July 2024

Power play

Shared antipathy towards America has united Beijing and Moscow in the quest for a new world order. But who, asks  Amit Agnihotri, would be prepared to play the subordinate role?

As in politics, geopolitics often creates strange bed fellows. 

Driven by their common dislike for America, China and Russia have come together to shape a new world order sans Western dominance. But the key question is: which of the two powerful US adversaries would be willing to play second fiddle?

This question arises because, while China and Russia are willing to take on the US together, they suffer from the baggage of historical rivalry. Moreover, there are several sticking points in the bilateral relationship, economic might being the first and foremost.

China is eager to replace the US as the number one economy in the world and plans to use that position to further its geopolitical objectives. For its part, Russia is keen to tango with China to take on the US, but only on equal terms – it may not be willing to become subservient to the Asian Dragon.

The reasonis that new-found closeness with China may give rise to concerns within the Russian security establishment that Moscow has become too dependent on Beijing, given the erstwhile Soviet Union and the Asian Dragon had come close to war in 1969 over a border row.

Arctic region
Controlling the Arctic is one of several issues over which China and Russia take opposite sides

Further, while China is trying hard to deal with a slowing economy, Russia has to deal with an expanded NATO (Finland and Sweden joined after 2022), a Europe that seeks a new security architecture to protect itself against a Ukraine-like misadventure from Moscow, and an aggressive US which wants to win the Eurasian conflict at any cost.

China and Russia relate to each other as two powerful neighbours and equal partners against a common enemy but their respective strategies in dealing with America have been different over the past decades.

It was the Richard Nixon administration that opened the US trade doors for China in 1972 to counter the then Soviet Union geopolitically. In the following decades, China fully exploited the opportunity till Beijing’s superpower ambitions began to bite Washington.

This was the reason why incumbent President Joe Biden decided to reset America’s relations with the Asian Dragon last year and agreed over some basic points on how to engage with his powerful Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

Today, China challenges US authority on everything

Post-1972, Beijing used US trade relations as a fuel that turned China into a financial powerhouse. A sanctions-hit Russia, on the other hand, can take pride only in its hard military power status, acquired during the Soviet Union days.

Controlling the Arctic is another issue over which China and Russia take opposite sides, given that Moscow has invested heavily to boost its military presence in the region over the past years and would not brook any interference from Beijing.

Additionally, China’s deepening trade relations with the former Soviet Union Republics in the strategically importantCentral Asian region have never been appreciated by the Kremlin.

In reality, a shrewd China does not want complete isolation from the West and probably hopes that its inclination towards Russia might allow Beijing a bargaining chip to balance its weakening equation with the US.

Moreover, Beijing also needs energy security to fuel its superpower ambitions and, for now at least, finds Russia a reliable partner that recently replaced Saudi Arabia as China’s biggest oil supplier.

Xi and Putin listed areas of cooperation between their countries ranging from nuclear to manufacturing

To be seen to be on the side of its neighbour, China has so far not condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine.Yet at the same time, it never fails to swear by the UN-based international system, and professessupport for national integrity of sovereign countries.

However, this diplomatic duplicity has strained China’s relations with the US and Europe, Beijing’s main economic partners over the past three decades.

That, in many ways, explained Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent trip to Europe that aimed to bridge the trust deficit with these US allies.

Today, China challenges US authority on everything from quantum computing and bio-research, to spying and military capability, in order to project itself as an alternative superpower.

But the problem for Beijing is that ally Russia harbours similar dreams.

If a rising China was seen as the single biggest threat by US strategists before February 2022, the emerging China-Russia axis in the wake of the Ukraine war is the new and much bigger headache for Washington.

The past few years have seen the emergence of geopolitical shifts, which are still firming up, amidst demands for a revamp of the United Nations-centric world order to reflect present-day realities.

Among various such geopolitical shifts, the China-Russia axis developed quickly, from being described as ‘no limits’ in 2022, just days ahead of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to a ‘new era’ a year later in 2023, to ‘deep friendship’ during the recent summit between Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in Beijing.

As Xi and Putin spelt out their agenda to reshape the existing world order, the two presidents listed areas of cooperation between their countries ranging from nuclear and energy to food supplies and manufacturing. Last year, bilateral trade exceeded $240 billion and was poised to grow.

xi putin summit May 16 2024 summit in Beijing
STRENGTHENING TIES: Presidents Xi and Putin meeting at this year’s May 16 summit in Beijing

‘We must act in the spirit of strategic cooperation to set various visions of global governance on the right track,’ Xi said. ‘China is willing to… jointly achieve the development and rejuvenation of our respective countries, and work together to uphold fairness and justice in the world.’

For his part, Putin insisted that ‘the United States still thinks in terms of the Cold War and is guided by the logic of bloc confrontation’, adding that this is‘putting the security of narrow groups above regional security and stability, which creates a security threat for all countries in the region. The US must abandon this behaviour’.

In fact, the alleged US hegemony has given both China and Russia a common punch-bag and a reason to join hands.

Therefore, Putin’s choice of Beijing as his first port of call after a renewed presidential term, was a strong rebuttal of the Joe Biden administration, which deployed US Secretary of State Antony Blinken a few weeks before to express concern over China helping the Russian military amid the Ukraine war.

As expected, Putin flashed his new-found friendship with Xi, described his visit as the strategic deepening of relations between the two nations, talked about his plans to improve bilateral military ties and noted how such cooperation was contributing to regional and global security.

The Russian president also slammed the West, terming the G7 move to raise $50 billion to help Kyiv from Moscow’s assets frozen by the US and its allies as a punishment for invading Ukraine.He also called it a ‘theft’ and vowed a ‘strong rection’ to the unilateral step.

The West should understand that moves like these will strengthen the China-Russia axis rather than weaken it.

Amit Agnihotri is a Delhi-based journalist who has worked with several national newspapers and focuses on politics and policy issues