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After the Bell: The Putin and Xi bromance is likely to end in tears

After the Bell: The Putin and Xi bromance is likely to end in tears
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) toast at a reception in the Faceted Chamber in the Kremlin, Moscow, on 21 March 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Pavel Byrkin / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool)

What does one make of the historic meeting this week between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin?

One thing I find a little lacking in the Western media, very understandably, is what you might call a vituperative-free underpinning to reporting on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Even I, as a critic – more than a critic, an angry detractor – can see there are more reasons why Russia might decide to invade Ukraine than I have read in the Western media.

One obvious reason is historic. Russia has been invaded by a European power once a century, every century, for the past four centuries. Of course, this was all a long time ago. But on the most recent occasion – and estimates vary – Russia lost at least 16 million of its citizens, and 15% of its entire population (though some of that was attributable to Stalin’s genocidal tendencies and the gulags). Anyway, when that happens, you tend to not forget about it very quickly.

Of course, it should be noted that Russia has also invaded at least one country in the West once a century or so since 1600. (1755 – Germany; 1792 – Poland; 1914 – Germany; 1939 – Finland, Romania and Poland). But none of these compares in scale to Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia in 1941. Whether you think it’s rational (I don’t) or paranoid, which thug states are inclined towards, Russia’s commitment to having a secure western border is something to take into account.

Control over Eurasian steppe

The second factor, and this might be surprising, is geography. Tactically, Russia’s geographic priority on its western flank is to control the Eurasian steppe. This is the mostly flat piece of land that begins on Germany’s east and gradually widens out to the point where it is practically undefendable from a ground invasion – at least in summer, as the Germans and the French both found out to their huge cost.

There was once a choke point in the gradual expansion of the steppe between the Carpathians in the south and the Baltic Sea in the north. That line is roughly contiguous with the eastern border of Poland. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has seen country after country move closer and closer to the West, to the extent that this choke point really doesn’t exist any more.

So now, should a western ground attack occur, it would have to come through Georgia or Ukraine. This helps to explain, in part, the conflicts between Russia, on the one hand, and Georgia and Ukraine on the other. If you recall how desperately (and viciously) the Russians put down the uprising in Chechnya in the 1990s, that was presumably motivated by the desire to keep pro-Western governments south of the Carpathians. And in case you are wondering why Belarus is siding with Russia, the geographic answer is that were Ukraine to join Nato, Belarus would be surrounded on three sides in open territory by Nato states. Not a happy situation.

 

 

Economics

And of course, economics are at play too. As it happens, and as we are seeing as the war progresses, the Russian and Chinese economies are extremely compatible; the oil and gas (and, by the way, the water) China needs are available in high quantities from Russia, and the tech and manufactured products Russia needs are available from China. Bilateral trade between Russia and China hit a record of $190-billion in 2022. Crude oil, LNG and gas exports are all up substantially as Russia pivots away from Europe – and Europe closes the taps.

This is just a brief, discursive view, bearing in mind other factors are also at play, but these are arguably at least a few of the most important background issues in the current conflict from Russia’s and China’s points of view. But the question is, will the alliance between China and Russia last?

I think there are good reasons it won’t. Russia and China both want the global dominance of the US clipped back, so they have that in common. But their tactics in doing so are very different. I suspect China’s critique of Russia’s methodology with its surprise attack on Ukraine is not about the war as such; it’s the way it’s being conducted and that it is lasting too long.

Second Cold War

China’s underlying tactic was to creep up on the US, economically and militarily, gradually consolidating its position and improving its technology over time. Very sensible, very Chinese. Russia’s actions in Ukraine will inevitably mean huge upgrades to US military tech, exactly what China does not want. The US has never underspent on military tech, but you can imagine the ecstatic joy at the moment in the boardrooms of Lockheed, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman about the advent of the Second Cold War. It’s my guess that this is what the Ukraine conflict will be known as in the future; the start of the resumption of belligerent nation-state competition. 

China’s desire for peace in Ukraine is based on the desire to get back to that strategy. But, particularly if Russia is repelled, it would complicate China’s desire to reincorporate Taiwan. They wouldn’t want their brethren across the strait getting any big ideas, and as the war is progressing, this is what we’re seeing. Russia would probably like to comply, but at this point, the war is too evenly balanced for them to give in just yet. We will see.

The problem for Russia is that as history progresses, its junior role in that “friendship” will become more and more apparent. It already has the character of a dependency rather than a balanced alliance; the very fact that Putin is meeting Xi in person is in some ways evidence of the changing nature of the relationship. How long and to what extent will Russians be happy with being Chinese playthings? Hard question, but now they may have no choice.

Treaty of Tientsin

What intrigues me most about the relationship is whether anyone in the Chinese administration would ever have the audacity to bring up the question of the Treaty of Tientsin. The treaty was one of the biggest of what China now considers to be “unequal treaties” in its history which happened in what it calls the Century of Humiliation. That treaty, along with the subsequent Convention of Peking, among other things, formally gave Russia a huge slice of Outer Manchuria (not to be confused with Outer Mongolia) including access to the Sea of Japan through its major Pacific port, Vladivostok.

I mean, if the legal basis for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine vests in the notion of “historic rights” rather than legal treaties, wouldn’t the Chinese have the right to take back their territory?

Russia signed two treaties recognising Ukraine’s borders, the 1997 Russia-Ukraine Friendship Treaty and the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. But that didn’t restrain it from grabbing parts of Ukraine to which it considers it has “historic rights”. So why should the Chinese be barred by the triviality of the Treaty of Tientsin from reclaiming their “historic rights” to Outer Manchuria which were vested in the Qing dynasty? Mao Zedong certainly didn’t think China should be so restrained.

Just before the invasion, Xi and Putin said there was “no limit” to their friendship. Trust me, there are limits. On both sides. DM/BM

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  • Andre Parker says:

    Excellent analysis by Tim Cohen, including dwelling on Russia’s reasons for invading Ukraine. We ignore the lessons of history at our own peril!
    China plays a long game without imperialistic ambitions. “What’s good for China” is their rallying cry, so they’ll use Russia as Tim suggests. The real tragedy is that the US and Europe are seemingly not looking for a way forward with China as trading partner which would reduce global & regional tensions

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    Excellent piece, thank you Tim Cohen.

  • Mark K says:

    “China’s underlying tactic was to creep up on the US, economically and militarily, gradually consolidating its position and improving its technology over time. Very sensible, very Chinese.”

    This was Deng Xiaoping’s approach and was followed by the CCP leadership until Xi. The thinking has now changed. Xi believes that the West is in terminal decline and China on a guaranteed rise to the number one spot. Consequently, the policy of hiding national strength has been jettisoned and “wolf warrior” diplomacy implemented to give China face with the global south. The intention is to get these countries to accept that China has superseded the US as the superpower. This would then reinforce China’s global sway.

    I agree with pretty much everything else in this piece.

  • Roelf Pretorius says:

    Firstly to say that to be surrounded by Europe on three sides is a threat, is nonsence; it is actually a huge economic advantage, because Europe’s attitude is not one of military attack. That is why they are so lack-lustre in even giving Ukraine the weapons they need proactively. Secondly the emotional bond between Putin and Xi is highly likely because they both have links to Marxist-Leninist ideology, and the fact that it is actually outdated makes them feel uncomfortable so they are looking for someone to share it with. But it is true that the rapprochement will not do Russia or China any good; Russia because they are likely to lose this war (it seems to already starts to happen in Bakhmut) and China because Russia will never be a replacement for the west regarding a market for the goods of the Chinese economy. And where I agree with Tim is that the Ukraine war has definitely woken both USA and Europe up out of its’ slumber; from here on the weapons industry of the west is going to be REALLY booming.

  • Alley Cat says:

    I doubt that China will ever become the number one economy and superpower. Their economy is slowing and if it weren’t for massive government support their housing bubble would have burst. Their population is in negative growth and their now many educated people are already tired of the strong arm tactics of their government. The unprecedented protests over the covid lockdowns should be a big red flag to Xi and his comrades.
    We should remember that not so long ago Japan was considered a threat due to its massive economic strength.
    Every dog has their day and I believe that China’s day is almost over.

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