The “Joint Statement of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation on Deepening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for the New Era,” was recently signed by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in Moscow.
But while there are some genuine matters of concern about the statement from the perspective of the U.S.-China relationship, it is still not an alliance and it has a long way to go in reversing the decades-old close cooperation between the U.S. and China.
“The Sino-Russian relationship is not similar to the military and political alliance during the Cold War, but transcends this model of state relations, and has the nature of non-alignment, non-confrontation, and non-targeting of third countries.”
This mild opening statement sounds grandiose but it also debunks the idea that the erstwhile friendship of no-limits has evolved into a formal alliance. Instead, it suggests it is a “special” relationship, a meeting of minds that does not resemble usual relationships and blocs in global politics. In other words, it keeps options open.
The statement goes on to invoke buzz words that are familiar to anyone watching the nightly news in China:
“Promote peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy, freedom, common values of all mankind, dialogue, harmony and win-win cooperation. Promote world peace and development.”
There’s no country in the world that more actively promotes itself, and its close allies, as a democracy than the U.S., so it can be supposed that the next statement is directed at Washington to debunk any notions of holding the high ground.
“There is no democracy that is superior to others.”
Democracy. China and Russia use the term to suit their own purposes, as does North Korea. On the other hand, as critics of the U.S. never tire of pointing out, U.S.-style democracy is destabilizing, messy, confusing, and corrupt, among other things. Case in point? The Trump administration and its fanatic followers.
But more generally, what does democracy even mean anymore?
To say all democracies are equivalent is to blur meaningful distinctions, but it serves to take the sting out of boastful U.S. pretensions to democracy and democracy promotion which tend to annoy countries not included in the club.
The wordplay of the summit kept the worldview espoused by Putin’s Russia: NATO is a bloc, the U.S. is a hegemon, Russia has justifiable security concerns due to NATO expansion, and the U.S., through its meddling and weapons shipments, is adding fuel to the fire in Ukraine.
Wordplay aside, if Putin was looking for an agreement on gas exports, new pipelines, and weapons, he came out of the confab with few publicized concessions.
Russia is in a historically weak position vis-a-vis China, and it shows. The balance of power in the Xi-Putin relationship now clearly favors Xi, with the summit highlighting him from start to finish, with Putin, who is not in robust health, often nursing his grievances and sulking on the sidelines. In contrast, Xi’s secondary meeting with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishstutin was one of the few bright spots of the summit, with signs of humor, sparkling conversation and continuous smiles.
The joint statement is full of language in which Russia demonstrates its fealty not just to standard foreign policy positions, on the Taiwan question, for example, but to new and innovative and yet-untested visions advocated by Xi.
“Russia attaches great importance to China's global civilization initiative…”
“Russia reaffirms its adherence to the one-China principle…”
“Russia affirms that China's concept of building a community with a shared future for mankind has positive significance.”
It’s one thing to see a foreign head of state paying general lip service to shared goals, but this summit took it to a new level in which the host repeated the precise phraseology of his guest.
In a rather more self-serving stance, Russia praised China for its “objective” and “impartial position” on the Ukraine issue. Part of the game Putin must play to please Xi is to pretend he is ready to negotiate at the drop of a hat, especially if Xi is willing to get involved.
Thus, Russia “welcomes China’s willingness to play a positive role for the political and diplomatic settlement of the Ukraine crisis and welcomes the constructive proposals set forth in China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis.”
(Another Xi initiative that elevates his status, especially if it is construed to bear fruit as the linchpin of peace.)
China and Russia both claim to support the UN charter, but do not convincingly address a core UN value upon which the very concept of a grouping of nations is predicated. Nations have borders and boundaries and sovereignty must be respected for the nation state to function.
Neither party in Moscow was able to emerge as an upholder of this core UN value without dodging the sticky issue of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
The dodge currently in usage includes a linguistic sleight-of-hand that essentially redefines sovereignty as “the legitimate security concerns of all countries” rather than old-fashioned notion of Westphalian sovereignty with inviolable borders.
The joint statement points a finger at NATO, and other collective security arrangements decrying “bloc confrontation” but it cannot explain away what Russia is doing inside Ukraine’s territory.
Next Russia and China took joint aim at the U.S. and NATO for “fanning the flames” of the conflict, a popular cliché heard almost daily in CCTV’s Ukraine coverage.
Both sides vowed to prevent "color revolutions." This is a contrived but useful term to discredit and delegitimize protest, unrest and challenges to the status quo. Whatever color it is, or isn’t, it gets painted as a case foreign interference, even if evidence of said interference is not forthcoming.
Using language that was uncharacteristically specific for a general joint statement of shared views, China and Russia made a point of jointly condemning “all forms of terrorism,” but the only form of “terrorism” cited specifically was the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline. Both sides made a call for “an objective, impartial and professional investigation of the Nord Stream pipeline explosion.”
The anti-U.S. tone of the document becomes more explicit towards the end. “Both sides express serious concerns about the biological military activities of the United States that seriously threaten other countries and damage the security of relevant regions.”
This fits in nicely with Moscow’s frequent, unproven claims of U.S. bio-labs that are supposedly dotting the region planning nefarious attacks. Some of these poorly-sourced Russian reports were later picked up by the Chinese media, as if to lend credence to the topic.
Furthermore, the joint statement states: “Both sides urge the U.S., as the only state party that has not completed the destruction of chemical weapons, to speed up the destruction of its stockpile of chemical weapons, and urge Japan to complete the destruction of its abandoned chemical weapons in China.”
This is an economical two-for-one, combining resentment for US misdeeds of the present day with historical resentments about Japan’s war in the middle of the last century.
Ever since February 24, 2022, Chinese TV news has relied on Russia for footage of the Ukraine “situation” including clips from TASS, Russia Today, RIA Novosti and the Russian Ministry of Defense. If the recent tilt to Russia is not tacit enough, Russian influence in China’s media will be ramped up, according to the statement:
“Both sides are willing to strengthen policy communication and cooperation in the field of radio and television network…joint production, and inter-broadcasting of programs.”
It’s too soon to say what all this means for U.S.-China relations. But it might be noted that the uptick in Russo-Sino solidarity is relatively new, provisional and rife with uncertainties. While it certainly makes sense that no country should put all its eggs in the basket of another, and both the U.S. and China may need to reevaluate certain aspects of their long, close cooperation, the U.S.-China relationship is strong, even after the battering of the last few years.
Russia has been decidedly a minor player on the sidelines for the four decades of China’s “Opening Up” during which the U.S. and China embraced one another so closely in terms of diplomacy, trade, educational exchange, shared values and even military cooperation to the point that op-ed columnists could call the bilateral relationship “Chi-Merica” and everyone understood what it meant.
Russia may now be poised to get closer to China than it was before, but it’s still playing catch-up and Chi-Russia still has a long way to go.