Sino-Russian entente shifts the tectonic plates of world politics

Time is on Russia and China’s side. The gravitas in their alliance is already infectious, as far-flung countries in the global south flock to them.

5 mins read
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a solemn welcome ceremony for Chinese President Xi Jinping at the St. George's Hall at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 21, 2023. (Xinhua/Xie Huanchi)

The state visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to China underscored that the two superpowers’ choice of entente-type alignment has gained traction. It falls short of explicit military obligations of support and yet will not entirely rule out military support either. By embracing a form of strategic ambiguity, it provides them the optimal means to address the common threat they face from the United States via the prism of collective action while preserving the autonomy for independent action to pursue specific interests. 

The epochal significance of the talks in Beijing lies in that the bedrock of strategic understanding accruing steadily to the modelling effort of the Russia-China entente has evolved into a more effective alignment choice than a formal alliance to balance against the US’ dual containment strategy. 

The entente permits both Russia and China to strike the middle ground between entrapment and deterrence. At the same time, the strategic ambiguity inherent in these two seemingly self-contradictory goals of an entente is expected to be a key component of its success as an alignment strategy.

The Russian state news agency Tass reported from Beijing on Thursday that “the central topic is expected to be the Ukraine crisis and the informal tea party and a dinner in the restricted format between Xi and Putin would be “the most important part of the Beijing talks” where the two presidents would hold “substantial talks on Ukraine.” 

In his media statement following the talks, Xi Jinping made clear the guiding principle. He said, “The idea of friendship has become deeply ingrained in our mindsets… We also demonstrate mutual and resolute support on matters dealing with the core interests of both parties and address each other’s current concerns. This is the main pillar of the Russia-China comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation for a new era.” 

Xi added, “China and Russia believe that the Ukraine crisis must be resolved by political means… This approach aims to shape a new balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture.”

Putin responded that Moscow positively evaluates the Chinese plan. He told Xinhua news agency in aaa interview that Beijing is well aware of the root causes and global geopolitical significance of this conflict. And the ideas and proposals recorded in the document testify to the “sincere desire of our Chinese friends to help stabilise the situation,” Putin said.

The mutual trust and confidence is such that the current Russian offensive in Kharkov began on May 10 just six days before Putin’s trip to China. Beijing knows it is a defining moment in the war — Moscow is only 3-4 minutes away in a missile strike if NATO gains access to the city. 

Notably, the joint statement issued after Putin’s visit affirms that for “a sustainable settlement of the Ukrainian crisis, it is necessary to eliminate its root causes.” Going beyond the vexed issue of NATO expansion, the 7000-word document for the first time attacked the demolition of monuments to the Red Army in Ukraine and across Europe and the rehabilitation of fascism.   

Beijing senses that Russia has gained the upper hand in the war. Indeed, if the NATO were to suffer defeat in Ukraine, it would have profound consequences for the transatlantic system and the US’ inclination to risk yet another confrontation in the Asia-Pacific. (Interestingly, Taiwan’s outgoing foreign minister, Joseph Wu, said in an interview with Associated Press that Putin’s visit to China testified to Russia and China “helping each other expand their territorial reach”.)  

China is mindful of the fault lines in the Euro-Atlantic alliance and is purposively developing close relationship with parts of continental Europe. This was the leitmotif of Xi’s recent tour of France, Serbia and Hungary, as evident from the nervous reaction in Washington and London.  

China hopes to buy as much time as possible to keep the flashpoint in Taiwan at bay. China has no illusions that its confrontation with the US is strategic in nature and at its core lies Washington’s aim to control access to the world’s resources and markets and impose the global standards in the fourth industrial revolution. 

Unlike Russia, China carries no baggage in its relations with Europe. And European priorities do not lie in getting entangled in a US-China confrontation, either. European elites are not considering any new policy yet but this is likely to change after the elections to the European Parliament (June 6-8) as they are pushed to find a compromise with Russia stemming out of the rising economic costs associated with defence spending, deepening concern about the prospect of a direct conflict with Russia amidst the growing realisation that Russia cannot be defeated, and an awakening of public opinion that European spending on Ukraine in effect is financing the US military-industrial complex. 

China expects all this to have a salutary effect on international security in a near term.The bottom line is that China has high stakes in a harmonious relationship with Europe, which is a crucial economic partner, second only to ASEAN. As a Russian pundit wrote last week, “China sincerely believes that economics play a central role in world politics. Despite its ancient roots, Chinese foreign policy culture is also a product of Marxist thinking, in which the economic base is vital in relation to the political superstructure.” 

Simply put, Beijing is counting that the deepening of its economic ties with the EU is the surest way to encourage the leading European powers to rein in the US’ adventurist, unilateral interventionist strategies in world politics. 

The dialectics at work in the Sino-Russian entente cannot be properly understood if the western narratives keep counting the trees but only to miss the big picture of the lumber timber woodland. By the way, one factor in the successful “de-dollarisation” of the Russian-Chinese payment system is that the US has lost its wherewithal to monitor the traffic across that vast 4,209.3 km border and is increasingly kept guessing what’s going on. 

Time is on Russia and China’s side. The gravitas in their alliance is already infectious, as far-flung countries in the global south flock to them. A strong Russian presence along west Africa’s Atlantic coast is now only a matter of time. The intensifying foreign policy coordination between Moscow and Beijing means that they are moving in tandem while also pursuing independent foreign policies and allowing space for them to leverage specific interests. 

Xi stated in his media statement that China and Russia are committed to strategic coordination as an underpinning of relations, and steer global governance in the right direction. On this part, Putin highlighted that the two big powers have maintained close coordination on the international stage and are jointly committed to promoting the establishment of a more democratic multipolar world order. 

The symbolic component of Putin’s visit to China, being his first trip after the inauguration, is of great importance. The Chinese read all these signs perfectly and fully appreciate that Putin is sending a message to the world about his priorities and the strength of his personal ties with Xi. 

The joint statement, which signifies a deepening of the strategic relationship, mentions plans to step up military ties and how defence sector cooperation between the two nations has improved regional and global security. 

Most important, it singled out the United States for criticism. The joint statement says, “The United States still thinks in terms of the Cold War and is guided by the logic of bloc confrontation, 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.”

The joint statement also “condemn(ed) the initiatives on confiscation of assets and property of foreign states and emphasise(d) the right of such states to apply retaliation measures in accordance with international legal norms” — a clear reference to Western moves to redirect profits from frozen Russian assets or the assets themselves, to help Ukraine. China is on guard, as evident from its steady downsizing of holdings of US Treasury bonds and addition of more and more gold to its reserves than it had in nearly 50 years.      

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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