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.Germany is largely perceived to be the primary target of this gesture – with Medvedev making a visit in one month – Russia’s “clear” second priority (by the way, shouldn’t Frank-Walter Steinmeier be taking some flak for this?). If I were in the Merkel government, I would worry less about Gazprom suddenly diverting all the supply to China, and would rather focus on Russia’s efforts in Kazakhstan to keep supply away from the Nabucco.