Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow did not generate much interest in the United States or other Western nations. But it deserved more attention than it got because a Russian-Chinese alliance, even a loose or temporary one, could have serious consequences for the United States and the West in a world challenged by change and growing pockets of instability.
While Xi’s trip was his first as China’s top leader—and he was the first foreign statesman to visit Russia’s Strategic Command and the first honored with a spectacular cavalry honor guard at the Kremlin—the results of his visit appeared short on specifics. The two countries signed impressive energy-cooperation agreements, but most of them were more declarations of intent than binding contracts. A longstanding dispute over pricing of Russia’s natural gas, which has blocked deals between Beijing and Moscow for some time, was not fully resolved, although preliminary understandings were reached.
A senior Obama administration official told me that Russian and Chinese leaders were trying hard to get Western attention to win additional leverage. And, indeed, the Russian media’s anticipation of the Chinese leader’s visit supports this impression. However, Russian coverage afterward suggested that the meetings were less than historic. Vremya, the top Russian television Sunday news program on the state-controlled Channel One, made Xi’s visit the number three item on the program, after the death of Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky and the Cyprus bailout crisis. The announcer mentioned that “a war of nerves” over energy pricing continued literally up to the moment the new agreements were signed; it is clear that serious heavy lifting will be necessary to finalize contracts this year, as promised.
Still, as the same U.S. official acknowledged, China and Russia are doing serious things that Americans should not take lightly. Their bilateral trade reached $88 billion last year, and President Vladimir Putin and President Xi both made clear that they expected the number to grow quickly. If implemented, the energy agreements would give China an unprecedented role in Russian gas and oil development. They would also give Moscow a meaningful alternative to its increasingly problematic energy relationship with European Union countries.
But it is in geopolitics more than in economics where the convergence of the Chinese and Russian positions is becoming particularly apparent. Both powers are deeply unhappy with the U.S.-led and Western-dominated world order. They feel that a new harmony in transatlantic relations has diminished American and European willingness to consider non-Western perspectives, including China’s and Russia’s.
That’s why the Chinese and Russian double vetoes in United Nations Security Council deliberations over Syria may be just the tip of the iceberg. As Xi stated, “We have decided in the future to further increase our coordination in dealing with key international issues. We are determined even more decisively to defend the goals and the principles of the UN charter as well as universally recognized norms of international relations.” While both Russian and Chinese leaders were careful not to be provocative vis-a-vis the West, this statement left little doubt regarding whom they believe is threatening those “universally recognized norms.” Andranik Migranyan, a prominent Russian political analyst well-connected to the Kremlin, asked rhetorically in The National Interest whether, notwithstanding a number of common Russian and U.S. strategic national interests, there might be “a greater convergence in Russian and Chinese interests on the matter of containing Washington’s arrogant and unilateral foreign policy that attempts to dominate the world.”
The fundamental pillar of Chinese-Russian strategic cooperation is their shared concern over any Western attempts to influence their domestic political processes. Both nations have questionable democratic legitimacy, pervasive corruption and inter-ethnic tensions, and leaders of both nations view protecting their sovereignty from foreign—especially U.S. and EU—interference as a paramount priority. As a result, public American and European pressure to improve Chinese and Russian governance does not simply fall on deaf ears but comes across as a direct threat to the survival of the two governments. From the perspective of these leaders, U.S. and European military intervention to overturn regimes in the greater Middle East, and support for anti-government protesters elsewhere, poses a similar but less immediate danger to them.
Those skeptical of a lasting strategic alliance between China and Russia are quite right to point out that Moscow and Beijing are both more interested in partnership with the West than with one another. China’s trade with the United States and the European Union dwarfs its trade with Russia. Furthermore, their long history of mutual animosity and suspicion along a 2,700-mile border creates significant barriers to genuine mutual trust.
But even if an enduring strategic alliance is probably not in the cards, this says little about the possibility of shorter-term tactical agreements with profound international consequences. It may be instructive to consider some history involving Russia’s relationship with the West in an earlier time. In 1863, responding to French pressure to introduce liberal reforms in Poland, Russia’s Tsar Alexander II told the French Ambassador, “Please tell your Emperor that if, God forbid, I would have to move into a camp hostile to him, I would consider myself extremely unhappy.” Predictably, the Tsar’s unhappiness did not deter Napoleon III, who continued and, with England, actually intensified diplomatic pressure on Russia.
The French-English pressure did not succeed, however, and Alexander II proceeded with a brutal crackdown against the Polish rebellion. Moreover, as he warned his French counterpart, the Tsar moved quietly but decisively into an alliance hostile to the French—namely, a close partnership with Prussia masterfully arranged by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. In 1870, with no need to worry about Russian opposition, Prussia crushed France, removed Napoleon III from power, and established a unified Germany, thus creating a totally new political map of Europe.
Of course, the Russian-German alliance did not last, and Russia switched sides to fight Germany alongside the French and the British during World War I. But what happened in Europe between 1870 and the Russian-German estrangement decades later was hardly insignificant. Nor was it insignificant when Hitler and Stalin entered into another unsustainable alliance in 1939. That deal, which did not last even two years, drew Europe and the world into an apocalyptic crisis.
With so much at stake, officials in Washington and European capitals seem recklessly complacent about the growing warmth in China-Russia relations. If China, the world’s most populous country and likely soon to be its number one economy, is aligned even temporarily with Russia, the world’s largest country with enormous natural resources and a powerful nuclear arsenal, it could produce a global geopolitical realignment. Pushing China and Russia further in that direction would be a monumental foreign-policy blunder.
Dimitri K. Simes is president of The Center for the National Interest and publisher & CEO of The National Interest.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/President of the Russian Federation. CC BY 3.0.