The Sino-Russian embrace leaves the US out in the cold

It was quite a shock for some Russians in a rural backwater of the Urals recently to see lorry-loads of Chinese troops go by. True, they were not pointing their guns at the babushkas but many people panicked, wondering how Chinese forces had reached parts of central Russia, a feat not achieved by either the Nazis or Napoleon's army.Those who watched local television knew this was a joint exercise, the first of such magnitude, between Russian forces and over a thousand men of the People's Liberation Army - and the most startling evidence so far of the extraordinarily cordial relations between Moscow and Beijing.

It has become a commonplace of international diplomacy that Russia and China often work together on key issues. They have frustrated western hopes for sanctions or other tough action on disputes ranging from Burma and Darfur to Iran. They are blocking a solution on Kosovo. What few in the west have spotted is that Sino-Russian rapprochement has reached such a point that the two huge countries' relations with each other are far warmer than either US-Russian or US-Chinese relations. In other words, the famous US-Russia-China triangle Nixon and Kissinger created by their path-breaking overtures to Beijing in the early 1970s is completely reversed.

China, in those Maoist days, was mired in a mixture of international quarantine and self-imposed isolation, feared by the Soviet Union and hated by the US. The two Americans dramatically broke the mould. They cleverly manipulated Mao's ideological rivalry with Moscow to bring China back into the global arena and thereby infuriate and put pressure on the Soviets. This helped to ease the US retreat from Vietnam.

Now Russia and China are together and the US is out of the loop. It is a stark fact that Condoleezza Rice and defence secretary Robert Gates cannot ignore today as they start two days of talks in Moscow. No more easy concessions from Moscow and Beijing. Both powers are big boys and can bargain as hard as anyone from Washington, whether neocon or "realist".

Russia's friendship with China is not just a ploy by their elites. It has grassroots resonance. As Oxana Antonenko, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies points out, many Russians now see China as their country's closest partner. The number of Russians who feel China is a friend, according to a recent poll, is more than double the number who feel that about the US. Some 24% of Russians fear clashes with America in the near future. Only 4% see a chance of that with China.

These pro-Chinese views are particularly strong in the Russian far east, an area in which analysts used to detect Sinophobia, based on fears that China's booming population would covet eastern Siberia's rich resources and vast open spaces. Human contact, and economic benefit, have had the opposite effect. About 200,000 Chinese now live in Russia. This may not sound much compared with the numbers of Chinese in the US, Australia, or southeast Asia, but in Russia Chinese settlement started from a zero base a decade ago.

Many more Chinese come in seasonally to plant and pick crops, not just in the border areas but deep into European Russia. Mixed marriages are common, and reports say that one of the favourite pastimes of Chinese teenagers living across the river Amur from the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk is to train binoculars on the girls going by, pick out a likely local lass, cross over and woo her - and then live in Russia.

The countries' economies differ - one reliant on exports of energy, the other on low-wage industrial products, but they are complementary. Each is a good customer of the other. At the policy level, their partnership functions most strikingly in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a body established six years ago. Working less formally until then as the Shanghai Five (other members were Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan), the group succeeded in resolving all the outstanding Sino-Russian disputes over the borderline.

Now the SCO helps to accelerate Russia's rising military links with China, not only the export of weapons but also in licensing and joint production. It has proved so successful that India, Pakistan and Iran want to join, presenting the SCO with the same widening-versus-deepening dilemmas that the EU knows so well. Members are not in full agreement on how to proceed. China prefers to focus on regional economic links, Russia on military partnership and strategic concerns. But they share the view that by working together they can reduce US and western pressure while also preventing unwelcome democratisation of the "colour revolution" type.

As Russia moves back from the freedoms of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years, its internal politics increasingly resemble China's. Beijing tightens controls on activist websites and peasant protesters in advance of next year's Olympics. The Kremlin squeezes radical critics out of the December contest for seats in parliament. Unlike China, Russia is still nominally a multiparty system, but its ruling party is virtually unassailable.

Putin's surprise decision last week to put himself at the head of the electoral list of the ruling party, United Russia, has lifted it to 54% in the polls. The Communists, on 6%, might not even break the 7% barrier required to get into the Duma. No doubt Putin's people will rectify that, since they want at least one quasi-opponent around, in addition to the phoney pro-Kremlin parties they have created. The two other ways that Russians could express opposition have been abolished. The right to vote "against all" is dropped. Low turnout will no longer invalidate an election.

Hinting he may become prime minister, Putin has found the best way to get round the bar on a third consecutive term as president. The constitution describes the president as commander-in-chief, but it does not say he controls the foreign ministry and security structures. A presidential decree does that. In the remaining months of his term, Putin could sign a new decree giving control over them to the prime minister. It would be a masterstroke.

Whether their system is best described as "bureaucratic capitalism" or "authoritarian capitalism", Russia and China are firmer friends today than they were in their Communist period. They have given a new meaning to "triangulation". The west should take note.

Jonathan Steele