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

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.

Bill Johnson is a retired U.S. Air Force Officer, and a retired Foreign Service Officer. Bill was a philosophy professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy for 5 years. He served as the Senior Political Advisor for U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific from 2009-2011. Since his retirement, he has done consulting for the Naval Post-graduate School on China policy issues.

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