’s plan to deploy an overwhelming force to secure a strategic asset has more than the Vietnamese government in mind. Beijing’s actions are timed to Putin’s state visit and a joint Russian-Chinese naval exercise in the South China Sea. Putin’s embassy aims to reaffirm economic and energy arrangements between the two nations.
Military links are clearly critical for the future of the relationship. Beijing is bullying Hanoi at this time in order to demonstrate that it can move as baldly against its neighbor Vietnam as Moscow can move against its neighbor Ukraine.
The Kremlin believes that it holds the supreme position to command the supercontinent Eurasia. Moscow is constructing de facto alliances in Europe with Berlin and in Asia with Beijing in order to move beyond the rudimentary Shanghai Cooperation Organization — formed in 2001 and now including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — to a land-based empire of Russia and its clients.
What Moscow looks to ascertain in the next weeks and months is if Beijing is able to serve as a trustworthy partner in defending Eurasia and its interests from interventions by the United States and its allies.
In Putin’s grand imperial vision, what Moscow desires is a partner to secure the seas surrounding the Eurasian supercontinent. Moscow’s fleet can control the Northern Passage and the northern Pacific Rim. Moscow will use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to trade with India and the Persian Gulf. What Moscow wants from China’s fleet is to secure the southern Pacific Rim as well as to control the sea routes in the Indian Ocean approaches to the Gulf and Africa.
Russia’s expectations of China are very high: proof not only that it can dominate its tiny neighbors but also that it can stymie the U.S. The well-paced Chinese provocations against important U.S. allies — Japan and South Korea in the East China Sea, the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea — are designed to show both Asia and the world that the U.S. cannot be trusted to honor its mutual defense treaties. (Even U.S. reconnaissance flights in the region are reportedly unarmed to avoid conflict.)
President Barack Obama’s recent embassy to reassure Tokyo, Seoul and Manila of U.S. security guarantees has been undermined by the Chinese intimidation of the outgunned Vietnam.
China is not a reluctant provocateur. Ten years ago, the Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian lectured on the inevitability of war with the U.S. in order to achieve Chinese hegemony. Today, as a new cold war deepens between Moscow and Washington, Russia expects China to risk its profitable relations with the U.S. The Kremlin expects a partner willing to use force to secure their shared interests in the long struggle ahead for Eurasian domination.