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The World’s Most Dangerous Alliance
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The World’s Most Dangerous Alliance

How Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are using international institutions to undermine American interests.

On July 8, Xi Jinping spoke with his comrade, Vladimir Putin, by phone. Putin has been one of Xi’s staunchest allies throughout the coronavirus pandemic. And Xi wanted to thank him. The Chinese leader “commended the mutual support and assistance the two countries gave each other at the most trying time of the COVID-19 challenge, an endeavor which added strategic substance to China-Russia relations in the new era,” according to a readout of the call prepared by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Xi didn’t elaborate on what he meant by “new era,” but no explanation was necessary. He meant not only the COVID-19 world we all now live in, but also a new stage in the history of global affairs, one in which America is no longer the top dog. 

The United States of America is not explicitly mentioned in the readout posted online by China’s foreign ministry. But American power was clearly the subtext for the two leaders’ exchange. Xi and Putin share a deep-seated animosity for what was once thought of as the American-led world order. They see it as a threat to their countries’ efforts to achieve great power status and, just as importantly, their authoritarian ambitions. And during their call earlier this month, the two autocrats made it clear that they intend to use international institutions to counter American influence.

Xi and Putin praise each other’s domestic power grabs. 

The U.S. and its allies have criticized the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) new national security law for Hong Kong, as the measure will likely end the region’s longstanding, partial autonomy. Putin takes a different view. After noting that the relationship between Russia and China “is as strong as it has ever been,” Putin “reaffirmed Russia’s firm support for China’s efforts to safeguard national security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” The former KGB man said that he opposed “any provocation aimed at undermining China’s sovereignty,” while expressing his “confidence in China’s ability to ensure lasting prosperity and stability in Hong Kong.” 

Of course, Putin said nothing about the freedoms historically granted to Hong Kongers, who have lived under Chinese sovereignty while enjoying their own unique cultural heritage. Beijing had endorsed this “one country, two systems” model since the British transferred control over the region in 1997. No more. Liberty often threatens an autocrat’s notion of “stability.”

Xi returned Putin’s favor by lauding Russia’s newly passed constitutional amendments, which revoked term limits that would have required Putin to step down in 2024. Putin, 67, can now stay in power until at least 2036. By then, Putin will be an octogenarian and presumably less concerned about how much time he has left in the Kremlin. The amendments contained more than 200 other measures, many of which were designed to buttress Moscow’s grip on power across Russia. One new law bans gay marriage, a move that Putin sees as firming up his support among orthodox believers. Despite his undying affection for the atheist Soviet Union, Putin has never been shy about using religious belief for his own ends. 

The Russian parliament and local governments ratified the amendments earlier this year, but Putin insisted that a national vote on the package be held. The vote was delayed due to the coronavirus, but eventually held in late June. Unsurprisingly, Moscow reported that nearly 78 percent of voters approved the measures. 

Critics quickly charged that the voting was staged, as Putin sought to manufacture the appearance of widespread support for his agenda. Putin evidently concluded that the consent of the governed, or at least the pretense of it, is important for political legitimacy even in a top-down regime such as his own.

Xi was eager to endorse Putin’s charade, describing the nationwide plebiscite “as a strong testament to Russian people’s support for the government and its governance philosophy.” 

China and Russia are dishonest about their global intentions.

While congratulating each other on shoring up their respective bases of power at home, Xi and Putin pledged to ward off any perceived challenge to their domains from abroad. Whenever possible, they use international institutions to accomplish this mission. 

During their phone call earlier this month, Xi explained that the “goal is to move China-Russia relations to a higher level, advance development in both countries, and deliver more benefits to the two peoples.” Xi told Putin that China is ready “to work with Russia for closer coordination and cooperation at the United Nations and other multilateral frameworks, to uphold multilateralism, oppose hegemonism and unilateral actions, and jointly defend international equity and justice.” This will supposedly allow the two nations to “contribute even more to enhanced global governance and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.”

Xi’s wording sounds benign. But behind his rhetoric lies a darker reality. China and Russia manipulate international institutions for their own totalitarian ends. 

During their call, Xi and Putin decried foreign “interference”—meaning actions taken by the U.S. and its allies—while pretending that their own policies are purely defensive in nature. Xi claimed that their coordination is necessary to defend against “external interference and sabotage,” thereby safeguarding “each other’s sovereignty” against challenges by foreign-backed usurpers.

Xi’s framing is a self-serving fiction. Much of the opposition within China and Russia comes from domestic constituencies. It is not manufactured by the two countries’ “external” adversaries.  

Moreover, both China and Russia interfere in the affairs of other countries around the world each and every day. China’s sprawling espionage network inside the U.S. is now the main focal point of America’s law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies. And throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the CCP has asserted its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, as well as in the Himalayas. When international rulings don’t go Beijing’s way, the CCP simply ignores them. 

The Kremlin’s meddling in U.S. elections has garnered much attention, but Putin’s adventurist foreign policy goes well beyond social media trolling and advertising. It has taken the Russian military and mercenaries around the globe. Putin and Russophiles portray the 2008 war with Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea as turf wars motivated by historical disputes and rational concerns over NATO’s expansion. But it is easy to point to Russian machinations in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Venezuela and elsewhere. None of these schemes are truly defensive, but are instead intended to advance Russia’s interests, which are often anti-American.

Russia and China advance their agenda through international institutions.

Regardless of Xi’s and Putin’s dishonesty concerning their own motivations, they are right about one thing. China and Russia are already working together at the U.N. and through other “multilateral frameworks” to advance their agenda. The two countries are among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. And they often vote in lockstep, blocking resolutions that threaten their common interests. 

Consider some recent examples. 

Earlier this month, the Security Council finally approved a resolution that allows for a single border crossing from Turkey into the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. China and Russia had jointly blocked the resolution, which is intended to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid. The U.S. and its allies wanted to maintain at least two routes for the delivery of provisions, but Beijing and Moscow prohibited those efforts. They eventually relented, abstaining from a vote on the resolution, but only after it was whittled down to a single crossing. 

Russia is quick to point out that al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups are based in Idlib. That’s true. There are legitimate terrorist threats emanating out of Idlib. But there are also undeniable humanitarian concerns, which the U.N. resolution was intended to address. Al-Qaeda has significant cadres embedded within the population, but millions of civilians are also trapped between the warring powers. In any event, Russia’s agenda for Syria goes far beyond al-Qaeda or ISIS. Putin has propped up Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal regime for years. In that brutal multi-sided war, Moscow’s forces have co-existed alongside other terrorists for years – namely, the Shiite jihadists dispatched to Syria by Iran. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah, an international terrorist organization, both have American blood on their hands. But they have played a key role in saving Assad’s regime and don’t attack Russia, so the Kremlin’s representatives have praised the Iranian terror proxy and described it as a “legitimate” force. 

Russia and China are not concerned with Iran’s imperialist agenda throughout the Middle East, where Iranian proxies and allies wield power throughout the region (in, for example, Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen), but instead frequently portray the U.S. as the main destabilizing force. They have also opposed the Trump administration’s effort to extend a U.N. arms embargo on the Iranian regime. The embargo was scheduled to be lifted in October of this year as part of the 2015 nuclear accord brokered by the Obama administration and its European allies. President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal and seeks to extend the arms embargo. Russia and China want the embargo lifted. This will clear the way for both countries to sell the Iranian regime advanced weapons systems. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) reported last year that Iran was already evaluating weapons purchases “primarily” from Russia and, to a “lesser extent,” China. The Iranians reportedly want advanced fighter aircraft and tanks, as well as new air defense and coastal defense systems. 

After Iranian proxies attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad late last year, Russia and China blocked a U.N. resolution decrying the assault. The U.S. then killed IRGC-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani in January. Suleimani oversaw terrorist proxies responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in Iraq. Russia quickly condemned the targeted killing, while China offered a more subdued critique. The events in Iraq occurred within days of a four-day joint naval drill between China, Iran, and Russia in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman. The Iranians explicitly portrayed that exercise as a warning to America’s naval presence throughout the region. More recently, the Chinese and Iranians have been negotiating an economic and security pact that would undermine America’s attempts to pressure Tehran. 

Far from the Middle East, Russia and China have bolstered the government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. The two vetoed a draft February 2019 U.N. resolution, introduced by the U.S., which affirmed a commitment to democratic processes and criticized the excessive force employed by Venezuelan security forces. The U.S. and its allies have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the head of Venezuela’s legitimate government. But Putin and Xi haven’t abandoned their position in Latin America. Their interests long predate the most recent political crisis, as both Russia and China entered into economic alliances with Hugo Chávez, the fire breathing, anti-American socialist who led Venezuela until his death in 2013.

Beijing and Moscow provided crucial votes in favor of the Trump administration’s sanctions on North Korea. Those sanctions were part of a “maximum pressure” campaign that is intended to dissuade Kim Jong-un from further developing nuclear weapons. That effort has already failed, and it is doubtful the pressure ever truly reached a “maximum.” But Russia and China have already signaled that they want to begin providing North Korea with a way out from the sanctions. In December, they drafted a proposal that would have eased the sanctions. The draft resolution wasn’t enacted, but it likely signaled the two powers’ desire to abandon the American-led campaign. 

In June, Canada failed to secure a temporary seat on the Security Council. In addition to the five permanent members, the Security Council has 10 seats available to countries for a two-year term. The failure was due, in part, to opposition from Russia and China. Both regimes have been charged with “meddling” in Canada’s affairs. Canada has also been caught up in America’s dispute with China over Huawei, the global technology company. Canadian authorities detained Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, after the U.S. government charged her with evading sanctions against Iran. The Chinese government opposes her extradition to the U.S. and retaliated by arresting two Canadian businessmen. The dispute over Huawei is just one reason that China opposed Canada’s bid for a seat on the Security Council.

The alliance between China and Russia isn’t about “equity and justice.”

The China-Russia alliance isn’t really about defending “international equity and justice,” or building “a community with a shared future for mankind.” That is how Xi Jinping frames the relationship, but his words are clearly deceptive. China and Russia have worked together to bolster Bashar al-Assad’s war machine, the Iranian regime, and Nicolás Maduro’s illegitimate government, among others. They also see their partnership as an essential counterweight to the U.S. and its allies. 

Indeed, the Xi-Putin partnership is arguably the most dangerous relationship on the planet today. 

Photograph by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.