By Peter Apps
Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden opened the 100-nation “Summit for Democracy” by describing the authoritarian models of Russia and China as “the defining challenge of our time”. On Wednesday, the leaders of those two nations held their own video conference to show a united front in response.
Coming amid an announcement of a potential Russian-Chinese moon base, a three-way Indian-Chinese-Russian summit, and against the backdrop of worsening relations between the West and both Moscow and Beijing, Wednesday’s call between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Xinping was their 37th virtual or physical meeting since 2013.
The two will meet for the first time in person since 2019 at the Winter Olympics in February. Calling each other “dear friend” and “old friend”, they have moved their countries closer to each other during the pandemic, presenting themselves as a growing, increasingly united counterweight to an unpredictable United States and faltering West.
That included discussing an “independent financial infrastructure” on Wednesday that would reduce the effects of any U.S. or Western sanctions. Other officials briefed the prospects for a joint Russian-Chinese moon base and a three-way Russia-China-India summit, all unambiguously aimed at limiting or balancing the reach of Washington and its allies.
How far that truly goes remains much less clear. The Chinese statement pointedly failed to reference either NATO or Ukraine, in which China is currently the largest foreign investor and which the United States and its allies worry may be on the brink of a new invasion by Russian forces.
The Russian statement, in contrast, contained an expression of support for China’s position on Taiwan, which it considers a rogue province and has increasingly threatened to use military force against. That might indicate which of the two nations has the greater need of imminent support – although Beijing is almost certainly glad to have Putin as the most high-profile foreign guest at the Olympics following a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott.
In truth, neither the Russia-China partnership nor the much larger number of alliances, friendships and other complicated relations of the United States are simple, nor likely to become so. While growing strains with the United States inevitably pushed Russia and China together, they have their own competing interests and alliances – not least their complicated relations with India, a friend to Russia but strategic foe to China.
They also have their own long-running rivalry in Central Asia, as well as both trying to build new spheres of influence in the Balkans in particular. America’s alliances, however, are at least equally complex – as the Summit for Democracy perhaps unwittingly showed.
The invitation list pointedly excluded to NATO members – Hungary and Turkey – accused of becoming increasingly authoritarian, as well as other U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates and Singapore, of which similar things could be said.
Russia’s increasingly aggressive stance in Eastern Europe and Beijing’s in Southeast Asia have inevitably pushed many of America’s allies closer together, particularly in Asia where Japan, India and Australia now form the “Quad” alongside the United States. What America’s allies would do in the event of an attack on Taiwan is much less clear, however.
In other areas, both Moscow and particularly Beijing have managed to draw once-loyal U.S. allies into a more complex position. This week, it emerged that the sale of U.S. F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates would likely be put on hold, in part reportedly because of concerns their secretive technology might find its way to Beijing, which has built its own increasingly close relationship with the Gulf nation.
In Europe, France responded with fury to being pushed out of a submarine deal with Australia by the formation of the new AUKUS partnership with the United States and United Kingdom. Washington has also sometimes struggles to bring European states into a united front on Russia, including on the completion of key gas pipelines and on Ukraine.
Ironically, Russia’s recent rhetoric and military sabre rattling on Ukraine have delivered the greatest unity in years, prompting Germany to join Washington in threatening to block the opening of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
In recent days, Moscow has demanded NATO states and the United States make a number of concessions they are unlikely to make, including pledging not to expand further into Eastern Europe or support former Soviet nations such as Georgia and Ukraine. But the United States has also said it will not send troops if Russian mounts an invasion.
That makes Russian-Chinese statements over creating new financial networks separate to the United States and West more important – the United States has vowed that military aggression would
bring crippling sanctions, potentially including freezing Russia from the SWIFT international banking system. More sophisticated Russian-Chinese financial networks might make that harder, although they would need to be adopted by other major nations to be effective.
China’s nationalist Global Times tabloid – published by the Chinese Communist Party and always pushing a resolutely anti-American line – tied the confrontations over Ukraine and Taiwan firmly together in an editorial, warning that while the United States might impose sanctions it would prove unwilling to defend either with serious U.S. military force.
“Although the U.S. has an advantage in terms of strength, it cannot crush either China or Russia,” it said. “Having a strategic collision with either of the two countries will bring unbearable costs to the U.S. It’s a nightmare for Washington when China and Russia join hands.”
Those words inevitably contain an element of wishful thinking. What is clear, however, is that both Moscow and Beijing expect their confrontations with the United States and its allies to intensify, and believe that sticking together gives them the best chance of weathering those confrontations and winning them.