Xi Jinping & Vladimir Putin – a timely partnership
Last Wednesday, we witnessed a show of joint forces by the world’s biggest hostile actors – China and Russia. Over a video conference, the countries’ two leaders met and pledged their commitment to work together to advance and promote their shared interest, as well as their own.
The show of support between the two countries is relevant in the context of current world tensions – while US President Biden is rallying an alliance of democracies to fight back against the growing power of these two countries, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are working to create an alliance of their own, that doesn’t play by the rules of the liberal order.
Tensions between China and the US have never been more strenuous – whether it’s trade, tech or Taiwan, to name a few, the Biden administration has called managing America’s relationship with Beijing “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century”, according to the New York Times.
On the Russian side, tensions are also boiling. With Russian troops amassing at the border with Ukraine, fears of a potential invasion of the NATO ally (but not member) may prove to be the real test for how the NATO alliance and its western allies may react towards Russian aggression, and if they are willing to hold their ground against an increasingly invasive strategy coming from the Kremlin government.
Vladimir Putin is facing crushing tensions from the Western alliance, if any moves are made against Ukraine, but it is highly unlikely that any military intervention will be employed to deter Russian forces.
On Wednesday, President Putin vowed to participate at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, which are to be held in Beijing in February 2022. As the sports event is currently being boycotted by countries all around the world over the scandal surrounding the dubious disappearance of Chinese tennis player, Peng Shuai, who accused a senior Chinese official of sexual assault, Putin became the first world leader to confirm his presence at the Beijing festivities.
The video conference signalled the 37th time that the two leaders had met since their first encounter back in 2013. The online gathering was an important signal that symbolised both a solidarity among autocrats to battle Western pressure, as well as a display of a mutually beneficial and increasingly tight partnership between the two powers.
In a symbolic show of support, both leaders attended the video summit with both of their countries’ flags behind them. Whereas, when President Putin and Biden had their online encounter a couple of weeks ago, Putin only had the Russian flag behind.
The countries, which were one-time adversaries share a land border stretching over 4000 kilometres. While the two countries have had their fair share of differences over the years, from history to Siberian logging, on matters of geopolitics and security they seem to share an increasingly similar view of the world, as they try to form a bloc to counter US influence abroad, and especially in their part of the world.
While the two countries do not have an official alliance yet, there are talks of forming an independent financial infrastructure “to reduce the reliance on Western banks and their vulnerability to punitive measures from the West”, according to another piece by the New York Times.
The prospect of a tighter partnership between China and Russia seems more likely and increasingly beneficial for both parties, given the pressure that they are under and their common adversary: The United States.
This step of furthering ties is beneficial for both states. On the Chinese side, it shows that the country is not isolated diplomatically, especially as the Beijing Winter Olympics are approaching and the event was supposed to showcase China’s global stature.
The sports event was also meant to deflect from the mounting criticism that China is being placed under, with regards to its aggressive handling of the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, the repression of Muslim minorities in mainland China and the menacing approach towards Taiwan and strategic dominance over the South China Sea.
On the Russian side, the need for a consolidated partnership seems an important way through which President Putin can solidify his footing against the Western alliance. This is especially the case, when the Kremlin government is trying to underscore Western influence (and presence) in Ukraine.
According to Karen Donfried, the American assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, who was in Moscow to discuss the Ukraine issue, President Putin’s demands to back down from the Russian offensive along its border with Ukraine would consist of the West rolling back its military support for Ukraine and the ruling out of an expansion of the NATO alliance that would include Ukraine or other countries in the region.
Both Russia and China have faced the threat of Western sanctions amid rising diplomatic tensions. And, while a close strategic coordination is necessary between the two countries, given the current context of this turbulent and tensed world, China and Russia’s approval of each other has its limits.
China has never recognized the annexation of Crimea, for example, nor does Russia side with China on its expansive claims in the South China Sea. They have also stopped short of binding themselves in a formal treaty alliance, preferring to maintain their ability to act independently and flexibly. Hence, it seems highly unlikely that Beijing would endorse any adventurous action in Ukraine, nor would Russia eagerly side with China if the Chinese decided to invade Taiwan.
However, when it comes to Western countering, China and Russia seem to be on the same page.
Photo source: AFP