Allies of convenience: China’s Xi Jinping’s just not that into Vladimir Putin

March 24, 2015
Russia's President Putin walks past China's President Xi during APEC forum in Beijing

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) walks past China’s President Xi Jinping during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, November 11, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon RTR4DN94

Much has been written about the relationship between China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, largely making the case that theirs is a close personal relationship, based on their similarities. One publication went so far as to assert that “Xi is China’s Putin.” As much fun as this bromance theory might be, it misreads both men, and attributes to personalities what is better explained by political realities.

Xi and Putin have met on at least 10 occasions since Xi assumed office. Both have waxed effusive about their friendship. Putin said that he and Xi shared vodka and sandwiches as they celebrated Putin’s 61st birthday together. Similarly, Xi has made remarks reminiscent of George W. Bush’s glimpse into Putin’s soul.

This is largely theater, and the real reasons underlying their frequent contact and collaboration have far more to do with sharing a common enemy than with any great linking of kindred spirits. The fraught history of Sino-Russian relations is well-known, and given this history, we need to ask what has changed so much that the two countries are now drawn together in what Xi has described as the “most strategic” bilateral relationship.

Xi and Putin need each other to deal with perceived threats from the United States and its allies. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and European Union have moved inexorably towards Russia’s doorstep, Putin has railed against the West for treating Russia as a de facto enemy. The Pivot to Asia by the U.S. has evoked a similar response from China. The pivot is seen by China as a policy of encirclement designed to limit China’s rise, while maintaining America’s influence in the region. Thus, both Putin and Xi see themselves resisting encroachment from a common adversary. This common, defensive stance is driving the current relationship forward.

China’s ability and willingness to provide new outlets for Russia’s fossil fuel products will greatly help Russia to withstand U.S. and EU sanctions stemming from Russia’s actions in Ukraine. But while some analysis indicates that the recent oil and gas deals are in some sense a financial bailout in disguise, a better explanation is that China is seeking to lock in supplies of oil and natural gas in order to meet its growing needs, ensure overland shipments that cannot be disrupted by the U.S.’s Pacific Fleet, and facilitate China’s transition from coal to cleaner fuels as China tries to resolve its environmental woes.

Less reported, but no less important, are Russian moves in the Pacific, which complicate the U.S. pivot to Asia. Russia’s recent use of Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay air base to stage aerial-refueling tankers for Russia’s long-range bombers complicates U.S. efforts to forge a military partnership with Vietnam. This could derail regional efforts to frustrate China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Additionally, Russia’s assertiveness in its territorial dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands in the North Pacific adds a new variable to U.S. calculations over aiding Japan in defense of Japan’s Senkaku/Diaoyu claims.

These actions also serve notice to the United States that China and Russia remain unpersuaded by arguments about being responsible stakeholders in the international system, or being on the right side of history. Their common belief is that they needn’t accept an order not of their making. They feel that China and Russia together can withstand any alliance against them. As long as the Western alliances are seen seeking to isolate and marginalize Russia and China, Russia and China will respond by working together. No other partners could enable them to resist pressure from the West.

The United States has few options for keeping Putin from turning to China — his last resort as he struggles to keep the Russian economy afloat. But China doesn’t need Russia in the same way. In fact, China would prefer to maintain its opening to the West. Certainly China is wary of Putin, not just because Putin is unreliable, but simply because he’s Russian, and the Chinese are wary of Russians. There is substantial opportunity for the United States to improve its standing with China, but this will require some long overdue policy changes.

Step one would be to refrain from meddling in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The United States has no stake there. Saying the United States needs to be involved to protect our Philippine allies is simply false. That alliance concerns mutual defense, not negotiations over border disputes.

The United States should also stop lecturing China over the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, especially since the United States is not a party to the Convention.

If the United States ceases meddling, lecturing and pretending to be the final arbiter of maritime routes, it will find that China will cool to Russia, and work out its border disputes, as it is doing with other countries.

14 comments

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“but simply because he’s Russian, and the Chinese are wary of Russians” during my undergraduate classes, I had a prof that would ask for a source next to all assertions. I guess Reuters would’ve failed my Political Science elective

Posted by Tigranes_Great | Report as abusive

What a relieve the Chinese are wary of the Russians, that means our brothers are still a superpower. Thank you Mr.Johnson for making my day.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

“Step one would be to refrain from meddling in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The United States has no stake there. Saying the United States needs to be involved to protect our Philippine allies is simply false. That alliance concerns mutual defense, not negotiations over border disputes.”

If your ally gets into a fight then you may get drawn into that fight as well, so meddle we must. To use the word meddle is to be myopic and not look in detail into all countries involved not just China and the United States. Nothing is that black and white. Backing off on the China sea might mean we might back off on aiding Japan or South Korea.

Posted by BadChicken | Report as abusive

There are two people in that room and one knows where he stands and the other lives in a hallucinatory reality. Xi sees the future in front of him and sees where his country will be in 25 years. The other is a percentage of Xi and knows the best days are past. Xi sees Putin as a temporary distraction because in the end Putin needs Xi a lot more than the other way around. It s bit like being a small supplier to a multinational company.

Posted by pbr69 | Report as abusive

BadChicken,

Agreed, additionally China is NOT on the right side of international law and the US should stand up to China on this.

http://thediplomat.com/2014/09/chinas-wa r-on-maritime-law/

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

“There is substantial opportunity for the United States to improve its standing with China, but this will require some long overdue policy changes.”

China must improve its standing with the West by providing an open marketplace for our imports. They’ve blocked our companies from doing business through the great wall firewall or through requiring banks to use domestic companies. The list goes on.

Reuters website was just blocked within China. It’s interesting that Reuters is posting an article that suggests accommodating with China within a few days of being blocked.

Posted by ocsurfer | Report as abusive

A very clever and manipulative piece arguing for appeasement.

“Step one would be to refrain from meddling in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The United States has no stake there. Saying the United States needs to be involved to protect our Philippine allies is simply false. That alliance concerns mutual defense, not negotiations over border disputes.”

Not one word of China’s “Nine Lines” claim in the South China Sea, which has alarmed not only Vietnam and the Philippines, but also Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei? And an unprecedented Chinese claim in one of the most heavily used sea lanes in the world?

Evidently the author would approve of another “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

Not sure what this anti Russia/Putin propaganda by US will accomplish but all these recent articles by this defense strategy team (backed by some its consultants appearing as authors of these articles at Reuters and other) reflect a level of desperation to divert attention away from the series of conditions of fiasco brought around the conflicts fomented by this team.

Why do we keep feeding this strategy team that clearly have proven gone mental on this Russia/Putin bashing and bringing an assured calamity close to home?

If you haven’t gotten the message yet, Russia and China are well aligned with recent economic ties going into the future.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Xi and Putin are both super-smart guys who are noted for their honesty and competence and are idolized by their people. Their countries have complementary skills and assets. The USA has sworn – publicly and repeatedly – to bring down both of their governments. Nuf said.

Posted by godfree | Report as abusive

“Putin… remained a member until the [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] party was dissolved in December 1991″
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Pu tin

“Xi Jinping… is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xi_Jinping

If you know what the Communist Party really means, that “little” similarity can explain things pretty articulately.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

too late Putin got with China where they both want, exchange in non $ denominated funds plus local Asian Global Bank

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

How can the USA cite both Russia and China as society’s that are unjust and problematic and at the same time condone Saudi Arabia as a leading partner in world affairs. This hypocrisy is rank.

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

This is all fluff. It’s West vs East, and East is pulling ahead.

Posted by waggg | Report as abusive

Eh, this article is just stating the obvious as the distrust between Russia and China is nothing new. It goes all the way back to the Soviet days when the two nations fought several border skirmishes in the 1960’s. That tension is what made Nixon’s visit successful as China wanted outside support against the Soviet Union.

Fast forward half a century, the warming between Putin and Xi is mostly a business decision. China needs to acquire more resources in order to continue its development and Russia is desperate to find a reliable purchaser for its vast mineral and energy reserves. Both countries get their needs fulfilled for the short term as long as the embargo stays in place.

On a seperate note, for the guy who ranted about China needing to completely open its market to the West, that’s a hilarious concept. If they did that, western corporations would dominate the Chinese economy while leaving no room for domestic companies to develop. No sane country will openly subject itself to that kind of economic imperialism/slavery. Even India and Brazil have barred foreign investor from entering many sectors of its economy yet we rarely hear anything about that. Double standards are dangerous and no, the developing world is not obligated to enrich the pockets of the developed west.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive