At the conclusion of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s carefully orchestrated Moscow summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader personally escorted his guest to his car. For some observers, Putin’s departure courtesy was a rare gesture for the taciturn Russian strongman. But to others it presented an insight into current relations between China and Russia: Xi may have journeyed to Moscow, but it was Putin who played the valet.
Last fall, in another autocratic lovefest between Xi and Putin, the two declared a “limitless friendship.” The driver for their bromance is hostility to the United States and to what they see as America’s “hegemony, domination and bullying.” So together they are standing up to Uncle Sam.
But even a “limitless friendship” has its limitations. China is on the move in Asia and Africa and is gaining international influence. Russia is frozen in place and at risk. Russia has economic problems and is deep into a frustrating war effort against Ukraine that is draining human, economic and political resources. As observed by U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, Russia’s problems have relegated Putin to “junior partner” status in his relationship with Xi.
So what did last week’s summit accomplish? Many assumed that Xi would announce a plan for the delivery of weapons from China to assist Russia in its war effort. But no such public announcement was made. Instead, Xi continued to project himself as an international peace broker, seeking to build on the credit China claims for the recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
At this point, it isn’t clear where the China-Russia relationship is headed. While Xi and Putin can continue to tweak America, any Ukraine-related alliance will likely bolster Western unity and opposition. Western nations will continue to provide military and financial support to Ukraine and their efforts will be bolstered by the once-neutral Finland and Sweden as they join NATO and the opposition chorus.
Even though Xi didn’t promise military support, he did continue his embrace of Putin. And he did that just as an arrest warrant was issued against Putin by the International Criminal Court. The growing Xi-Putin relationship worries Western leaders. It could lead to further downgrading of trade with China and upgrading of sanctions and military preparedness.
In all events, the lines of power in the China-Russia relationship are changing. For the United States, that probably means continuing support for what is becoming a proxy war in Ukraine, while gearing up for what could be a Cold War with China. But that will likely be a different kind of Cold War from the one that followed World War II. This time, ideology will play much less of a role. Instead, it will be driven by some mixture of brute strength, intimidation and economic dominance. And the U.S. will need strong leadership to navigate those confrontations.
In the meantime, Putin and Xi are looking for opportunities to project strength and control and boost their prestige. Last week’s summit was one such occasion. And in that one, Xi came out on top. It will be interesting to see what happens next, as Xi and Putin continue to explore the parameters of their pledge of “limitless friendship.” ■