Why Biden won’t drive a wedge between Russia and China
As Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin await their first summit on 16 June in Geneva, Russia and China are set on confronting what they perceive as America’s world domination, the Western-conceived rules-based order and American homilies on democracy and human rights.
Nevertheless, some hope that the United States will be able to drive a wedge between Russia and China for reasons ranging from the presence of Chinese immigrants in Siberia to the economic weakness of Russia. The chances are that the ‘wedge hopefuls’ are indulging in wishful thinking. Or their optimism about America driving a rift between Russia and China amounts to the wish giving birth to the thought.
How do Russia and China define their world status in relation to the United States? Putin’s declaration in 2019 that Russia is not striving for superpower status suggests that it accepts that it is not the equal of the United States, though it has since long wished to be recognized as a great power. China’s territorial expansionism, economic and military strength make it the main challenger to America in Asia. Strategic interests are the primary definition of ‘power’: China wants world-class armed forces by 2050 to establish its equality with the United States.
Biden’s determination that America would continue to outsmart China militarily and economically, uphold democracy and human rights and his condemnation of President Vladimir Putin as a “killer” because of Moscow’s detention of the dissident Alexander Navalny have hardened the Chinese and Russian stances against America. This was clear from the talks between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Guilin in March. They were followed by parleys between Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party Yang Jiechi and Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Russia’s Security Council in May. Denouncing Biden for calling Putin a killer and for ratcheting up the degree of confrontation to unprecedented proportions, Moscow recalled its ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, for consultations.
Meanwhile, the 20th anniversary of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership in April highlighted the deep-rooted contest between the United States on one side and the two countries it sees as its global adversaries, raising doubts about Biden and Putin easing tensions when they meet in Geneva.
Russia and China advertise the strength of their comprehensive security partnership. Putin sees it at its best level in history. To Moscow, the partnership is “an even closer bond” than any alliance.
Russia and China will not forge a NATO-type military alliance. Pointing out that both the European Union and China are Russia’s neighbors, Lavrov declares that Russia has always been interested in promoting “our relations across all areas.” Rather than think about a ‘Cold War alignment’, Moscow envisions “the modern era where multi-polarity is growing.”
China hails their partnership as “solid as a rock through thick and thin” while accusing the United States of wanting to rule the world. America’s “suppression” of China and Russia have driven them “strategically closer”. Referring to both countries as “great powers”, an editorial in the official Global Times contrasts their partnership between equals with United States-dominated alliances and warns that America could not contain both Russia and China. The implication is that together they would be too strong for the United States. That they do not intend to resort to war to contain America is apparent from the editorial which says that China and Russia will respond through “means including joint military exercises” and strengthening cooperation in Eurasia.
Joint opposition to the rules-based order
Russia and China resist the Western idea of a rules-based order. At the Boao Forum for Asia in April, President Xi Jinping declared that rules set by one or a few countries could not be imposed on others, nor could unilateralism pursued by certain countries (implying the United States) be allowed to set the pace for the whole world.
To Moscow, the West’s concept of a rules-based order facilitates its circumvention of international law, which mirrors international consensus or broad agreement. America and Britain “freely admit” that they have had the biggest hand in shaping these rules and now want to impose them on all countries. This “totalitarianism in global affairs” is unacceptable, all the more so as the United States and its allies reject the principles of democracy and multilateralism on the global stage.
Lavrov argues that the ability of Russia and China to carve out spheres of influence is no different from what America has already done outside its own borders. Moscow also sees America working against Beijing’s aim of “reunifying Chinese lands – incrementally and without haste, but purposefully and persistently.” This implies Russia’s acceptance of China’s claims to the South China Sea – and its territorial ambitions generally.
On human rights and democracy, Russia and China have taken up America’s gauntlet. To them, western interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states under the pretext of promoting democracy and upholding human rights is unacceptable. They support each other. In 2019, Russia joined 35 other states at the United Nations in supporting China’s policies in Xinjiang. Last January, China affirmed that the issue of the near-fatal nerve-agent attack on Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his subsequent jailing was “entirely an internal matter for Russia”. Given this background, it is unlikely that pressure by Biden will narrow the gap on human rights when he meets Putin in Geneva.
Beijing and Moscow will stand their ground against what they perceive as America’s highhandedness. China’s Foreign Ministry views the ties with Russia as having been “toughened and hardened into gold”. Russia sees the need to overcome the “unhealthy situation” that has developed between Moscow and Washington since the Obama presidency. All told, a realistic Russia does not expect Biden and Putin to find common ground in Geneva, and it rules out a reset in its ties with America.
How will Biden rise to the occasion?