Under the pressure of US sanctions, threats, aggression and an imposed Second Cold War, the Russia-China relationship is growing closer and closer.
On December 15, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met for a virtual summit. XI welcomed his "old friend," and Putin greeted his "dear friend."
Their greetings to each other were neither scripted nor posturing for the West. In June 2018, Putin told an interviewer that "President XI Jinping is probably the only world leader I have celebrated one of my birthdays with." He added that XI"is a very reliable partner." For his part, XI has called Putin "my best, most intimate friend."
But the growing relationship is not just a friendship between the leaders of the people of the two countries. It is also a growing friendship between the people of the two countries. Relations between Russia and China were not always good. In 2016, before the intense US pressure started pushing the two countries together, only 34% of Russians viewed China favorably; in 2019, 84% saw China as "more a partner than a rival."
Russia and China have also partnered as the leaders of an important new set of international organizations, like the BRICS nations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Both of these organizations are intended to balance US hegemony and exceptionalism in international politics. Both of these organizations are huge, each representing nearly half the world, and both are led by Russia and China as the principal partners. Both also include India. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization represents a quarter of the world’s economy and four of its nuclear powers.
In their virtual summit, Putin and XI discussed the possibility of a three way summit with India, a member of both BRICS and the SCO: a message the US must surely be listening to as it forces nations to choose sides in the new Cold War.
But most important is the increasingly tight bilateral relationship between Russia and China.
The modern Russia-China relationship was first contracted with the he Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, in which the two nations commit not to enter into "any alliance or be party to any bloc . . . which compromises the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the other. . .. " Dmitri Trenin, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center explains the relationship as one in which, though Russia and China "do not have to follow each other," they "will never go against each other."
But Putin said in his June 2018 interview that that treaty "is only the foundation we have built our current relationship on." He said that, building on that foundation, the structure is "growing taller and stronger."
It grew much stronger on June 5, 2019, when according to Alexander Lukin of HSE University in Moscow, Russia and China signed a joint statement announcing a "comprehensive and strategic interaction." Russia is "officially developing," Lukin says, "a ‘strategic partnership’ with Beijing, making China not only a friend, but practically an ally."
The wording is important. Russia and China both want a world that transcends blocs, and they are reluctant to enter into formal alliances or blocs. They are more than friends and practically allies. Striving for an ambiguous formulation that doesn’t commit to being a bloc or an alliance while implying something more than a bloc or an alliance, in his June 2018 interview, Putin described Russia’s relationship with China as "a relationship that probably cannot be compared with anything in the world."
Echoing and strengthening that rhetorical ambiguity, in their virtual summit, Chinese President XI Jinping described a relationship that is growing ever closer when he said "this relationship even exceeds an alliance in its closeness and effectiveness.”
In a personal correspondence, Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who prepared daily intelligence briefs for several presidents and was Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch, told me that the XI’s formulation would have been chosen very carefully. The calculated ambiguity was meant to convey both that it is not an alliance – so that China doesn’t get drawn into Ukraine, and Russia doesn’t get drawn into Taiwan – and that is so close it exceeds an alliance. It is a formulation deliberately broadcast during the summit as a warning to the US if it persists in forcing the world into a second cold war. Unlike the first cold war, this time the US will face two superpowers.
McGovern told me that a key part of what is behind this message is Putin’s earnestness about getting a legally binding assurance that NATO will stop expanding east toward Ukraine and Russia’s borders. But, he said, what is even more important to Putin is NATO’s plan to put anti-ballistic missiles within range of Russia.
On December 2, 2021, Putin clearly demanded "reliable and long-term security guarantees [that] would exclude any further NATO moves eastward and the deployment of weapons systems that threaten us in close vicinity to Russian territory." On December 15, the day of his summit with XI, Putin sent the US a proposal on mutual security guarantees and a request for immediate negotiations. Putin informed XI of the security guarantee proposal during their virtual summit.
It was in response to that information that, during the summit, XI said "We firmly support each other on issues concerning each other’s core interests" and proposed that Russia and China cooperate to "more effectively safeguard the security interests of both parties."
McGovern says that XI was very clear in stressing that he appreciates and admires Putin’s emphasis over the years on the need to respect China’s core interests and his strongly resisting US attempts to drive a wedge between China and Russia. XI stressed the close relationship and emphasized that since Putin had admirably and loyally stressed the close and mutually beneficial relationship, he was not going to leave Russia alone in its demand to get security guarantees from the US. The message was clear: they supported us; we will support them. And the issue was clearly NATO.
The choice of words and the public message to Biden were very clear. If you are going to persist in forcing a second cold war, it will be a different cold war. This time it won’t be a cold war with Russia or China: it will be a cold war with Russia and China.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.