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China and Russia Are More Inseparable Than Ever

China and Russia Are More Inseparable Than Ever

Monday, 20 June, 2022 - 04:30

Last week’s call between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping was timed to coincide with the latter’s birthday — but also to send a message. By reaffirming Beijing’s support for Moscow even as the Russian military is laying waste to a wide swath of Ukraine, the Russian and Chinese presidents were signaling to the West that their nations’ newly forged strategic alignment will endure.

This near-alliance between two autocratic behemoths presents the West with its greatest geopolitical challenge since the end of the Cold War. Finding some way to break it apart — as US President Richard Nixon managed with his outreach to Mao Zedong 50 years ago — would seem an obvious priority. Unfortunately, the conditions for such a stratagem don’t exist today as they did then.

A decade before Nixon’s shocking visit to Beijing, a clash of personalities and ideological visions between Mao and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had already laid the groundwork for the dissolution of their alliance. Abroad, Khrushchev sought peaceful coexistence with the West while Mao advocated confrontation. Domestically, Khrushchev initiated the process of de-Stalinization. Mao saw him as a weak-kneed revisionist who was betraying true communist ideals.

By contrast, Putin and Xi, who have met each other 38 times since 2013, are reportedly close friends. They share similar nationalist values and a profound antipathy toward the West. Each seeks to establish a sphere of influence in his nation’s geopolitical neighborhood and sees the US as the primary obstacle to his vision of national greatness.

In terms of national interest, Russia and China are more closely aligned today than any time since the end of the Cold War. Their relationship began as a marriage of convenience; each country saw tactical benefits from good ties even though they lacked deep strategic trust. In recent years, however, as their relations with the US-led West have turned increasingly hostile, the pairing has evolved into a marriage of necessity. Only close strategic alignment can reduce their mutual vulnerability.

There are, of course, several scenarios under which the new Beijing-Moscow axis might yet crumble. Most obviously, a regime change in Russia would demolish the ideological and strategic foundations of the Sino-Russian alignment. This could happen if Putin falls from power and democracy returns to Russia. But Western leaders would be unwise to bet on such an outcome.

Relations could also sour if Putin, like Mao in the early 1960s, were to grow disenchanted with China because Xi, like Khrushchev, chose to play the long game and preserve China’s economic ties with the West rather than provide unlimited support to Russia. Yet even then, Russia would have nowhere to turn as long as it remained isolated by the United States and Europe. Something from China is still better than nothing from the West.

In theory, another US-China rapprochement — a Nixon-to-China redux — could pull Beijing away from Moscow. But this, too, is a pipe dream. The US has made it abundantly clear that it sees China as its greatest long-term threat. For his part, Xi isn’t likely to grasp any olive branch from US President Joe Biden, which would inevitably look like a tactical ploy.

The only plausible strategy is also the least palatable — and probably impossible — politically. The US and Europe could focus on winning over Russia, the weaker party in the axis.

Xi has long worried about the West tempting Putin away with major concessions. In their virtual meeting last December, Xi openly praised Putin for rejecting “attempts to sow discord between Russia and China,” inadvertently revealing his fears about Western efforts to accommodate the Russian leader.

A decisive military defeat of Russia that resulted in Putin’s fall would obviously make the task easier. But such a scenario is virtually unthinkable: Nuclear powers can always resort to the ultimate weapon of mass destruction when faced with a catastrophic defeat.

Alternatively, the West could seek a quick end to the war on terms that favor Putin. The Russian leader would in theory then have more space to maneuver and limit his dependence on China. Whether Western governments have enough political space themselves, not to mention will, to engineer such an outcome, though, looks increasingly unlikely.


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