Yesterday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that China was “shocked” by a Russian warship firing upon and sinking a Chinese cargo ship near Vladivostok on the 15th of this month.  At least seven of the crew were missing and undoubtedly died in the incident.  Beijing lodged a formal protest.

The New Star, flying a Sierra Leone flag, was leaving Russian waters and apparently ignored warning shots.  What happened next is in dispute.  Moscow’s story is that the ship kept trying to outrun two Russian coast guard vessels, which eventually opened fire.   The Russians, it appears, fired more than 500 rounds at the bow and the stern of the New Star.  An early Interfax report claims the Chinese ship actually responded to the warning shots by turning around but then sank in rough seas.

In any event, the Chinese are outraged, the Foreign Ministry saying that Russia’s attitude was “hard to understand and unacceptable.”  Moreover, Beijing claims the Russian ships did not do enough to save the crew.  Moscow, for its part, says the New Star’s captain “behaved extremely irresponsibly” and “is fully to blame.”

The Chinese and Russian governments have many reasons to put this incident behind them.  They see the world in common terms and share many interests.  Both of them are deeply suspicious of the West and want to reorder the international system.  They share many friends.  They are developing trade ties.  They call themselves “strategic partners.”

But that’s only half the story.  Almost two decades of economic development have made both the Dragon and the Bear prosperous and, as a result, increasingly arrogant, assertive, and self-centered.  Now, the global downturn has shaken their economies especially hard and made their governments vulnerable.  So both Beijing and Moscow have reasons to create a foreign enemy to rally their restive populations.  Even as fraternal communists they were often trading barbs and sometimes gunfire.  And after this month’s New Star incident, they just might turn on each other again.

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