Who would have thought that Putin would be a major beneficiary of the ruling by the international tribunal that put the lie to China’s hyperbolic claim to the South China Sea?
For many months, which must have been an eternity to Chinese leaders, Russia made no statement on the controversy — for or against the Chinese position.
In some circles, Putin’s silence was misread as a way of Russia taking sides with Vietnam, an old ally, and the Philippines against China. A China-based journalist, Mu Chunshan, has pointed out that China and Russia may have a relationship that has “some characteristics of a comprehensive strategic partnership,” but they are not allies. Neither has a treaty obligation to come to the other’s aid in case of war. Mu also cited longstanding Russian fears of Chinese expansionism.
At least one Philippine publication instantly jumped on Mu’s careful, non-committal analysis and over-interpreted it to mean that when push came to shove, Russia would side with Vietnam and the Philippines against China. That was wishful thinking.
Not long after the international tribunal laid down its ruling, Beijing triumphantly announced that China and Russia would be holding naval exercises in the South China Sea in September. China brandished the agreement as proof beyond doubt that Russia was on its side of the controversy.
Apparently the agreement was hastily reached in response to the ruling at China’s urgent behest. In the end it is just another naval exercise, an act of military showmanship, but China badly needs one that involves Russia at this time.
Why did it take Putin so long to come out on the side of China? Because Putin loves to see people twist in the wind. Thus even today Erdogan is twisting in the wind, not sure whether Putin has really reconciled with him and has forgotten about the downed Sukhoi. I have news for Erdogan: Putin has a long memory.
As to China, Putin knows very well that China needs him more than he needs China in the new Cold War between the global East and West. You can imagine him sitting smugly in the Kremlin smiling to himself over the thought that at any time he wishes, he can to a great extent help China become undisputed emperor of the South China Sea, in spite of the US Navy.
He can do this by selling to China his cutting edge sea-based cruise missiles, but he is not doing that yet—because that will be his leverage if he needs to negotiate a grand deal with the US.
Meanwhile, he sells to India first generation weapon systems more sophisticated than those he is selling to China. Clever geopolitician, this Vladimir Putin.
Jamil Maidan Flores
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