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Dhaka Tribune

Putin and Xi: The empires strike back

  • China-Russia vital partnership began post-Cold War
  • Xi and Putin signaling joint mission to reshape the world
  • China, Russia's key supporter, avoiding red lines to prevent Western sanctions
Update : 01 Oct 2023, 09:35 AM

Moscow, March 2023. On the steps of the Kremlin, Xi Jinping bade farewell to Vladimir Putin after a three-day visit.

Xi's parting words were just within earshot of the cameras. But they echoed around the world.

"Right now there are changes the likes of which we haven't seen for 100 years," he said. "And we are the ones driving these changes together."

Far from shunning Putin as a warmonger as some in the West had hoped, Xi seemed to be declaring a common cause, in a joint mission to reshape the world.

Beginnings

It wasn't always this way. During the Cold War, China and the Soviet Union clashed over ideology and territory, even breaking into open conflict along their border in 1969.

But as the Cold War came to an end, an opening came. "China was under sanctions following the Tiananmen massacre in 1989," said Alexander Gabuev, Director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin. "Russia was the only source of sophisticated military technology."

These were the beginnings of a vital relationship. 

"China's military has benefited tremendously from Russian imports ever since the 1990s," said Zhou Bo, a retired Senior Colonel in China's military. "Without Russia's assistance," he added, "probably the Chinese military would not be as strong as it is today."

'Match made in heaven'

When Vladimir Putin took over in the Kremlin, he quickly moved to build on the relationship, signing the 'Treaty of good-neighborliness and friendly cooperation' with his counterpart Jiang Zemin in 2001.

Months later China joined the World Trade Organization, its ticket to becoming the economic giant we know today. Russia would play a key part in that transformation. 

"This is just a natural match made in heaven," Gabuev said. "Russia has an abundance of natural resources, needs capital and technology. China is the exact opposite."

The China-Russia marriage was taking shape. The mission was still to come.

Munich and Bucharest

Bavaria, February 2007. Leaders gathered for the Munich Security Conference, with Vladimir Putin the most eagerly awaited speaker.

His address would go on to be seen as a turning point: a tirade against a "unipolar world" dominated by "one master:" The US.

Putin railed against almost every aspect of US power, but at the heart of his complaint was the enlargement of Nat, which had gained ten members since the end of the Cold War.

Nato's new members had clamored to join, seeking to cement their democracies in the ultimate security alliance. At the Nato Summit in 2008, Georgia and Ukraine lined up hoping to be next, defying objections from Putin, who himself attended the gathering.

"The emergence of a powerful military bloc on our borders," Putin warned, "will be perceived by Russia as a direct threat to the security of our country."

The US was in favor, France and Germany wary. The result: was a vague promise that both countries would one day join.

Four months later, Russia was at war with Georgia. This was the first manifestation of a fundamental conflict between the right of self-determination of Russia's neighboring states and Putin's insistence that their choices posed a threat. 

Ukraine would become his greatest fixation. 

"Putin is obsessed over control of Ukraine," said Gabuev. "He believes that without control over Ukraine, Russia is not a great power."

These obsessions, with Ukraine, with the US, and with Russia's status, set Putin on a journey to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and on to the full-scale war we are witnessing today.

It's a journey that drove him deeper into China's embrace.

'The great rejuvenation'

Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 after a period of dazzling growth in China. But the Communist Party was under pressure, beset by scandals and a sense of drift.

Xi's response: a crackdown on high-profile corruption cases, doubling down on repression, and talking up a patriotic quest, the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation." With ambitious goals focused on the centennial of communist China in 2049.

"By that time the party strives to turn China into the #1 global power," said Gabuev: ending "centuries of global dominance of the collective West."

The results have already been dramatic, including a smothering of freedoms in Hong Kong, the giant Belt and Road infrastructure project, and mounting threats to seize Taiwan.

The US is pushing back, with a growing consensus in Washington that China is a rival on trade, a risk to technology, and an outright threat to security.

This is hardening Xi's position further. "Western countries led by the US have implemented all-round containment, encirclement, and suppression of China," Xi said in March 2023, two weeks before his visit to the Kremlin.

The mission

Increasingly, Xi's journey is converging with Putin's. Setting them on the mission Xi hinted at on the Kremlin steps.

The two powers coordinate routinely in the UN Security Council and other international arenas, whether expanding the BRICS, building influence across Africa, pushing China's RMB as an alternative to the US dollar, or working to redefine democracy and human rights at the UN Human Rights Council.

This reflects an underlying fear in both regimes that Western powers see them as illegitimate, and that regime change is the US ultimate goal.

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