Commentary |
6 March 2022

Exploit Xi and Putin mutual distrust to limit China-Russia partnership

Originally published in The Australian.

Ben Scott
Ben Scott

The tightening partnership between China and Russia is dangerous for the West. Beijing and Moscow have the common goal of weakening US power and neutering Western alliances. Tactical differences over Ukraine won’t break Sino-Russian ties. But those ties still hinge on the relationship between two men: Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

Before invading Ukraine, Putin made a special effort to ensure Xi had his back. At the Beijing Winter Olympics, the two leaders released an extraordinarily long joint statement that detailed their “no limits” partnership and shared goals for a new world order. It made no specific mention of Ukraine but both sides committed to “oppose further enlargement of NATO”.

This declaration followed the eye-opening commencement of Chinese-Russian joint long-range air patrols in 2019. Analysts were surprised because they were deeply versed in the relationship’s structural tensions and historical animosities, including the Sino-Soviet split and fighting over the disputed border in 1969.

But not everyone was surprised. Analysts who recognised that the US is the main force pushing Russia and China together were closer to the mark. Donald Trump’s bracketing Russia and China as “great power competitors” was a catalytic moment. Joe Biden’s overarching “autocracies versus democracies” world view has continued the effect.

For Beijing, much closer ties with Russia could offset its lack of other international partners as it takes on the US. The partnership has untapped potential. China can meet the needs of an increasingly sanctioned Russian economy better than any other country. Russia has the oil and gas Beijing needs. Importantly, it can also deliver this across their land border, more securely than the maritime routes China also uses.

More worrying is the relationship’s military potential. Although China’s military is modernising quickly, Russia still has some know-how China needs. Perhaps more importantly, risk-taking Russia has the experience that China lacks – from combat to cyber offensives to election interference. Joint military exercises are becoming more frequent and complex.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, there was much talk in Washington think tanks about how to enlist Moscow to counter Beijing, or do a “reverse Kissinger”. Henry Kissinger capitalised on the Sino-Soviet split to create the US-China relationship and use it against the USSR. Since the Ukraine invasion many have gone back to talking once again about how to turn China against Russia. Neither is realistic.

It’s almost impossible to imagine Washington now making the sort of concessions – to either China or Russia – necessary to fundamentally alter the strategic triangle. But that doesn’t mean efforts to limit the China-Russia partnership should be abandoned. Precisely because the partnership has so much dangerous potential, any limitations would be positive.

This effort should focus on the personal relationship between Xi and Putin. The fact the two have met in person almost 40 times is often seen as evidence of, and the basis for, tightening ties. Kevin Rudd has written that the “chemistry between Xi and Putin is deep. They admire each other’s ruthless political skills”.

Maybe. It’s more likely that Xi and Putin regard one another with the deep mistrust with which they view everyone around them. Viewed in that light, their frequent meetings can be seen as an effort to keep an eye on one another as they try to make the relationship more mutually beneficial.

Their personal intervention is necessary because Xi and Putin are surrounded by underlings unwilling to use their initiative for fear of making a mistake.

It’s one thing for leaders to set the strategic direction, it’s another for bureaucrats to overcome their natural aversion to working with anyone outside their organisation – let alone from another country. This inflexibility is acute in autocracies and it may explain the 5000-word-plus length of their joint statement: Xi and Putin really have to spell it out if they want it done.

So, what can be done to weaken the Sino-Russian partnership? The answer is, anything that heightens distrust between Xi and Putin.

The war in Ukraine won’t fundamentally alter the Sino-Russian partnership but tactical differences could impose some limits on the supposedly “no limits” partnership. Putin may not have fully disclosed his intentions to Xi and China is clearly uncomfortable about being associated with Russia’s behaviour. In return for watered-down language, Beijing abstained rather than vetoed a UN Security Council resolution “deploring” the invasion.

So Biden should continue refraining from speaking of China and Russia as common foes and see to engage Xi and Putin separately. Opportunities to fuel suspicion that he may cut a deal with one or the other should be taken. This won’t produce another grand strategic split between China and Russia. That’s off the table for the foreseeable future. But even incremental limitations on the China-Russia partnership will be consequential.