It was an image that could have portended the start of a new era. Sporting a self-satisfied grin, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood alongside a confident Chinese President Xi Jinping in February of last year. Putin was still denying plans to invade Ukraine, which he would do just after the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
In a show of unity, the leaders of the two nuclear powers vowed to have a relationship with “no limits.” It looked like a pivotal moment in a global realignment of power. A year later, Putin’s push for a quick victory in Ukraine, one that would solidify Russia’s place as a top global player, looks like a disaster, and the alliance appears much less valuable to Xi. And yet, China and Russia remain close, the world’s two leading autocracies determined to challenge the West and undercut the notion that genuine democracy is the most desirable system of government – lest it come for their jobs.
Both leaders have been courting autocratic regimes. Russia is seeking armaments for its floundering war in Ukraine, and China is hard at work trying to become the center of a new alliance to counter the West. The project has faltered; it is far from a resounding success. But it is very much a work in progress. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has added momentum to the forces trying to reshape the world and thrown a light on the path forward for US foreign policy. In addition to fortifying NATO and strengthening alliances, which President Joe Biden’s administration has accomplished with great success, the US must aim to forestall the creation of a credible, unified force of aggressive antidemocratic regimes.
That means making sure that Russia doesn’t win in Ukraine, but also prying apart Moscow and Beijing (echoing then-President Richard Nixon in the 1970s) and countering China’s efforts to forge stronger bonds with Iran. A bloc of aggressively anti-Western autocracies is precisely what Xi and Putin were launching that day in February. Beijing and Moscow sought to replace the rule of law with “the rule of the strongest,” warned European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. But the rule of the strongest doesn’t work when you can’t win, which is how Russia’s plans started to unravel, and China had to rethink its commitment.
Xi’s “no-limits” friendship did not pan out quite as Putin might have expected. Publicly, China still refuses to call the Russian military campaign an invasion – and Beijing has never condemned Russia’s unprovoked attack of its neighbor. But China has not armed Russian forces, and has at times issued veiled warnings against Russia’s threat of using nuclear weapons. But even after expressing “questions and concerns” about the war, Xi has reaffirmed the strategic bonds. After a video meeting in December, Putin gushed, “We share the same views on the…transformation of the global geopolitical landscape.” Xi, according to state media, said the two countries should “strengthen strategic coordination.” Is Xi in or out with Putin? Xi seems to want it both ways. He wants the relationship with a country that has invaded its neighbor without provocation, but he’s trying to present himself as a responsible global leader; an alternative to the democratic Western model for other countries to follow.
Xi’s desire to emerge as the de facto leader of a major strategic bloc, but one with the prestige of a statesman, creates an opportunity for the West to manage the relationship in a way that achieves President Biden’s efforts to compete vigorously while avoiding a war with China. It is an objective he reiterated on Thursday while talking about the Chinese balloon that traversed the US earlier this month. If Putin’s conflict with Ukraine had turned into a swift Russian victory, the alliance of autocracies would have made huge strides. Moscow’s stumbling has slowed its progress. As Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman noted, Russia could become an albatross around Beijing’s neck. Without Chinese military backing, Putin has looked to other regimes for assistance.
According to US intelligence, Russia has bought artillery shells from North Korea, another notorious dictatorship, which denies its involvement in a war whose morality is beyond the pale. But it is Iran that has apparently provided more significant support. Iranian drones have been one of the weapons of choice as Russia kills Ukrainian civilians and destroys Ukraine’s infrastructure. Tehran first denied it was arming Russia, saying it “has not and will not” provide weapons to Russia.
Those adamant denials changed later, with Iran claiming it sold weapons before the war started, but those were not being used in Ukraine. Now, newly-declassified documents show the drones in Ukraine are identical to those Iran has used in the Middle East. Iran, whose repressive, interventionist regime has also turned it, like Russia, into a pariah to much of the world, now finds itself being courted by both Moscow and Beijing. This week, Ebrahim Raisi became the first Iranian president to visit China in 20 years. The trip, at Xi’s invitation, ostensibly aims to implement an agreement for a 25-year strategic cooperation pact the two reached at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2021. The Beijing-Tehran ties have raised alarms among both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who fear China’s support could help Tehran evade sanctions related to its nuclear and conventional weapons programs, support for terrorism and human rights abuses. Sitting with Raisi, Xi declared that China will strengthen cooperation with Iran, “no matter how international and regional situations change.” Still, recall the “no limits” pledge to Russia. Xi’s vows can prove more conditional than they sound. Beijing’s relationship with Tehran is complicated. In December, when Xi visited Iran-foe Saudi Arabia, a joint statement after meeting with Saudi officials noted Iran’s “destabilizing regional activities” and “support for terrorist and sectarian groups,” infuriating Iran.
Clearly, there’s an internal contradiction in Xi’s dual goals. If you want to elevate your standing to that of a respected global leader, it’s hard to create an alliance of rule-breaking autocrats and assorted dictators, and then expect other countries to join enthusiastically. Much has changed since that day in Beijing, when Xi and Putin smiled for the cameras, expecting a new era to begin. The war didn’t turn out as expected, but it did make it clear that democracies need to push back against belligerent antidemocratic regimes and keep them from joining forces.