Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing recently. He also had extensive discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping on a variety of global topics while he was there. Following their summit, Russia and China issued a lengthy 99-paragraph joint statement outlining how they came to share viewpoints on a number of global and regional issues.
The visit was important since it was their first face-to-face meeting since 2019; Xi has not travelled for any meetings with foreign leaders since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in early 2020.
Both sides are under pressure from the US and the West, which lends their collaboration some substance. It’s also worth noting that there are no major current disagreements that could stymie this collaboration. Both are authoritarian nations on an intellectual level, attempting to block the development of liberal democratic and human rights principles both domestically and internationally. In fact, the expansion of liberal ideas around the world has the potential to harm the elites of both countries: Putin and his kleptocratic cronies in the Kremlin, as well as Xi and the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
Both governments have railed against liberal concepts, with Putin attempting to destabilise liberal democracies, especially during the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and Chinese diplomats continually condemning these values and exposing any departure by their proponents.
While these ideals are vital in solidifying Russian-Chinese ties, strategic factors provide a stronger foundation for this new partnership. In Europe, Russia’s fall after the end of the Cold War left it vulnerable. The majority of its former Warsaw Pact partners have joined NATO, including Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (now Czechia and Slovakia), Romania, and Bulgaria, as well as the three former Soviet Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. However, as Russia’s economy and power have grown over the last two decades, Moscow has become increasingly vocal about the situation in Central Europe.
In 2008, Putin had some success in Georgia, and in 2014, he had some success in Crimea, as well as the invasion in Syria. Russia wants a buffer to the west, and the threat of Ukraine sliding away from Moscow’s control appears to be a driving force behind Moscow’s current belligerent posture. However, any Russian intervention will unify the West, needing the support of a big ally like Xi’s China.
China is affected by the same forces. China has become far less concerned with displaying a “peaceful rise” under Xi and far more interested in demonstrating that it has already risen. China is now economically on par with the United States, and its manufacturing power, along with its absorption into the global economy, offers it tremendous leverage. China has not shied away from leveraging its power to exert trade pressure on other countries, including Australia, South Korea, and Japan.
China is now demanding parity in status with the US, which Beijing fears it will not receive. China, like Russia, sees the US as a roadblock to its objectives – in China’s case, domination in Asia to begin with. As a result, it’s not surprising that these two powers would band together to oppose the US and the West.
These powers’ mutual support is reflected in the joint statement. China’s backing for Russian measures “to provide long-term legally binding security assurances in Europe” must please Russia much. Despite the fact that the joint statement makes no mention of Ukraine, China has stated unequivocally that both countries “oppose further NATO enlargement and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideologized cold war approaches, to respect the sovereignty, security, and interests of other countries.”
China supports Russian NATO expansion aspirations, much as Russia supports China’s perspective of the Indo-Pacific and the illegitimacy of the United States’ role there. For example, the two countries are “against the establishment of closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region,” according to the joint declaration, and “remain very attentive about the damaging impact of the United States’ Indo-Pacific policy on regional peace and stability.”