Analysis

Xi Jinping Has Embraced Vladimir Putin—for Now

But the Russia-China flirtation may not last forever. As in the classic novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” the Chinese can be calculating about alliances.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Japan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a group photo during the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28. Dominique Jacovides/AFP/Getty Images

There was a back-to-the-future vibe to China’s 70th birthday extravaganza this week. The elaborate festivities were all about Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, who died in 1976. At home, Xi has called for China’s glorious “rejuvenation,” a theme drummed home in dozens of kitschy parade floats and precision choreography. Abroad, U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade war has chilled Chinese-U.S. ties and revived fears of a Cold War. 

Most strikingly, Moscow is back in the picture, once again officially deemed to be Beijing’s best comrade-in-arms, in a throwback to the earliest years of the People’s Republic of China. Despite the cutting-edge new military hardware on display in Beijing on Oct. 1—from stealth drones to DF-41 nuclear missiles capable of hitting U.S. cities—Xi has turned to a familiar old neighbor to help watch his back. 

The Chinese-Russian warming has not gone unnoticed in Washington. “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s,” said a January threat assessment by the then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. Officially, the Chinese agree. State media described bilateral ties to be at “their best in history” earlier this week, when Russian and Chinese officials commemorated the 1949 forging of diplomatic ties. (The Soviet Union was the first foreign nation to establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China, which Moscow recognized the day after its founding 70 years ago.) Xi himself had officially upgraded the relationship during a state visit to Moscow in June, where he met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for the 26th time in just over six years. The normally reserved Chinese president virtually gushed: “Russia is the country that I have visited the most times, and President Putin is my best friend and colleague.”

How worried should Washington be that the two nations deemed to be most threatening to the United States’ future are getting close? Perhaps less than some fearmongers think. The truth is, neither Xi nor Putin is starry-eyed about their bromance—nor can they afford to be. Great powers do not mate for life, and that’s especially true of China. The biggest reason for Russia and China to bond now is that each has a tense, unpredictable, and potentially antagonistic relationship with the Trump administration. And ever since the birth of the People’s Republic of China 70 years ago, the triangular dynamic among China, the United States, and Russia (or the then-Soviet Union) has hugely influenced Chinese foreign policy. During the late ’50s and early ’60s, a rancorous Chinese-Soviet split and Moscow’s warming to Washington prompted Mao to host U.S. President Richard Nixon in China. Nixon’s startling 1972 China trip ushered in years of strengthening ties, and even Chinese-U.S. cooperation on efforts to thwart the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Moscow and Beijing officially ended their estrangement in 1989. Yet just a few years later, the Soviet collapse led Russian leaders to flirt with the idea of integrating with the West.

Today’s flirtation with Moscow could be just as fleeting. The greater likelihood is that Beijing will keep its options open. Indeed, the dynamic of the three-way geopolitical tussle that best describes relations among Washington, Beijing, and Moscow comes straight out of one of China’s classic historical novels, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In the 14th-century epic, Luo Guanzhong wove a multivolume narrative of warfare and deceit among three competing fiefdoms 2,000 years ago. After the fall of the Han dynasty, the kingdoms of Shu, Wu, and Wei battled and circled one another in a constant dance of alliance, betrayal, enmity, and realignment. This epic tale of human ambition and ruthlessness describes each king’s personality traits and traditional battlefield tactics that still pop up in Chinese diplomacy, corporate negotiations, and popular internet games. And the iconic opening lines from the revised 1679 edition of Romance of the Three Kingdoms cannot be far from Xi’s mind: “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” Neither unity nor division is permanent; they are forever feeding and promoting each other, in geopolitics as in other things.

For now, Xi appears focused on the threat from the United States, and his wooing of Putin is mainly in accordance with the old saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” “No force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation from forging ahead,” Xi declared Tuesday from the Forbidden City rostrum overlooking Tiananmen Square. His words—and below him the spectacle of 15,000 goose-stepping soldiers—were intended to send a message aimed as much at Washington as at Hong Kong, where Chinese state media has blamed massive anti-Beijing protests on “foreign forces,” especially the United States. “We will maintain the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong,” Xi vowed.

But just hours later, protesters tossing petrol bombs clashed with Hong Kong police. When one man was shot by a live round for the first time since the protests began 17 weeks ago—an alarming uptick in the violence—Hong Kong authorities invoked emergency powers to ban protesters from wearing masks; the move helps police identify protesters using facial recognition. 

In Xi’s worldview, the solution to both domestic and external threats is the same: If the Chinese Communist Party relaxes its grip on power, it could collapse just as the Soviet Union did in 1991. “Without a unified and strong leadership force, China will move toward division and crumble, bringing disaster to the world,” said a government policy paper Beijing unveiled just days before the parade. 

And both China and Russia are being subjected to major economic pressure from the United States. Russia’s economy is hurting badly after facing sanctions for Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and 2016 interference in the U.S. election. At the same time, Beijing has engaged in tit-for-tat tariffs against Washington as part of Trump’s trade war. Officially, China-Russia relations are now described as a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era.” That’s Chinese diplo-speak meaning Xi has decided to revive comradely ties between Beijing and Moscow as part of his legacy. At least for now, both sides will overlook the nastier moments of the old Chinese-Soviet split, which included a bloody border conflict that broke out in 1969.

Over the past year, Beijing officials have promised to join hands with Moscow in everything from artificial intelligence and robotics to participation in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. The two could also coordinate on “avoiding risks of sanctions from the West,” said a China Daily editorial in September. (Moscow and Beijing are involved in a “de-dollarization” effort to promote usage of the ruble and yuan instead of the U.S. dollar.) “Since the current pattern of Sino-Russian interaction is the outcome of de facto Western isolation, it should come as no surprise if the two are found acting more in unison against rising protectionism and unilateralism,” the editorial read. 

Both countries have boosted security cooperation. A year ago, Moscow laid on its largest military exercises since the fall of the Soviet Union, called Vostok 2018; the Chinese took part, allowing them to test their troops and gear alongside a combat-hardened military with considerable—and recent—battlefield experience. It was the first time Beijing has participated in Moscow’s simulated war games (as opposed to drills with Russian and Central Asian militaries under the rubric of counterterrorism cooperation or law enforcement). For Russia, this was a “groundbreaking” sign of heightened trust in China, wrote Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow of the Carnegie Moscow Center, in a Moscow Times op-ed. Partly Russia was seeking to ask if China’s “state-owned financial institutions and private investors [could] show more trust towards a strategic partner that is embattled by Western sanctions,” Gabuev said. In other ways, Russia was messaging to Trump that “if the U.S. continues to push Russia into a corner, it will be forced to fall deeper into China’s firm embrace. Probably deeper than it wants to.”

China and Russia also hope to dovetail development strategies between Beijing’s ambitious multination Belt and Road Initiative and the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, which comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. Coordination will be key if both are to avoid clashing interests where the two schemes overlap.

And “synergy” is a hot word that keeps popping up when Beijing and Moscow discuss the Arctic, of all places. There, China has already staked a claim—rhetorically at least—to create a Polar Silk Road. Earlier this year, at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized China’s “pattern of aggressive behavior elsewhere” and said Beijing’s claims to be a “near-Arctic” state entitled it to “exactly nothing” in the polar region. China’s nearest coast is over 900 miles from the Arctic; Beijing is not a permanent member of the Arctic Council, which in addition to the United States includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden. China has observer status on the council, however. It’s opened weather stations in Iceland and Norway. And this year it agreed with Russia to conduct joint research on forecasting ice conditions in the Northern Sea Route, which Moscow hopes to make into a busy shipping route.

After the prickly meeting in Finland (where the United States refused to sign a joint declaration on climate change priorities), China held its own Arctic conference in Shanghai; that one proceeded more amicably. Meanwhile, Pompeo and other U.S. officials warned the presence of Chinese scientists could allow Beijing a military toehold in the Arctic. In a report, they said, “Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines.” 

Thus both sides are looking for synergies wherever they can find them. They aim to boost two-way trade, which surpassed $100 billion for the first time last year and is scheduled to nearly double by 2024. Moscow has raw materials that Beijing covets; three years ago, Russia supplanted Saudi Arabia as China’s biggest crude oil supplier. 

For Xi, closer coordination with Putin may help China respond to volatile U.S. foreign-policy mood swings. Because China’s bureaucratic culture involves laborious preparation, Beijing officials have been flummoxed by Trump’s preference for impromptu tweets, face-to-face meetings, and direct, personal communications. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s “beautiful” letters to Trump, for example, could have a game-changing impact on developments in the Korean Peninsula, where both Beijing and Moscow have a stake.

There was little disguising the message when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi prepared to confer with Putin and the Russian foreign minister in May, just one day before the Russians met with Pompeo. China-Russia ties set an example “beyond compare” while “chaos and disorder” reigned elsewhere, warned Wang. “Unilateralism runs rampant, conflicting the current international system and basic norms of international relations,” he said. “Rumors and smears are used as tools to attack other countries, as if a lie repeats a thousand times and becomes a fact.”

Trump’s roller-coaster presidency might suit Beijing just fine in the long run, predicted former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd during a speech last year to the Asia Society in New York. Trump’s anti-globalization talk and policy incoherence opens up hidden opportunities for Beijing. They reduce America’s international profile, undermine U.S. military alliances, tarnish the image of Western-style democracy, and chip away at the post-World War II network of multilateral institutions in which Washington often played a leading role. “Strategically, [Chinese officials] regard the Trump administration as an enormous opportunity for China,” Rudd said. “They see vacuums and spaces opening up around the world … through the absence of an effective American diplomacy, as well as in key institutions,” such as the U.N., where both Russia and China are permanent members of the Security Council. He called Trump’s unpredictability “strategically comforting and tactically terrifying” for Beijing.

And yet Beijing also has a strategic stake in the multilateral system: After all, it has helped make China rich. China’s economy remains much more globally integrated than Russia’s. Two years ago, China’s nominal GDP of $12.2 trillion was nearly eight times as large as Russia’s at $1.6 trillion. By contrast, in 1992, as the Soviet Union continued its collapse, China’s nominal GDP was just $427 billion—slightly less than Russia’s $460 billion, according to the World Bank. In contrast to Beijing, “Russia has little hope … of reintegrating into the post-war order. Instead, Moscow seems to have concluded that it can demonstrate its influence more by destabilizing that system,” said a recent Rand Corp. study by James Dobbins, Howard J. Shatz, and Ali Wyne. “While China is no innocent abroad … its growing influence derives primarily from more constructive measures.”

Xi has another reason to keep Putin close at hand but not too close: mistrust. China cannot afford an unexpected rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. (Despite widespread opposition, Trump not long ago officially proposed that Russia be admitted to the G-7, ending Putin’s pariah status.) “What is clear is that while China and Russia may be in lockstep against the U.S. right now, that closeness doesn’t play out in all other contexts,” said Raffaello Pantucci, the director of international security studies at the London-based RUSI think tank. For example, both Vietnam and India, each of which has fought border conflicts against Beijing’s troops, remain wary about their massive Chinese neighbor and continue to buy arms from Moscow.

Another reason why Xi may not draw too near Putin is the vast gap in the size and growth rates of their respective economies; as a result, the Beijing-Moscow relationship will remain asymmetrical. Russia needs China, the world’s second-largest economy, more than China needs Russia. Beyond that, the China-Russia relationship “is still more anchored in shared grievances than in common visions,” according to the Rand report. While China seeks a gradual modification of the postwar order to give itself a larger role, Russia does not have the economic clout to share that approach—“only the tactical savvy to be an opportunistic disruptor,” the report said. That means the United States “should respond differently to a resurgent power [China] focused on achieving economic and technological preeminence than to a declining power [Russia] focused on fomenting military and ideological chaos.”

Thus, as with the shifting power blocs of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, intrigue and utilitarian alliances are likely to rule the day. Outwardly, the Xi-Putin optics are warm and fuzzy—romantic, as it were—but both Beijing and Moscow are “pretty grim realist powers. … Both see themselves as locked in a contest against the West with its messy democracy and its perceived involvement in protests,” said Pantucci, referring to the pro-Western “color revolutions” that shaped the post-Soviet world, the Arab Spring revolts, and the more recent demonstrations rocking Hong Kong and Moscow. “They see it all coming from the West, and they see themselves on the same side.” 

Behind the scenes, however, there’s no shortage of private sniping. When Beijing officials meet their U.S. counterparts privately, “they say, ‘These bloody Russians, look at what they’ve done in Ukraine—it’s a disaster.’ And when Russians meet Americans, they confide, ‘We don’t really trust these Chinese. After all, we’re really Europeans,’” Pantucci said. “Moscow sees itself as a European power and feels it should ultimately be on that side of the coin, not the Chinese side.” 

Chinese authorities have seen it all before. Almost exactly 60 years ago, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was the top VIP guest at Beijing’s 10th anniversary National Day gala. Polite public words and effusive toasts of Chinese rice wine and mao-tai obscured the deterioration of Chinese-Soviet relations at the time. According to the British reporter Christopher Dobson, Khrushchev counseled patience to his Chinese hosts, who were working themselves up into an anti-U.S. lather. He accused one Chinese official of “crowing for war like a cock for a fight” and later, in a conversation with aides, likened Mao to an “old galosh”—Russian slang meaning a used condom.

It may seem Chinese leaders had the last laugh when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. But that was no laughing matter for Xi. He later gave this explanation for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s collapse: “Their ideals and beliefs had been shaken. In the end, ‘the ruler’s flag over the city tower’ changed overnight. … Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”

For a man obsessed with his own legacy, none of the timeworn Chinese lessons of the past will mean much to Xi if, on his watch, the Chinese Communist Party suffers the same fate as its Soviet “elder brother” did. Putin’s presence beside him may be reassuring—but it is also a reminder that Moscow and Beijing will continue to take different paths.

Melinda Liu is Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief and the co-author of Beijing Spring, about the events of April-June 1989.