Beijing and Moscow push back against democracies

Growing pressure from the West has forced China and Russia to ‘circle the wagons’

It was inevitable. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s comments that made him strong at home have come at the expense of solidarity and friendship abroad.

Growing pressure from the West has ultimately forced China and Russia to “circle the wagons,” and strengthen their political, economic and military relations, despite their uneasy history, Voice Of America reported.

Sino-Russian relations faded in the 1960s when the two Communist parties split over ideology and border conflicts ensued. But that is clearly no longer the case, raising new concerns at the Pentagon and the White House.

In turn, Western democracies from the United States to Australia and throughout Asia to Europe have strengthened their own ties at a time of concern about China’s geopolitical ambitions.

Vocal opposition has grown in response to Beijing’s aggressive language on Taiwan, its crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, and its policies targeting the Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang region, VOA reported.

Also of concern, is China’s “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” approach that has seen President Xi Jinping’s ruling Communist Party become more aggressive in promoting its views on the international stage.

US policies

In Russia, Xi’s administration has found a partner as it tries to stop a return to the US policies of the Barack Obama and George W. Bush presidencies. Back then, smaller nations saw the US as “more acceptable” among the great powers, according to Alan Chong, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

As a result of Xi’s policies at home and abroad and the heated rhetoric coming from Beijing, China’s reputation “has taken a hit,” Chong said. Beijing also sees US President Joe Biden as “a very tough opponent,” he added.

Last month, an essay by Chinese and Russian ambassadors to Washington protested the upcoming US-led Summit for Democracy for creating divisions in the world. Neither nations appeared on the list of 110 invitees.

Russia depends on China’s massive industrial economy for oil and gas exports as environmental rules in the European Union complicate energy imports there, Vassily Kashin, a senior fellow at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, pointed out.

“Most importantly, we don’t like the US global order, so this close partnership is based on common opposition to [that],” Kashin said.

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Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hailed Russia’s relations with China as “unique,” characterized by “comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction.”

But there are also wider benefits. Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that closer Russo-Sino relations will unsettle Washington and its Western partners, complicating strategic calculations for the US.

With the world’s second-strongest military after the US, Russia has held military exercises with China – five made public to date. It also sells arms to its giant neighbor to the south, VOA reported.

In October, they held their 10th annual “Maritime Interaction” naval drills with the Russian Pacific Fleet’s anti-submarine ship Admiral Panteleyev, the Moscow-based Sputnik news service stated.

In the summer, they agreed to extend their 20-year-old Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation to strengthen relations by respecting each other’s interests and sovereignty, VOA reported.

Asia region

There are other links. Russia looks to China for support of its goal in occupying parts of Ukraine, as well as a conduit to show Moscow can “still play a role” in the Asia region,” said Andrew Yang, the secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.

But Ukraine has become a diplomatic minefield. Earlier this week, Biden held a video call with Putin about escalating tension on the borders of Ukraine.

“[Biden] told President Putin directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures,” US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told a media briefing.

Still, China needs Russian weapons, energy and support against Western pressure, Yang said. Russia agreed in 2015 to sell Beijing 24 combat aircraft and four S-400 surface-to-air missile systems for about US$7 billion, VOA reported.

On the economic front, China became Russia’s No. 1 trading partner in 2017. At the time, Xi and Putin agreed to work together to open trade routes by building infrastructure in other countries.

“I think this is the traditional, old-fashioned balance of power. They consider if China and Russia can join together, they can also regulate the regional security issues,” Yang said.

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As defense ties deepen, there are also plans to jointly develop military helicopters, missile attack warning systems, and even a research station on the moon.

“It’s the strongest, closest and best relationship that the two countries have had since at least the mid-1950s. And possibly ever,” Nigel Gould-Davies, a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said.

Calling the current state of affairs “exceptional,” ties have “developed very rapidly within the past 10 years,” he added, accelerating in the wake of Western sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

On foreign policy, Beijing and Moscow share similar approaches to Iran, Syria and Venezuela, while reviving a push to lift United Nations sanctions on North Korea.

Gould-Davies stressed that the main driver behind this is hostility towards liberal democratic values from Beijing and Moscow. “Both countries are ruled by anti-democratic regimes that share a strong common interest in resisting the influence of liberal Western values within their own countries,” he told Al Jazeera.

“They also have a strong shared interest in undermining the states and alliances, beyond their own borders, that embody liberal values. So, their main common interest is in effect, an ideological one – they seek to undermine the democratic and liberal West,” Gould-Davies said.

Cold War-era

Yet Cold War-era distrust between China and Russia could limit cooperation to broad or informal actions rather than a signed pact, analysts say.

The two sides could set up a military technology-sharing deal such as the AUKUS pact involving Australia, the United Kingdom and the US, said Nguyen Thanh Trung, a faculty member at Fulbright University Vietnam.

“Over the last two years, China and Russia have signed a lot of [deals], but I don’t see a lot of concrete progress in their agreements,” Nguyen said. Some analysts also believe there is no reason for the US to become paranoid over a China-Russia informal alliance.

“There is no grand conspiracy against the West,” insisted Bobo Lo, a former Australian diplomat and an independent international relations analyst, at a virtual talk held by the Center for Global Security Research.

“What this is, is a classic great power relationship, meaning it’s driven by common interests, rather than shared values.”

Sources: Voice Of America, China Daily, Sputnik, The Interpreter, Al Jazeera, Associated Press