Momentous change in global politics can be more subtle than expected. In the torrent of political developments that policymakers need to deal with – not least the war in Ukraine – the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing this month was little more than a side note. And yet the political meetings around these sporting contests may mark a pivotal moment for the international order.
Chinese leaders did not pay a visit to the recent Munich Security Conference, but President Xi Jinping held court in the Chinese capital to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Xi also attended a dinner with those political leaders who were not deterred from visiting Beijing for the Olympics opening ceremony by the pandemic or by China’s human rights record.
The meeting with Putin was not only Xi’s first physical encounter with another head of state and government since the beginning of the pandemic, but also a deliberate demonstration of the new kind of relationship that is beneficial for both sides at this juncture. Nothing about the relationship is designed to be eternal, but it is stable. And, in its pragmatic enthusiasm about the opportunities this intensified partnership provides and its collective paranoia about the West’s intentions to destabilise their regimes, the China-Russia axis may pose an even greater challenge than a formal alliance.
Xi’s China finds itself ever more isolated in its disputes with the United States, Europe, and Indo-Pacific states such as Japan, India, and south-east Asian nations. This is because of not only its human rights violations in Xinjiang, its policies vis-à-vis Hong Kong, and its approach to Taiwan but also its increasingly predatory and coercive economic behaviour, which has led an eclectic mix of countries to start reassessing their political and economic relationships with China.
Xi’s decision to close ranks with the Russian leader was first and foremost a demonstration of strength – domestically and internationally. It was a signal that China has important partners and alternatives to the Western-led international order. Out of the almost random-seeming mix of authoritarian and not-so-authoritarian leaders present for the opening ceremony, Putin certainly stood out as by far the most important figure. All the others looked like silent extras.
The Russian presence gave what would otherwise have been a relatively unremarkable exercise the necessary weight, allowing Xi to present the occasion as a success at home despite the absence of notable Western leaders. The 2008 Olympics, in contrast, had a far more illustrious guest list: it included US President George W. Bush, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and even the Norwegian king.
But times have changed. And the key message from Xi’s meeting with Putin was that the relationship between Beijing and Moscow is in great shape, constantly improving, and being publicly taken to a new level.
At a time of a sharp rise in tensions between Russia and the West over Russian aggression in Ukraine, Putin could leave China with rhetorical support for pushing back against alleged “NATO expansionism” and with a shiny new gas deal. This was the first time Putin had received such open Chinese support for his stance on NATO. Seemingly, these actions come at a bearable price for the Chinese leadership – or, as Rudd puts it, “Xi believes he is now powerful enough and has sufficient economic leverage with Europe to get away with it.”
At the same time, Xi could walk out of the meeting with the assurance that Russia supported his position on Taiwan as an indivisible part of China, and a demonstration of political and ideological closeness that is – in his characteristic phrasing – “a comprehensive strategic partnership for a new era”.
Some ask: “so what?” Much ado about nothing. From an economic and technological perspective, China does not need Russia nearly as much as Russia needs China. And Beijing is careful to protect its economic interests from the emerging turmoil of a Russia launching a further invasion of Ukraine.
As was recently pointed out at a meeting of the ECFR Japan-Europe Core Group in Warsaw on the China-Russia relationship (a recording of which is available here), Beijing and Moscow are currently unlikely to rush to each other’s aid during a military escalation, be it in Ukraine or over Taiwan. But the enabling environment of their mutual diplomatic support matters greatly. It is the key to Chinese global ambitions and Russia’s strategic repositioning.
Therefore, it is impossible for Europe and the US to compartmentalise the policy problem they face with respect to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It is not a problem of a bygone era that the West can deal with quickly before moving on to the ‘real’ challenge – China. It is part of the exact same dynamic, a recalibration of positions in a changing world order. Russia’s relative closeness to China makes its interventionism less costly; Russian support lends credibility to China’s desire to reshape that order.
Putin is akin to an opportunist who has found his moment, while Xi believes himself to be capable of reshaping the world to accommodate the Chinese Communist Party’s preferences and enhance China’s position. In the process, Xi is trying pragmatically to strengthen China’s economic resilience and limit its dependence on the West, while also reinterpreting terms that have been synonymous with the Western-led order. Democracy, human rights, sovereignty – he sees all these concepts as malleable enough to be imbued with a new, ideologically flexible meaning.
The China-Russia axis also poses a direct challenge to the regional order in the Indo-Pacific, where China is determined to redefine boundaries and spheres of influence, and to settle the looming question over the status of Taiwan. Russia’s indirect support for this through the creation of distractions elsewhere in the region and the wider world, or even more direct forms of involvement in Taiwan contingencies in the future, are scenarios that European capitals can no longer write off as “unthinkable” or “irrational” and should now think through more thoroughly. Judging by the number and scale of joint military manoeuvres that China and Russia have engaged in for years now, Beijing and Moscow may not only intend to signal military readiness and support mutual confidence-building, but may also come to regard enhanced interoperability of their troops as an asset to be used.
For Europe – particularly the new government in Berlin – this calls for a long-awaited update of China policy and a new approach to Russia. Yet it would also be wise to begin to develop a China and Russia policy: a more holistic approach to the challenges the emerging axis poses to the current international order. This initiative would take account of the reality of the partnership and outline its implications for European policy choices, as an integral part of Berlin’s new National Security Strategy and China Strategy.
In the short term, this could include economic and political signalling vis-à-vis Beijing to drive up the price for supporting Russian aggression in Ukraine. However, it would also need to address the issue more substantively in the medium term through measures such as: closer NATO monitoring of Chinese and Russian military cooperation; intensified intelligence sharing between Indo-Pacific and transatlantic allies and partners, to increase situational awareness of Chinese and Russian joint activities in Asia and Europe; enhanced intelligence gathering on investment flows from China to Russia, including ownership structures of companies; investment in China-Russia expertise at the research level, including through enhanced dialogues between the respective regional specialists; and greater European scenario planning, including with the US and Indo-Pacific partners, to assess the effects of enhanced China-Russia cooperation on Taiwan or in third regions such as the Middle East, central Asia, and Africa.
When asked about this development at the Munich Security Conference last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock agreed that the China-Russia axis would face a stronger and more united West in response. Collectively, they argued that the West and its allies have significantly greater economic strength and would prove resilient in the face of systemic rivalry. But, when it comes to a broader repositioning beyond the immediate threat of military aggression, this unity is far from certain – and far from enough. To face up to the emerging challenge that real alignment between China and Russia would present, Europe will not only need to stay united but will also require a coalition much broader than the transatlantic partnership.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.