Russia’s new president Dmitry Medvedev is headed east rather than west on his first foreign trip in office, and the symbolism hasn’t been missed by the news media. The AP reports, “It’s a sign of how the two resurgent giants have buried Cold War rivalries and built a ‘strategic partnership’ intended to serve as a counterweight to U.S. dominance.”
The Financial Times points out that Medvedev will first stop off in Central Asia before heading to Beijing:
Mr Medvedev will fly to the central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, a big oil and gas producer, and then on for a two-day trip to China, with whom relations blossomed under the presidency of Vladimir Putin, Mr Medvedev’s predecessor and mentor. The newly-inaugurated president will make his first trip west – to Germany – only next month.
“Of course this is a signal,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine. “Russia is a country with diversified interests and diversified friends. If the west is not willing or able or enthusiastic about developing the relationship, we can find other major partners.”
But he added that Mr Medvedev was softening the message by visiting Kazakhstan – one of the most powerful former Soviet republics – before China. Heading straight to Beijing, he said, would have sent a “hard” signal.
International lawyer Robert Amsterdam, who defended former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, thinks the news is overblown and oversimplified. From his blog:
The press is really running away with the symbolic importance of Dmitry Medvedev’s first trip to Asia rather than Europe. “Medvedev trip east sends signal to west,” goes the headline from the FT. The AP reports that the China visit “is a sign of how the two resurgent giants have buried Cold War rivalries and built a ‘strategic partnership’ intended to serve as a counterweight to U.S. dominance.” A piece from RFE/RL has a similar analysis, quoting Masha Lipman, who says that this is Russia’s way of saying “we’re not in a rush to go West to begin Medvedev’s presidency as a foreign-policy maker.”
These conclusions are all fine and well, but also problematic. Aren’t these the same journalists and experts who have told us over and over again that Medvedev has no power or influence, and that this is still Vladimir Putin’s game? Therefore wouldn’t it be more important to watch which country he visits first? Or perhaps we are beginning to see evidence that the new president does actually matter – a view I’ve been holding for a while.
Nevertheless, it’s another red herring. What may look like a Russia-China lovefest is just a ploy to make the European concubine jealous. We have seen in the past that the highly public entreaties between Beijing and Moscow and all that SCO business are largely for show, with little substance (look at the lack of progress on the ESPO), and relations between the two countries continue to be characterized by deep distrust. It takes more than just some mutual fears of color revolutions to build a genuine alternative alliance to substitute for relations with the countries of Western Europe, who have shown themselves more willing to pay higher prices for gas, and much easier to divide and play off against each other.