As Western ties fray, Putin and Xi are increasingly close

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a session of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia September 12, 2018. Valery Sharifulin/TASS Host Photo Agency/Pool via REUTERS - RC16A745C5C0
Editor's note:

While we should be careful not to overestimate the possibility of a formalized political-military partnership between Russia and China, writes Torrey Taussig, it is clear that Putin and Xi are forging stronger ties at a time when Western relations in the era of Trump and populism are heavily strained. This piece originally appeared on China-U.S. Focus.

September was a busy month in Russia’s Far East. On September 11 and 12, Russia hosted its fourth-annual Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in the port city of Vladivostok. That same week, Moscow also carried out its Vostok military exercises in Russia’s eastern operational command. For the first time, China was an active and visible participant in both.

These events are the two most recent illustrations of Russia and China’s growing cooperation in political, economic, and military affairs. While we should be careful not to overestimate the possibility of a formalized political-military partnership between the two, it is clear that Putin and Xi are forging stronger ties at a time when Western relations in the era of Trump and populism are heavily strained.

The significance of such developments often goes underappreciated. Many Western experts and policymakers are quick to discount Russia and China’s relationship as limited and tactical—a marriage of convenience at best. Arguments go that China has little to gain from a deeper economic relationship with Russia. Russia, in return, resents playing “junior partner” to China’s massive economic might. Central Asia is considered a region of growing competition between Russia and China, as Xi’s Belt Road Initiative runs through Russia’s traditional backyard and customer states for its energy exports. Russia also counts as its main arms export markets several countries that have territorial disputes with China.

While these realities may be true, it is time to challenge long-held assumptions about the limited nature of Russia and China’s relationship. What we are witnessing is deepening and substantive cooperation across political, military, and economic realms, even if it lacks the hallmarks of a traditional treaty alliance.

Taking Stock of Recent Events

Since 2015, the Eastern Economic Forum—a summit for developing political, economic and cultural ties between Russia and Asia Pacific—has been attended by heads of state or ministers from countries around the world, but never China. This year, RT, a Russian government funded news outlet, cited “growing trade ties with Beijing” as President Putin’s main message at the Forum. Xi’s meeting with President Putin on the side lines of the EEF was their third in 2018 and his seventh visit to Russia as President of China.

Before the Forum, China’s ambassador to Russia, Li Hui, stated in an interview that “At present, China-Russia relations are at their best in history…” President Xi also highlighted that the Chinese delegation was the largest in attendance, which, in his words, showed the “great attractiveness of this meeting…. and comprehensive cooperation between China and Russia in the development of the Far East.” Of the 58 agreements that were signed with international companies, 31 were signed with companies from China, the most out of any participating country.

That same week, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army participated for the first time in Russia’s Vostok—meaning “East”—military exercise. The Russian Defense Ministry said it was the largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War, with 300,000 servicemen involved (although it is speculated that official numbers are inflated). Of the total amount, the PLA contributed a small force of around 3,500 troops. Despite the limited size, there is political significance in China’s involvement. Whereas previous iterations of the Vostok exercises appeared aimed at countering military threats from China, this year focused on enhancing coordination and knowledge between the two countries’ militaries. Russian news agency TASS reported Kremlin spokesperson Dimitri Peskov stating that China’s involvement speaks to the “expansion of interaction of the two allies in all the spheres.”

Deepening Political Ties in an Era of Uncertainty

Before the recent summits and military exercises, Russia and China had long supported one another’s positions on the UN Security Council and in other international forums. Both are distrustful of Western efforts to promote democracy, civil society, and human rights around the world and see them as attempts to weaken their authoritarian regimes. Each would prefer a “spheres of influence” international system rather than the current U.S.-led order and network of military alliances that limit their regional ambitions in Europe and Asia.

But political ties have grown warmer and more dynamic in the last two years. This is due in part to the Trump administration’s competitive stance toward Russia and China, which could bring the two countries closer together over time. In late 2017 and early 2018, the Trump administration’s National Security and Defense Strategies labelled both Russia and China as strategic competitors. Since then, Trump’s personal affinity for Putin and his strongman style of control has not resulted in friendlier relations between the U.S. and Russia, much to Putin’s chagrin. Instead the U.S. has enacted several rounds of sanctions on Putin’s inner circle in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, widespread election interference and poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, on British soil. On China, the administration’s nascent trade war with Beijing is spilling over into other aspects of the relationship. Vice President Pence’s recent speech defined America’s rivalry with China in economic, ideological, and military terms.

In this tense context, the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” may be a fair depiction of the external forces driving Russia and China together. If neither Putin nor Xi can expect the United States to acquiesce to their regional and international ambitions, then why not look to one another for political cover?

Enhanced Military Cooperation

The foundations for Russian and Chinese military cooperation have long been in place, as both countries have a strong interest in maintaining peace along their shared 2,600-mile border. Russia and China underwent a brief border war in 1969 and have no desire to spend resources remilitarizing the region. Arms sales from Moscow to Beijing have also been an important part of their military relationship. As Alexander Gaubuev highlights, China’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense missile system and SU-35 fighter jets are helping Beijing establish air dominance over Taiwan and its maritime periphery.

Yet today they have moved beyond maintaining stability and are driving toward deeper engagement. In April, China’s Defense Minister, Wei Fenghe, met with his Russian counterpart and declared that the “Chinese side has come to Moscow to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia.” Some might dismiss this as rhetorical bluster, but Wei’s comments reflect on-the-ground cooperation between the two countries’ militaries. In July of last year, they presided over an inaugural joint naval-exercise in the Baltic Sea, called Joint Sea 2017. Russia and China have been holding joint naval drills since 2012, but China’s involvement in the Baltic Sea shows its willingness to engage in a geopolitically tense region outside its immediate neighborhood. Both also actively challenge the U.S. deployment of missile defense systems (THAAD) in South Korea and in December 2017 held joint anti-missile drills designed to defend against a U.S. invasion of North Korea.

Increasing Trade and Investment Flows

Russia and China’s relationship is least developed in the economic sphere. Their economic fortunes still lie in the West, where the EU is both Russia and China’s largest trading partner. But Putin and Xi have continuously expressed interest in greater economic integration and are steadily working towards this goal. Russia has a lot to gain in improving economic ties, particularly amidst U.S. and EU sanctions and China has proven receptive in light of its growing trade war with the United States.

Bilateral trade between the two countries in 2018 is up 25 percent from 2017 and, according to Putin, is on track to reach $100 billion this year. At the EEF in Vladivostok, Putin and Xi signed a series of agreements to enhance Russian-Chinese regional, production, and investment cooperation in the Far East, as well as a program to develop Russian-Chinese economic and investment cooperation in the region in 2018-2024. Putin also announced that the two countries plan to reduce their use of U.S. dollars in reciprocal trade deals.

Geopolitical Realignment

Closer relations between Russia and China are not occurring in a vacuum. Their political, military, and economic bonds stand in stark contrast to the drastic decline in relations between Western democracies. As G7 leaders gathered for a stormy meeting in Quebec in June 2018 followed by a tense NATO Summit in Brussels, Putin and Xi met ahead of the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao. President Putin remarked that cooperation with China had reached an “unprecedented level.” Xi declared Putin his “best, most intimate friend” and presented him with a newly instituted Friendship Medal. Xi then escorted Putin to a cooking class and taught the Russian leader how to make Chinese dumplings.

Compare images of Putin and Xi’s dumpling diplomacy to the now infamous photo of German Chancellor Merkel glaring down on an obstinate U.S. President Trump while the other G-7 partners around the table look on despondingly. Recent history has never witnessed a gap in coherence so large between the democratic and authoritarian great powers. This could not come at a worse time in a 21st century defined by geopolitical competition. As interstate tensions rise, President Trump’s alienation of allies while taking on China over its trade practices is not a likely formula for success. At minimum, Trump would do well to acknowledge that as “America First” morphs into “America Alone,” his authoritarian counterparts are a little less lonely.