The leaders of China and Russia have met this Friday in Beijing shortly before the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. This 21st century quasi-alliance is reshaping the post-war world order.
Half a century ago, on February 21, 1972, the historic handshake between Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong changed the geometry of the Cold War. Historians dubbed this visit “the week that changed the world.” He also laid the groundwork for the United States to start a process of rapprochement with Moscow. Yet fifty years later, with the US-China relationship being described as a new cold war, Moscow and Beijing are moving closer.
Last week, in the midst of the Ukraine crisis, Beijing publicly endorsed Moscow’s “security concerns” about NATO. On Thursday, he issued a statement saying that the Chinese foreign minister and his Russian counterpart were coordinated on regional issues of common interest, such as Ukraine, Afghanistan and the Korean peninsula.
In reference to the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, David Shullman, director of the Global China Hub at the Atlantic Council, has indicated that “this is his 38 [encuentro] since 2013, [y] is particularly significant given the foreign policy challenges both leaders face.”
“Putin appreciates China’s public gestures in support of Russia’s position on Ukraine that show that the Kremlin is not isolated internationally,” he said. “For China, Putin’s visit is an important show of support at a time when the US, UK and other countries are carrying out a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics,” he says.
This week’s meeting will be Xi’s first in-person interaction with a foreign leader in nearly two years. The Chinese propaganda machine was launched days ago. In the state media, the name of the Russian president heads the official list of foreign dignitaries.
Earlier this week, the state news agency Xinhua praised the friendship between the two countries in a lengthy article. “Sino-Russian leaders’ ‘winter Olympic date’ opens a new chapter in bilateral relations,” the headline read. Since its publication, other prominent state-owned web pages have echoed this news.
The United States and other Western countries will closely follow the meeting between Xi and Putin. Inevitably, according to analysts, the Ukraine issue will be high on the agenda. In 2014, in a show of defiance in the face of blunt criticism from the West over the annexation of Crimea, Putin approached Xi in search of an ally. Beijing showed its support by signing a 30-year, $400 billion gas deal.
As tensions in Ukraine escalate, Russia is again facing international pressure and seeking foreign allies in its confrontation with the west. During a round table discussion on Wednesday, Alexander Gabuev, chairman of the Russia Program in Asia-Pacific at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that in the current situation, Russia “needs China much more than the other way around.”
Referring to the mood in Moscow, Gabuev said that “China is very pragmatic and has a lot of influence… China’s negotiating position is getting stronger day by day, so better to sign an agreement with China today than tomorrow.” Putin arrives at the meeting with Xi with the intention of closing agreements. The Kremlin embarks on this unusual foreign visit with an agenda of 15 contracts and agreements it wants to sign with Chinese leaders, including a joint statement that will “reflect the common views of Russia and China on key global issues, including those of security”.
Everything seems to indicate that the Kremlin will seek formal support from China in its conflict with the countries that make up NATO. “Beijing supports Russia’s demands for security guarantees, China shares the position that the security of one country cannot be guaranteed by harming the security of another,” Kremlin adviser Yuri Ushakov said. He has also stressed that they request “effective mechanisms to guarantee security in Europe through negotiations.”
In an article published in the Chinese state news agency Xinhua, Putin has also pointed to joint efforts to expand payments in national currencies and create “mechanisms to offset the negative impact of unilateral sanctions.” US lawmakers have threatened to impose the “mother of all sanctions” if Russia launches a new invasion of Ukraine.
Energy, key point
At the meeting, Putin was accompanied by several high-level diplomats, high-level officials, the foreign minister, the energy minister and the general director of Rosneft (an oil company owned by the Russian government), Igor Sechin. All this indicates that economic and energy cooperation is one of the central points.
Separately, Ushakov advanced that the two sides would also discuss plans to build the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline, which would allow Russia to divert gas from Europe through its controversial pipeline. North Stream 2 and sell it instead in the Chinese market. However, even if the two sides reach an agreement, the pipeline would take years to build.
Putin’s trip abroad will be his third since the start of the COVID pandemic at the end of 2019. In January, Beijing announced that bilateral trade between China and Russia reached nearly $147 billion last year, more than double the figure of 68,000 million dollars in 2015 after Western sanctions. Last week, senior diplomats from both countries agreed to step up coordination on Asian affairs. The agreement is the latest measure that highlights the strengthening of the ties of both powers in a context of pressure from the West.
“At no other time in history have the two countries had such a close relationship and continue to strengthen strategic and economic ties, with the subtext that no US-led effort to disrupt their leadership or strategic interests will succeed.” Shullman explained.
Professor Sharyl Cross, director of the Kozmetsky Center at St Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, agrees with this statement. “The two leaders will emphasize their increasingly close security and economic relationship, as well as their common perspectives on a host of global security issues that challenge US global influence and the liberal international order.”
Cross has pointed out that both Moscow and Beijing would benefit from the division between the democratic nations and the transatlantic security alliance to respond to the Ukraine conflict: “The United States and its allies should think about how to avoid the rapprochement of these two great powers and in ways to manage the simultaneous challenges of Russia and China in different regions (Europe and Asia)”.
But Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, has downplayed the upcoming meeting and doesn’t think anything new will come out of the meeting.
“China has pronounced itself on the latest developments. Beijing’s statements can be considered very favorable to Russia, but with some important reservations,” he notes: “For example, China has never committed to any military involvement in the event of a conflict. And of the Similarly, despite Putin’s prior support for Beijing’s position on Taiwan, he has also never committed to military involvement in the event of a major conflict. [entre China y Estados Unidos].”
For Shi, the kind of foreign dignitaries traveling to Beijing this week is instead more revealing of the current state of affairs on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s visit to Beijing. These leaders range from Putin to the President of Egypt, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, to the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
“If we look at those who diplomatically boycotted the Winter Games and those who came to Beijing, we can see some indications that the world is indeed heading towards bipolarization.”
Translated by Emma Revert