It’s lonely at the top, doubly so when you have the kind of power and responsibility that only an autocrat can attain. Yet Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, arguably the world’s two most powerful men (Joe Biden is barely in the running), have cultivated what appears to be a blossoming friendship.
Affection abounds. The two made pancakes together during a visit to Russia’s far east in 2018. A year later, Putin presented Xi with a chest full of ice cream on the Chinese president’s 66th birthday, shortly after Xi had bestowed Putin with the title of his “best and bosom friend.”
Yet the physical mismatch — the ponderous Xi always dwarfs his lean and hungry-looking companion — as well as the army of interpreters, dignitaries, and aides following the duo around, serve to give their public moments together a touch of surreal comedy.
Their relationship is in many ways analogous to the international situation between the countries that they rule. There, geographical and strategic mismatches abound between Russia and China, two powers that have nonetheless closed ranks against what they perceive as a common threat from the United States.
The “New Cold War” between the United States and China looks set to evolve into a more serious confrontation between the West and a Eurasian bloc. Such a Sino-Russian alliance would be perilous for the American-led order.
Indeed, even the mere existence of such an anti-American front testifies to two of Washington’s greatest policy failures in living memory. Russia, following the Soviet collapse, had ingratiated itself with the West until its skeptical turn in the 2000s. China, having opened its economy to investment and its politics to rapprochement, was meant to have developed into a liberal democracy. Both countries were, in a sense, “lost” by Washington. Could either of them be won back?
Recent events have brought the Russia-China friendship into relief. As of the writing of this piece, Russia has amassed a sizeable army on its border with Ukraine and is threatening to use it unless its former Soviet vassal is permanently barred from joining NATO. Earlier this month, massive anti-regime protests in Kazakhstan, a de facto client state of Russia, were swiftly crushed by Russian forces despite timid objections by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In the east, China’s own territorial ambitions in Taiwan and its surrounding seas are well-known and a source of perpetual anxiety for world leaders.
To be clear, Russia and China are not quite World War II-era Germany and Italy, scheming to divide their neighbors between themselves. Neither country gives overt sanction to the other’s claims. China has not voiced support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, nor does it recognize Abkhazia or South Ossetia, two self-proclaimed states that are widely considered by the international community to be Russian-occupied regions of Georgia. Russia, in turn, has not endorsed Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.
Nonetheless, the close relations between the two assist with their respective territorial ambitions in other ways. For Russia, economic integration with China partly compensates for the pain inflicted by Western sanctions in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea. Most notably, China is a ravenous consumer of Russian energy. While the U.S. may seek to dampen Russia’s vital oil exports — such as by attempting to block the startup of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Europe — China is Russian oil’s biggest customer, with a 31 percent share of exports that would certainly grow if prices were to fall from sanctions. China has also served this sanctions relief role for an array of other states hostile to the West, including Venezuela and Iran, both of which sold vast quantities of oil to the manufacturing giant despite American sanctions.
They have emerged as the leading state skeptics of liberalism and democracy.
Even more severe measures, such as the threat of excluding Russia from SWIFT and the global financial system, would also be a boon for China. Beijing has been seeking an opening to knock the U.S. dollar from its position as the undisputed global reserve currency. It has been preparing its own alternative system, the digital yuan, for such an occasion.
All the above may give the impression that the two countries are only close as a sort of hedge against American influence. There are, however, many other points on which Moscow and Beijing find common ground. They have emerged as the leading state skeptics of liberalism and democracy, despite Washington’s naïve prior attempts to integrate them into its global system. Materially, Russia is a resource-rich country with a middling industrial base while China is relatively resource-poor but possesses nearly a third of the world’s manufacturing output. Even if America were a non-factor, Russia and China would likely still have indispensable economic and political ties. It just so happens that Washington’s pushback has made the two believe that a more explicit partnership is necessary.
Despite their current arrangement, not all is rosy between the dragon and the bear. No matter how deep the friendship comes, the two powers are old expansionist empires with a storied shared history and the world’s sixth-longest land border; some friction is inevitable.
Any territorial claims that the two have on each other have, in theory, been settled: in 2004, Beijing accepted modest land concessions by Russia and ceased to claim Outer Manchuria, a massive portion of the Russian Far East that was annexed from the declining Qing Dynasty in 1860.
Despite the formal ending of claims, however, dissatisfaction and anxieties abound. Chinese ultranationalists, Han and Manchu alike, continue to agitate for the return of the ancestral Manchu homeland. And Russia, despite the Chinese government’s assurances, knows that the issue is buried but not dead. Moscow looks on warily to Heilongjiang, the Chinese border province whose population singlehandedly dwarfs the headcount of the entire Russian Far East six times over, and sees a frightening future in which demographic and economic gravity pulls the sparse east into China’s orbit.
In the meantime, territorial friction heats up elsewhere. Central Asia, long considered by Moscow to be within its exclusive sphere of influence, has seen engagement with Beijing soar as China aggressively expands its trade network westward. Both countries are also jockeying for influence in the Middle East. And both are hungrily eyeing the Arctic, which Russia sees as a golden meal ticket that is to be guarded closely and shared as little as possible, much to China’s chagrin.
Another fly in the soup, at least from China’s perspective, is the question of other relationships. Despite Russia’s awful reputation in the United States, it has managed to maintain cordial, or at the very least workable, relations with a diverse array of countries. In 2017 and 2018, U.S. policymakers and diplomats were rebuked by Germany when they attempted to dissuade their European ally from continuing the construction of the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline from Russia. Likewise, Chinese leaders fume in private about Russia’s weapons sales to India and Vietnam, states that Beijing considers to be hostile. This cultivation of alternate potential allies gives Russia crucial leverage over the much more politically isolated China.
This hedging of bets is necessary because ultimately, Russia sees China as a potentially existential threat. Though neither country’s leaders would say so publicly, Russia is undeniably the junior partner in the relationship; its economy is roughly an order of magnitude smaller and in those areas in which it is still ahead, such as certain military technologies, its lead is eroding rapidly.
This last point is the Achilles’ heel of the partnership. It is for this reason that any Russia-China front is unlikely to evolve into a formal alliance, and unlikelier still to become a fully integrated bloc. Moscow is not about to spurn the West for being a supposed threat to its sovereignty only to become subordinate to a powerful former enemy with many territorial grievances and a growing reputation for aggressive maneuvering. Indeed, China’s ruthless pragmatism in general precludes it from establishing the kind of benevolent hegemony that the United States enjoys with its immediate neighbors.
In light of this fact, U.S. and European politicians and think tanks have begun pondering ways in which to peel off Moscow from Beijing. Some have proposed a so-called “reverse Kissinger” in reference to U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s strategy of rapprochement with Mao’s China in the 1970s in order to further isolate the Soviet Union. Now, it is said, Russia is the more pliable member of the duo, with more anxieties to play to and more modest ambitions to compromise with.
Any Russia-China front is unlikely to evolve into a formal alliance, and unlikelier still to become a fully integrated bloc.
Of course, there are some complications with this proposed strategic pivot. By the time Kissinger had boarded his secret flight from Pakistan to Beijing in 1971, Mao’s China had spent over a decade drifting away from the Soviets, and the two had relations that were tense at best. Any similar split is only a hypothetical in the modern Russia-China relationship, and the two are currently growing closer, not further apart.
America’s foreign policy decision-makers, therefore, find themselves in the awkward position of bridging the gap between their vision of an amenable, Sinoskeptic Russia and the present reality of a hostile power that is threatening Eastern Europe.
President Joe Biden, not the most decisive man in the best of times, has struggled with this gap more than anyone else. Last week, he attracted derision from commentators in the U.S. and shock from European allies when he pondered out loud about what an appropriate response would be to a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine, as supposedly in contrast to a full-fledged invasion. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pushed back publicly, declaring on Twitter that “there are no minor incursions.”
This swift backlash is Washington’s conundrum in microcosm. More room for Russia at the table means less for America’s allies, particularly those that are most vulnerable and therefore most sensitive to any change in strategy. A more reconciliatory tone toward Russia means more tiptoeing around topics like its authoritarianism or human rights violations, weakening the liberal-democratic framework through which America engages the world.
To be fair, such compromises are conceivable and have ample historical precedent. Nixon’s reconciliation with China meant withdrawing support for Taiwan, a choice that seems questionable in retrospect, but which at the time helped to accelerate America’s victory in the Cold War.
Without a coherent grand strategy for China, there is little chance of one for Russia.
But pursuing such a strategy would only make sense in an environment akin to the Cold War. During the 1970s, the U.S. — from its leaders to its voters — understood that it was engaged in a “twilight struggle” against the Soviet Union and communism more broadly. It was only in this context that a decades-long strategic gamble, as rapprochement with Mao certainly was, could have conceivably paid off.
Does the United States’ leadership possess that kind of conviction now? With Biden in charge, certainly not. But what about more generally? Despite talk of Cold War 2.0, many American politicians, media figures, and business leaders remain unconvinced. Without a coherent grand strategy for China, there is little chance of one for Russia.
It’s difficult to imagine “best friends” Putin and Xi texting each other in their spare time. Likewise, the Russia-China relationship will likely remain an alliance of necessity for the foreseeable future. But so long as the United States vacillates in its actions and priorities, changes tack from one short-lived administration to another, and seeks to be simultaneously “collaborative” and “adversarial” (to quote Antony Blinken), this otherwise fragile Eurasian pact may survive to define the direction of the 21st century.
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