[Analytics] Is China and Russia’s ‘marriage of convenience’ Donald Trump’s worst strategic blunder?

Xi Jinping shakes hands with “best friend” Vladimir Putin after a joint news conference in Moscow on Wednesday. Photo: EPE-EFE. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have ushered in a new era for bilateral ties, after Washington labelled them as ‘revisionist powers’ and its biggest threat. US president’s increasingly hostile and confrontational approach has brought Beijing and Moscow closer, according to analysts. Shi Jiangtao specially for the South China Morning Post.

When US President Donald Trump and his hawkish advisers singled out Beijing and Moscow as “revisionist powers” and Washington’s biggest threat over a year ago, they may not have foreseen an alliance developing between the two countries against a common foe.

During his visit to Russia this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping and “best friend” and counterpart Vladimir Putin ushered in a new era for bilateral ties between the two countries that were communist rivals during the cold war.

According to former diplomats and analysts, the “bromance” between the two leaders that has been splashed across both countries’ state-controlled media is not just a show of resentment at Trump’s big-stick diplomacy, but of the geostrategic implications on the shifting global political and economic order.

Xi’s three-day tour, his eighth official visit to Russia since taking power in 2012, comes amid worsening tensions between China and the United States over trade and technology.

It has so far seen two joint statements – including one denouncing Trump’s unilateral, disruptive foreign policy – and a raft of deals on natural gas, security and technology worth more than US$20 billion.

“This year marks the 70th anniversary of our diplomatic ties and China’s ties with Russia are deepening at a time of profound change in the global geopolitical landscape,” said Ma Zhengang, a former Chinese ambassador to Britain.

Ma, also former president of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, said the so-called new era of China-Russia ties was apparently a reference to the US’ changing role in world affairs.

“It has steadily withdrawn from the global leadership role and waged an offensive against China after years of hostility towards Russia. That has given us new impetus to develop closer ties with Moscow,” he said.

Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, also said China’s efforts to edge closer to Russia underlined changes in their relations with the US.

“The context has changed. The restart of the trade war, the US measures against Huawei as well as China’s responses suggest that China and the US are entering a process of decoupling, not only in the economic relationship but more generally,” Tsang said. “This implies a structural change in the global strategic line-up. As this progresses, China under Xi will need to strengthen its capacity to face the US and its allies. Putin’s Russia comes in handy in this context.”

In a series of meetings with Putin in Moscow and St Petersburg, Xi repeatedly said both countries stood at a historical juncture in their pursuit of development and national rejuvenation.

As nuclear-armed powers, Xi said China and Russia should boost cooperation, forge a stronger strategic partnership and fight against “illicit moves to curb the development of emerging economies” at a time of greater uncertainty.

“Under the current circumstances, the two sides should deepen strategic coordination, not only to safeguard the interests of China and Russia, but also to defend basic international norms and justice as well as world peace, security and stability,” the Chinese president said on Thursday.

Xi described Putin, who he has met nearly 30 times, as “my best and bosom friend”, which according to Katie Stallard-Blanchette, a fellow at the Wilson Centre in Washington, was “unusually effusive”.

In a lengthy statement after talks between the two leaders in Moscow on Wednesday, hailing a new era for bilateral ties, both praised their frequent exchanges and upgraded relations.

Apart from listing 16 potential areas for future cooperation – ranging from Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to joint space and Arctic explorations – almost half of the 10,000-word document focuses on their shared approach to international crises and issues such as Iran, Syria and North Korea.

In a second joint statement on countering threats and challenges to international security, Xi and Putin were much less restrained, naming the US directly about 10 times.

They criticised Washington’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), a key cold war-era arms control pact, saying it would “undermine strategic stability”.
Xi and Putin also raised concern about the growing threat of an arms race in space, calling for a legally binding international agreement banning weapons in orbit.

“A ban on deployment of any weapons in space would avert a serious threat to global peace and security,” the statement said.

Shi Ze, a former Chinese diplomat in Russia and a senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, said the statements set the tone for bilateral ties in the years to come against the backdrop of Washington’s deteriorating ties with both China and Russia.

“The strongly worded statement lashing out at the US is fairly unusual and shows the urgency for Beijing to join hands with Moscow on global issues that are considered their core national interests,” he said. “For China’s part, it also underlines the Chinese government’s willingness and readiness to play a leading role to counter efforts that will undermine the existing global security structure.”

Russia’s ties with the US are at a low point, with Putin concerned about more sanctions from the US and its allies over the crisis in Ukraine, the war in Syria and allegations the Kremlin meddled in the 2016 US presidential elections.

According to a poll last year by the Levada Centre in Moscow, while more than 50 per cent of Russian respondents said they disliked the US, three-quarters of them viewed China positively. The US Pew Research Centre found similar results from a poll in October, with over 65 per cent of Russians seeing China favourably.

According to Stallard-Blanchette, for Putin, with Russia still subject to international sanctions and searching for ways to deliver economic growth, China represents a lucrative potential market for the country’s energy resources.

“Xi needs Putin less on the economic front, but recognises the potential for shared geopolitical interests, and the benefit of a powerful ally, also a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council, who is equally opposed to the idea of US hegemony,” she said.

Analysts noted that Xi’s visit coincided with ceremonies marking the 75 anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy attended by Trump and other leaders of major Western countries.

“There was great symbolism in the fact that two of America’s WWII allies, without whom there would be no victory, were not only absent from the D-Day celebration in Europe but were instead elevating their relations to the highest possible level short of an official alliance against the US,” said Gal Luft, co-director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. “If anyone needed a reminder that the world’s power structure has been transformed, then June 5, 2019 was it.”

Luft and other analysts agreed that it was the need to hedge against Trump’s increasingly hostile and confrontational approach that had brought Beijing and Moscow closer.

“Xi’s visit may not have been timed to coincide with the escalation of tension between the US and China, the reality is that China is seeking international support, partners or even allies,” said Yun Sun, a senior associate with the East Asia Programme at the Stimson Centre.

Luft said Trump had pushed Beijing and Moscow together.

“It is Trump who in his national security strategy of 2017 first lumped China and Russia together as two ‘revisionist powers’, effectively treating them as two peas in a pod,” he said. “Fuelling their complementary grievances and fears he sent Russia and China into each other’s arms rather than finding ways to keep them apart. This will go down as the worst strategic blunder in US history.”

Luft also said that compared with Trump touting his good ties with Xi, an alliance between the Chinese leader and Putin was more plausible.

“Trump likes to say that Xi is his friend. This is a farce. There is no true friendship there. Friends do not stab each other in the back. The same cannot be said about Xi’s relations with Putin. These two may not be soul mates but they have much more in common than Trump and Xi,” he said.

But despite their stronger ties, few analysts believed China and Russia would be able to forge a meaningful alliance against the US.

Fraser Cameron, a former British diplomat and European Commission adviser and director of the EU-Asia Centre, described it as “a marriage of convenience”.

He said beyond all the bonhomie, Moscow was suspicious of China’s belt and road trade and infrastructure scheme that includes projects in Central Asia, which Russia sees as its patch.

“[And] China looks down on Russia for failing to maintain communist control and its poor economic performance. Who wants to buy a Russian car or computer?” Cameron asked.

Yun said the relationship was more of an alignment than an alliance, “because Beijing doesn’t want to be bogged down”.

“But now with Washington becoming more hostile towards China by the day, the benefit of a solid partnership with Russia outweighs its cost significantly,” she said.

China’s diplomatic priority was to prevent relations with the US from worsening, according to Ma.
“China will not become an ally for Moscow or join hands with Russia in an anti-US alliance. Despite all the grievances, we have no intention of challenging the US hegemony,” he said.

“Xi has stressed during his trip to Russia that China wants to safeguard its own rights on development and international affairs. It wants to avoid further deterioration in China-US ties because continued tensions or even a cold war is in the interest of neither country. But it remains to be seen how the two sides can together get those damaged ties back on track,” he said.

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