The Dragon and the Bear Inch Closer

In 2012, Dr. Lamont Colucci was approached by U.S. News and World Report to write a weekly column on foreign policy and national security. This is under the aegis of World Report – Insights, perspectives, and commentary on foreign affairs. View the article on

In 1950, Mao Zedong traveled to Moscow to sign the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. The May 23, 2014 agreement between China and Russia has produced a flurry of parallel arguments about the two great powers.

The highlight of the deal is Russian exports of $400 billion worth of natural gas to China over 30 years. The deal also ramped up entry of Chinese investment inside Russia, dealing with aviation, transportation and infrastructure. It also would give the China National Petroleum Corporation a 19 percent stake in Rosneft, the spearhead of Russia’s petroleum industry.

There is clear economic benefit for both sides. The question that everyone should be asking is this: Is there more behind the deal than energy and economics?

Russia is shifting its energy market away from Europe and toward the voracious appetites of Asia. This will allow Moscow greater flexibility in foreign policy in light of anti-Russian moves by Ukraine, Europe and the United States. What is often missed by many in the media is this equation: If Europe is dependent on Russian energy, Russian energy is dependent on European cash. A huge foray into Asian energy markets diversifies Russian markets and sends a powerful diplomatic signal in one fell swoop.

Second, the deal enhances the strategic partnership between the two countries. History informs us that strategic security alliances and cultural ties are often built on economic agreements that are dismissed by many of the contemporaries of that time. One can name many examples, such as the 1951 European Coal and Steel Treaty, which became the foundation for today’s European Union, or the 1834 Zollverein, which laid the bedrock for German unification.

It should be no surprise that this energy and economic agreement serves as an underpinning for greater Russian and Chinese strategic melding. Both Russia and China are chafing under the economic, military and cultural power of the United States at a moment in history when the United States is embarrassed to take aggressive leadership or uphold diplomatic and military commitments. The combination of the joint Sino-Russian naval exercises off Shanghai, the disturbing news out of Ukraine, the aggressive actions by China against Vietnam and Japan, and the reprehensible behavior of Syria and Iran (under various umbrellas provided by both Russia and China) should give long-term American strategic thinkers pause.

The new friendship between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping has sent diplomatic ripples throughout the world. The American government’s public reaction has been muted and continues to maintain the fantasy that there is nothing to fear or be concerned about in the burgeoning relationship between Russia and China. Some officials speaking on the condition of anonymity acknowledge a level of unease with the trajectory of the relationship. Others, such as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, argue that actions taken by states like Russia are causing the entire international order to be questioned globally.

None of this indicates the creation of a Russian-Chinese military alliance bent on world domination and the destruction of American national interests. It indicates an improvement in relations between two great powers who, regardless of autocratic ideology and state corruption, have many interests diametrically opposed to those of the American people. As much as it is not an indication of a replay of the Nazi-Soviet “non-aggression” pact, neither is it cause for the apathy, disinterest or even celebration in some quarters of the United States government. Russia and China need to receive a clear message that American leadership is immutable and universal. They are free to make whatever economic arrangements they like, but need to understand that any attempt at upending the geopolitical order, abetting state sponsored terrorism, invading the sovereignty of states or aiding anti-democratic forces will result in American action and fury.