Russia and China BFFFF – for the foreseeable future

Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Beijing was a rousing success, according to Russian and Chinese media.

That’s what they always say. 

But what’s the reality? Are the Chinese and Russians really in a “no limits partnership” or is it a shotgun marriage that will last only until one is free to stab the other in the back?

A friend asked for my take, so here it is:

This is not good. Putin’s and Xi Jinping’s strategic interests align – and they both smell weakness and confusion. They’ll keep pushing – including using proxies Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba and others. And they’ll light more fires as they go along, including  encouraging secessionists from New Caledonia to Yap to Guam.

And Russian and Chinese militaries have been conducting joint training and exercises since the early 2000s and in earnest from the 2010s. They held combined naval and air operations near and around Japan, and farther afield in the South Atlantic, Baltic Sea, Mediterranean Sea, South China Sea, Indian Ocean and even near Alaska. And there are ground exercises in Siberia.

One suspects both leaders see a window of opportunity that they couldn’t have imagined four years ago and are aiming to seize the advantage over their enemies – America and its friends, in particular.

Yes, but …

Don’t the Russians have a visceral dislike of Chinese? Yes they do. But it doesn’t matter. Not right now, anyway.

Don’t the Chinese want to retake the territory they lost via conquest and unfair treaties to the Russians in past centuries? Yes, they do – and they think that, when the time comes, they’ll take it back.  

For now it doesn’t matter. They’ll get it “when the time is right” – as they said in 1974, when Portugal offered to give back Macau but Beijing wanted to resolve the Hong Kong question first.

Isn’t Putin afraid of getting rolled by the Chinese, who see him at a disadvantage? Or waking up and finding five Shenzhens on his side of the eastern border – where there are few Russians but tens of millions of Chinese on the other side? Probably. Is that going to affect his decisions? No.

For now he and Xi Jinping see an opportunity to re-set the world and they’re going to keep the pressure on, and in as many places as possible.

As he bade adieu to Putin at the Kremlin in March, 2023, Xi said: “Right now there are changes – the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years – and we are the ones driving these changes together.”

Putin reportedly replied: “I agree.”

This shouldn’t have surprised anyone, considering the nature of the two regimes. 

Yes, there may be limits to their military cooperation but these are ultimately mutually reinforcing – as they serve to put the United States and its friends (and people who might become friends) on the back foot. Meanwhile, a good chunk of the so-called Global South (developing countries) sees the Russians and Chinese as having the momentum.

Look what happened recently in Niger, where the Americans were told to get lost – and the Russians, “Welcome aboard.”

And it’s the geopolitical back-stopping that really matters. Consider how the United Nations has been totally neutered – as if that were even possible. 

North Korean sanctions? Dead.

Sanctions-proofing

Ultimately, the two nations are sanctions-proofing themselves – further weakening the US and the free world’s ability to deter, much less prevail against, China and Russia – one-on-one or against both.

Consider the economic advantages for Moscow and Beijing. Cheap energy and food from Russia, while Russia gets vital components for its military. And China’s proxies, Iran and North Korea, provide the Russians with all the drones, missiles, ammunition and artillery shells they need.

And then there’s the potential of Russia and China getting out of the US dollar stranglehold – which is maybe the biggest hammer the United States still has in its tool kit.

The adults in the room

Putin is ruthless and also smart. Maybe he was only a mid-level KGB officer, but he has played and gotten the better of world leaders for 25 years. 

Remember George Bush – “I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Remember Barack Obama’s message on contentious missile defense issues, conveyed via Putin deputy Dmitri Medvedev – “This is my last election…. After my election, I have more flexibility.” France’s Emmanuel Macron and Japan’s Shinzo Abe fared no better in dealing with Putin.

Xi Jinping hasn’t been at it as long as Putin, but he’s been no less successful.

Who on Team Biden scares the Chinese and the Russians? Nobody.

Biden’s foreign policy team crowed that “the adults” were in charge once they arrived in 2021. 

They even revealed US intelligence to the PRC while Putin was building up forces on Ukraine’s border in 2022. The theory was that Beijing would use its influence to dissuade Putin from invading. Instead,the Chinese passed along the intel and gave Putin the go-ahead.

The “adults” haven’t done anything since then that’s slowed down the Russians or the Chinese – or the Iranians or North Koreans or anyone else.

Putin and Xi might be forgiven for thinking, “If not now, when?”

But come on, Newsham, are things that bad?

I’ll concede there may be a silver lining in all this. But if there is one it appears to be well hidden.

One hopes “the adults” don’t get another four years to work more of their magic. Though Putin and Xi wouldn’t mind.

Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Beijing was a rousing success, according to Russian and Chinese media.

That’s what they always say. 

But what’s the reality? Are the Chinese and Russians really in a “no limits partnership” or is it a shotgun marriage that will last only until one is free to stab the other in the back?

A friend asked for my take, so here it is:

This is not good. Putin’s and Xi Jinping’s strategic interests align – and they both smell weakness and confusion. They’ll keep pushing – including using proxies Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba and others. And they’ll light more fires as they go along, including  encouraging secessionists from New Caledonia to Yap to Guam.

And Russian and Chinese militaries have been conducting joint training and exercises since the early 2000s and in earnest from the 2010s. They held combined naval and air operations near and around Japan, and farther afield in the South Atlantic, Baltic Sea, Mediterranean Sea, South China Sea, Indian Ocean and even near Alaska. And there are ground exercises in Siberia.

One suspects both leaders see a window of opportunity that they couldn’t have imagined four years ago and are aiming to seize the advantage over their enemies – America and its friends, in particular.

Yes, but …

Don’t the Russians have a visceral dislike of Chinese? Yes they do. But it doesn’t matter. Not right now, anyway.

Don’t the Chinese want to retake the territory they lost via conquest and unfair treaties to the Russians in past centuries? Yes, they do – and they think that, when the time comes, they’ll take it back.  

For now it doesn’t matter. They’ll get it “when the time is right” – as they said in 1974, when Portugal offered to give back Macau but Beijing wanted to resolve the Hong Kong question first.

Isn’t Putin afraid of getting rolled by the Chinese, who see him at a disadvantage? Or waking up and finding five Shenzhens on his side of the eastern border – where there are few Russians but tens of millions of Chinese on the other side? Probably. Is that going to affect his decisions? No.

For now he and Xi Jinping see an opportunity to re-set the world and they’re going to keep the pressure on, and in as many places as possible.

As he bade adieu to Putin at the Kremlin in March, 2023, Xi said: “Right now there are changes – the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years – and we are the ones driving these changes together.”

Putin reportedly replied: “I agree.”

This shouldn’t have surprised anyone, considering the nature of the two regimes. 

Yes, there may be limits to their military cooperation but these are ultimately mutually reinforcing – as they serve to put the United States and its friends (and people who might become friends) on the back foot. Meanwhile, a good chunk of the so-called Global South (developing countries) sees the Russians and Chinese as having the momentum.

Look what happened recently in Niger, where the Americans were told to get lost – and the Russians, “Welcome aboard.”

And it’s the geopolitical back-stopping that really matters. Consider how the United Nations has been totally neutered – as if that were even possible. 

North Korean sanctions? Dead.

Sanctions-proofing

Ultimately, the two nations are sanctions-proofing themselves – further weakening the US and the free world’s ability to deter, much less prevail against, China and Russia – one-on-one or against both.

Consider the economic advantages for Moscow and Beijing. Cheap energy and food from Russia, while Russia gets vital components for its military. And China’s proxies, Iran and North Korea, provide the Russians with all the drones, missiles, ammunition and artillery shells they need.

And then there’s the potential of Russia and China getting out of the US dollar stranglehold – which is maybe the biggest hammer the United States still has in its tool kit.

The adults in the room

Putin is ruthless and also smart. Maybe he was only a mid-level KGB officer, but he has played and gotten the better of world leaders for 25 years. 

Remember George Bush – “I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Remember Barack Obama’s message on contentious missile defense issues, conveyed via Putin deputy Dmitri Medvedev – “This is my last election…. After my election, I have more flexibility.” France’s Emmanuel Macron and Japan’s Shinzo Abe fared no better in dealing with Putin.

Xi Jinping hasn’t been at it as long as Putin, but he’s been no less successful.

Who on Team Biden scares the Chinese and the Russians? Nobody.

Biden’s foreign policy team crowed that “the adults” were in charge once they arrived in 2021. 

They even revealed US intelligence to the PRC while Putin was building up forces on Ukraine’s border in 2022. The theory was that Beijing would use its influence to dissuade Putin from invading. Instead,the Chinese passed along the intel and gave Putin the go-ahead.

The “adults” haven’t done anything since then that’s slowed down the Russians or the Chinese – or the Iranians or North Koreans or anyone else.

Putin and Xi might be forgiven for thinking, “If not now, when?”

But come on, Newsham, are things that bad?

I’ll concede there may be a silver lining in all this. But if there is one it appears to be well hidden.

One hopes “the adults” don’t get another four years to work more of their magic. Though Putin and Xi wouldn’t mind.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America.

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