On October 17, the third Belt and Road Initiative forum opened in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping making his entrance into the Great Hall. In front of him were over twenty heads of state, representatives from more than 130 countries and UN Secretary-General António Guterres. At his side was Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of all the other world leaders. Putin was the first leader to speak after Xi.
Putin held special place at the very public gathering. The BBC called him “the guest of honour.” Xi reminded Putin that this was their forty-second meeting in the past ten years and highlighted their “strong personal relationship.” Putin told his “dear friend” that he understands that being the first country the re-elected Xi visited “is a special sign that emphasizes the level and nature of relations between the People’s Republic of China and Russia.” After the forum, the two leaders held a three hour bi-lateral meeting after which Xi suggested speaking in private. Putin says they “had a private conversation . . . just talked over a cup of tea. We talked for another hour and a half, maybe two hours, and discussed some very confidential issues face to face.”
During the bi-lateral meeting, Xi said that “political mutual trust” between China and Russia “is steadily deepening” and that “close and effective strategic interaction is maintained.”
The political West is often quick to dismiss this close relationship as a marriage of convenience ignited by the current global situation and kept lit by the close personal relationship of the two leaders. Xi poured water on that claim. The relationship between the two countries, he said, “is not an expediency, but a long-term policy to develop the China-Russia relations featuring permanent good-neighborly friendship, comprehensive strategic coordination and mutually beneficial cooperation.”
Xi has said that the relationship between the two countries “even exceeds an alliance in its closeness and effectiveness.” And although the current global climate, so hostile to Russia and China, has fanned the flames and fueled the relationship until it approaches a friendship with “no limits,” it did not ignite it. It is, as Xi said, a “long-term” relationship that began long before the current leaders.
The relationship began in the closing days of the Soviet Union with Brezhnev and Gorbachev. In 1991, as Gorbachev’s time was coming to an end, the two countries held talks on a new relationship. The next year, Yeltsin and the now Russia signed a declaration that identified Russia and China as “friendly states” that would “develop relations of good-neighborliness, friendship, and mutually beneficial cooperation.” By 1995, relations between the two countries had become of “prime importance.” 1997 saw the signing of “the Russian-Chinese Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order,” years before Putin or Xi had risen on the scene.
By 1998, Chinese leader Jiang Zemin was describing the relationship between the two countries as “international relations of a new type,” foreshadowing Putin’s description of “a relationship that probably cannot be compared with anything in the world.”
In 2001, Russia and China formalized their relationship with the signing of the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation.” The relationship would continue to grow closer, fanned by current realities but fed by common interests and a common vision of the international system. Xi has said that “China and Russia both stand for the basic norms governing international relations with … the UN Charter as the cornerstone” and that “we both support progress toward a multi-polar world.”
Former Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying minister has said that “The Chinese-Russian relationship is a stable strategic partnership and by no means a marriage of convenience: it is complex, sturdy, and deeply rooted.”
Xi’s message to Putin during their bi-lateral talks that “China supports the Russian people in pursuing the path of national rejuvenation independently and safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests” indicates that that relationship will survive even these threatening times that have challenged China’s support for Russia. The reference to China supporting Russia’s “security interests” demonstrates a continued empathy for Russia’s insistence that the crisis in Ukraine was precipitated by the US and NATO advancing their security interests at the expense of Russia’s by expanding right up to Russia’s borders. It is a reiteration of Xi’s message to Biden that “the crux of the Ukraine crisis” includes “the security concerns of both Russia and Ukraine.” He told Biden that, US provocation had caused the problem. China has, from the beginning, maintained the position that Russia is not to blame for the current crisis.
Xi and Putin discussed not only their bi-lateral relations but their relations with the world. In his keynote address, Xi said that China does “not engage in ideological confrontation, geopolitical games, or group political confrontations. We oppose unilateral sanctions, economic coercion, and “decoupling and breaking links.”
Xi’s rejection of “ideological [and] group political confrontations” is an echo of China and Russia’s long insistence on moving past the Cold War mentality of ideological and military blocs and alliances. Their strategic partnership has long identified itself as not an alliance. It does not include a mutual defense obligation. It has also long identified itself as not against anyone.
Xi’s rejection of unilateral sanctions is a statement of China and Russia’s claim that they oppose an international world order based on what the US calls “the rules-based order” in favour of the international law codified in the charter international system anchored in the United Nations. It is a rejection of “economic coercion” undertaken unilaterally by an American hegemon without the authorization of the United Nations. With this rejection, Xi is both advocating a new multipolar world order and standing with Russia against the sanctions being enforced on it by the US and its allies.
Putin, too, returned to this central theme of the Russia-China partnership: multipolarity. In his speech, he praised Xi for “spearhead[ing]” the creation of “a fairer multipolar world and system of relations.” Putin then went on to say that Russia and China strive for “respect for the civilisational diversity and the right of every state to its own development model.” This is an aspect of multipolarity that Putin has returned to frequently lately. In his address to the plenary session of the Valdai International Discussion Club on October 5, Putin said that Russia sees “civilization [as] a multifaceted concept subject to various interpretations.” He said Russia rejects the “colonial interpretation whereby there was a ‘civilized world’ serving as a model for the rest, and . . . [t]hose who disagreed were to be coerced into this ‘civilization’” in favour of a multipolar world in which “no one can unilaterally force or compel others to live or behave as a hegemon pleases even when it contradicts the sovereignty, genuine interests, traditions, or customs of peoples and countries.”
In his bi-lateral talk with Xi, Putin further encouraged these ideas, saying that “Russia is willing to work with China to intensify . . . cooperation within multilateral mechanisms such as BRICS, safeguard the international system based on international law, and promote the establishment of a more fair and reasonable global governance system.” Xi pointed out that the recent BRICS expansion demonstrates “the confidence of developing countries in promoting world multipolarity and democratization of international relations.”
The most recent meeting between Putin and Xi reinforces the growing closeness between their two countries and their unified relationship with a more multipolar world.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.