This week we got the clearest sign yet that America’s middle east policy has failed. These moves show that Putin and China now have a massive upper hand in the geopolitical chess match unfolding. What’s happening to the United States is worse than we thought.
In their matching mauve ties, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping last week declared a “new era” in the global order and, at least in the short term, endorsed their respective territorial ambitions in Ukraine and Taiwan. The world’s two most powerful autocrats unveiled a sweeping long-term agreement that also challenges the United States as a global power, nato as a cornerstone of international security, and liberal democracy as a model for the world. “Friendship between the two States has no limits,” they vowed in the communiqué, released after the two leaders met on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics. “There are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”
Agreements between Moscow and Beijing, including the Treaty of Friendship of 2001, have traditionally been laden with lofty, if vague, rhetoric that faded into forgotten history. But the new and detailed five-thousand-word agreement is more than a collection of the usual tropes, Robert Daly, the director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, at the Wilson Center, in Washington, told me. Although it falls short of a formal alliance, like nato, the agreement reflects a more elaborate show of solidarity than anytime in the past. “This is a pledge to stand shoulder to shoulder against America and the West, ideologically as well as militarily,” Daly said. “This statement might be looked back on as the beginning of Cold War Two.” The timing and clarity of the communiqué—amid tensions on Russia’s border with Europe and China’s aggression around Taiwan—will “give historians the kind of specific event that they often focus on.”
Beyond security, the declaration also pledged collaboration on space, climate change, the Internet, and artificial intelligence. Politically, the document claimed that there is “no one-size-fits-all” type of democracy, and heralded both forms of authoritarian rule in Moscow and Beijing as successful democracies. “It’s a pretty striking step closer to an alliance and shows that they’re very much aligned in their vision of the world order in the twenty-first century,” Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, told me. Putin described the broader strategic partnership with China as “unprecedented.” Xi said that their joint strategy would have a “far-reaching influence on China, Russia, and the world.”
U.S. experts described the lengthy statement, which was riddled with false and accusatory language, as startling. “I’ve never seen a joint statement from both leaders using this kind of language. They’ve joined forces,” Angela Stent, a Russia expert who served at the National Intelligence Council and wrote “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest,” told me. She described the communiqué as “quite Orwellian” and called it an “inflection point” in which Russia and China are challenging the balance of power that has defined the global order since the Cold War ended, three decades ago. “We could be at the beginning of a new era as the Russian relationship with the West deteriorates and China’s does as well.” The agreement puts Washington and its key allies “in a terrible bind,” she added. “The fact is, whatever we do to counter what Russia is doing only reinforces its reliance on China.”
The joint statement is, at least for the moment, a diplomatic boon for Putin amid his showdown with the United States and Europe over Ukraine. For the first time in any of Russia’s recent aggressions, Putin has won the open support of China’s leader. China did not back Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008, or its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, nor has it recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Now Moscow and Beijing, which both have the ability to veto any resolution at the United Nations, have declared their opposition to further enlargement of nato and to the formation of other regional security alliances. “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions, intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose colour revolutions, and will increase cooperation,” the often unwieldy statement declared. “This is where they pledge their troth,” Daly said.
Washington had been pressuring Beijing, including in a call last month between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in an attempt to keep China neutral or out of the Ukraine crisis. Now, at least on paper and in public voice, it has budged, Andrew Weiss, a former National Security Council official who is currently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. “Russia now has China as an endorser of the egregious and inflammatory position that Putin has staked out on Ukraine.”
Hints of China’s shift have been emerging in the past two weeks, as the Ukraine crisis began spilling over onto already tense U.S.-China relations. President Biden’s foreign policy had hoped to steer relations with Beijing toward stable and manageable competition. Instead, China, which is normally discreet in its diplomacy, is visibly pushing back. After his conversation with Blinken last month, the Chinese foreign minister said publicly that Russia’s security concern about nato expansion is legitimate and must be addressed. The Biden Administration countered last week with an admonition. The State Department warned that the West has “an array of tools” to deploy against foreign companies—including in China—that help Russia evade punitive sanctions.
In the new agreement, Russia, in turn, reaffirmed its support for Beijing’s One China policy that Taiwan is “an inalienable part of China, and opposes any forms of independence.” The joint communiqué also supported Beijing’s ruthless crackdown on dissidents in Hong Kong in the past two years. The bold assertions in the joint statement follow deepening military ties between the two nations in the past decade, Weiss noted. Russia and China have conducted dozens of joint exercises and war games that have involved as many as ten thousand troops to hone tactical and operational capabilities. Russian officials have boasted that the growing defense partnership was designed to warn the United States and nato not to pressure Moscow. The naval operations have included mock seizures of islands, patrols by long-range bombers over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, and surface-to-air missile targeting. Last summer, Putin and Xi both witnessed military exercises in China. In October, they held joint naval exercises off Russia’s far-eastern coast. “The frequency, complexity, and geographic scope has steadily increased, reflecting the growth in the overall bilateral defense relationship,” the U.S. Naval Institute reported last year. As two nuclear-armed countries that span Europe and Asia, the more muscular alignment between Russia and China could be a game changer militarily and diplomatically. “They want this to be as threatening as a formal alliance to the West, but don’t want to formally commit to mutual defense,” Daly said. “They don’t have to. The spectre of their mutual aid will serve as a deterrent.”
The joint announcement reflects a shift in the balance of power between Russia and China as well. “The Russians for the longest time were condescending in their view of China as an uninteresting rural society,” Weiss said. “Now China looks at Russia and says, ‘What are you good for?’ China’s ambitions do not run through Moscow.” China has become “canny” in exploiting Russia’s neediness, he said. “It uses Russia as a cat’s paw to disrupt the U.S. pivot to Asia. The fact that we have to keep coming back to Putin, as the neighborhood bully, is beneficial to China.”
Putin was the highest-profile leader to show up for the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. The U.S. and other major powers opted not to send high-profile delegations, to protest China’s human-rights abuses, particularly against its Uyghur minority. Russia had received a two-year ban from officially sending teams to the Olympics after conducting a years-long, state-sponsored doping scheme. Russian athletes—who are not supposed to carry their nation’s flag, wear the Russian insignia, or play the national anthem—instead compete as part of the Russian Olympic Committee. After his meeting with Xi, Putin applauded the team during the opening ceremony’s Parade of Nations on Friday. But his visit clearly had another purpose.
The question now is how far Russia and China will take their agreement. “Words are one thing,” Vershbow, the former Ambassador, said. “We still have to see if the statement will translate into greater tangible Chinese support for Russia’s aggressive behavior—or whether they’ll say, ‘We’re with you, good luck,’ and then turn the other way.” The Chinese have different and sometimes more pragmatic interests in their relations with the U.S. and Europe, which are vital to their economy. “They don’t want to burn all bridges for the sake of a relationship with Russia.”
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