The chumminess of Russian and Chinese authoritarian leaders was on display again last week with Vladimir Putin's state visit to Beijing. The nascent Chinese-Russian entente is not news since the relationship has been steadily broadening and deepening for more than a decade. But there is increasing evidence suggesting this relationship is part of a growing global ideological conflict between consolidating democracies and dictatorships.

Also in the news last week was the landslide re-election of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko, who last year was designated "Europe's last dictator" by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In what has now become a familiar pattern, Western election monitors, including the OSCE, and the U.S. government strongly condemned electoral violations while the Russian government praised the quality of the elections. Authoritarian solidarity received a big shot in the arm last summer when Uzbekistan evicted U.S. military forces and signed a security alliance with Russia. This was followed in August by the fanfare surrounding the first Chinese-Russian joint military exercises.

On the democracy front, U.S. President George W. Bush traveled this month to India and signed a path-breaking civilian nuclear agreement that marked a significant, if controversial, step forward in relations between the world's two largest democracies. Obviously there is a geopolitical subtext as the Bush administration sees a strong and democratic India as part of a China containment strategy. Rice also recently traveled to democratic allies Japan and Australia, even making a stop in democratic hopeful Indonesia.

This month, the United States published a new and ideologically highly charged National Security Strategy document that placed democracy promotion at the forefront of U.S. security interests. The document, which included specific criticism of Russian backsliding on democracy, predictably elicited a blistering retort from the Foreign Ministry. This repeated a pattern seen earlier in the month with the publication of a report on Russia by a Council on Foreign Relations task force and the State Department's annual report on human rights.

On his first trip to Washington as foreign minister as these reports were being released, Sergei Lavrov philosophically ascribed the Russia bashing in the United States to those uncomfortable with a "strong Russia" and lamented that "Russia does not want to be provoked into an ideological conflict with the U.S. like the Cold War."

But we are slipping into the Cold War tone and rhetoric. The new energy behind U.S. democracy promotion efforts and rhetoric combined with the series of "color revolutions" in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan are generating an authoritarian backlash championed by Beijing and Moscow. From the Chinese and Russian perspectives, U.S. support for democratic institutions, free elections and civil society has more to do with expansion of Washington's geopolitical interests than expanding liberty.

It is, however, far too premature to conclude that the barricades are drawn between the "authoritarian internationale" and any global democratic alliance. Moscow and Beijing have far too many strong interests with developed market democracies to make a 21st-century Sino-Russian alliance an attractive option. Chinese-Russian trade may well double or more to as much as $80 billion by 2010 as Chinese President Hu Jintao and Putin announced last week. But even with this impressive growth, China's trade with the United States would be at least four times greater. China will probably become Russia's largest trade partner, but Russia's economic and strategic interests will remain diversified east, west and south to avoid over-dependence on the burgeoning Chinese market.

In addition to Russian arms sales, the Chines-Russian economic relationship will be based on Russian export of raw materials, mostly energy, and import of Chinese manufactured goods. Fears about Russia becoming a "natural resource appendage" to China are overblown. Chinese-Russian energy ties vividly display both the potential and limitations of the relationship as well as Russia's development strategy as an "energy superpower."

The potential is suggested by Russia's status as the world's largest supplier of hydrocarbons and China's as the fastest growing consumer. The problem is how much oil and gas Russia can supply to China when and at what cost. Production levels of Russian gas have already stagnated and will likely fall somewhat beginning in 2008. Where will the promised new 80 billion cubic meters per year of gas come from for China that Hu and Putin agreed to last week? How will this be balanced with growth in European demand, new exports of LNG to the United States and Russian domestic demand? Russian oil production faces a similar predicament, although production may continue to grow slowly for a few more years. And while Chinese companies are chomping at the bit to buy Russian energy assets, they do not have the technology and project experience needed for greenfield development that Western energy majors can bring to the table.

That is why the imminent decision about the partnership arrangements for development of the mammoth Shtokman gas field in the Barents Sea is of great substantive and symbolic value. This is technically the most demanding and expensive gas field project in history, and there is no question that Gazprom cannot do it alone. Expect that an announcement about partners and equity arrangements will be made this spring before the Group of Eight meeting in St. Petersburg in July. Don't expect that the involvement of Western energy and financial institutions will make Russia a democracy, although we should expect modest improvements in corporate governance and efficiency. The exigencies of developing Russia's energy resources, so key to its economic and international clout, will also mitigate against the Chinese and the Russians colluding too closely beyond Moscow's pragmatic commercial interests.