Russia growing closer to China as it rebalances foreign policy


RUSSIA IS forging closer ties with China as it rejects foreign intervention in Syria, opposes US domination of international affairs and rebalances its foreign policy in favour of Asia and former Soviet states.

After returning to the Kremlin last month, Russian president Vladimir Putin declined invitations to meetings of the G8 and Nato in the US and made only brief stops in Paris and Berlin between more substantial visits to autocratic Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Beijing.

In the Chinese capital, Putin attended a summit of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO), which counts Russia, China and four former Soviet central Asia states as full members and includes Iran, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan as observers.

Its advocates see it as a potential counterweight to Nato, with the distinction that it forswears interference in nations’ internal matters, a crucial caveat for central Asian autocrats and for Russia as it fights rebels in the North Caucasus and a China tackling Tibetan and Uighur separatism.

Last week, the group called for the “peaceful resolution of the Syrian problem through political dialogue” and said it was “against military intervention in this region’s affairs, forcing a ‘handover of power’ or using unilateral sanctions”.

Russia and China have twice vetoed western-backed UN Security Council resolutions critical of Syria and made clear that their co-ordinated diplomatic action would continue.

Putin told his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao that their interests “align perfectly in a great many areas, including in co-operating on the world stage”, while Hu said Moscow and Beijing should seek to “set the global political and economic order in a more fair and rational direction”.

Russia feels its interests in the Middle East have been ignored by the West over everything from the Iraq war to the ousting of Col Muammar Gadafy in Libya, and it resents US plans to create a missile defence system close to its borders in eastern Europe.

China, meanwhile, expects to encounter increasing resistance from the West in all spheres as its economic power grows, and Beijing is particularly concerned about Washington’s decision to base 60 per cent of its naval forces in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020.

Moscow and Beijing also intend to use the SCO to extend their influence in Afghanistan as the US withdraws its troops, and they have blocked a western push for tougher action against Tehran over its nuclear programme.

Central Asia is fast becoming an arena for competition between Russia and China – and Putin wants to create a Moscow-led “Eurasian Union” of post-Soviet states – but the two neighbours are happy to join forces against US diplomatic initiatives.

On Syria, Moscow and Beijing are adamant there will be no repeat of the Libyan scenario, in which they allowed passage of a UN resolution authorising the Nato bombing that helped to bring down Gadafy.

Putin accuses countries ranged against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad of supplying arms to the rebels and sees western hands behind the unrest – as he does behind recent opposition rallies in Russia itself.

Moscow insists it is not “propping up” the Syrian leader – despite openly continuing to sell his regime weapons – and may accept the kind of negotiated transition that saw Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh step down this year amid mass protests and growing violence.

In a bid to take the initiative on Syria, Moscow has proposed a conference of major players in the region, including Iran.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton rejected Tehran’s involvement, saying it was “hard to imagine inviting a country that is stage-managing the Assad regime’s assault on its people”.

If Assad relinquished power in a process guided by his Russian, Chinese and Iranian allies, it would be a huge diplomatic coup for those countries and would undermine both US interventionism and the West’s depiction of Iran as a rogue state.

Experts say Russia knows Assad’s days are numbered, but Putin resents western pressure and wants to retain Moscow’s lucrative arms contracts with Damascus and use of a naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

If Putin was to abandon Assad, he would want to protect Russia’s interests in Syria and extract concessions from the US on other issues, particularly missile defence.