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Why We Should Be Worried About Russia and China Working So Closely
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Why We Should Be Worried About Russia and China Working So Closely

After the Alaska meeting between the U.S. and China, Russian officials quickly moved to boost China.

The March 18 meeting between the Biden administration and representatives from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has generated much attention and commentary. That is understandable given how much is at stake in the rivalry between the world’s two largest economies. But far less attention has been paid to the CCP’s behavior in the days following that dramatic sitdown—namely, how Moscow swiftly moved to bolster Beijing’s diplomatic standing. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov came to the CCP’s defense in the days after the diplomatic dust-up in Alaska, in which Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his opening statement to express concerns about Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as well as China’s “economic coercion,” and his counterpart responded with a long tirade about America. Lavrov did friendly interviews with Chinese media, trumpeting the upcoming 20th anniversary of the “Treaty on Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation” that the two nations entered into in 2001. 

On March 23, Lavrov met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the city of Guilin in southern China. The meeting was heralded across Chinese state-controlled websites. Afterward, Lavrov boasted that Russia and China continued “their close and fruitful cooperation in virtually all spheres on the international stage despite the coronavirus pandemic” and would “continue to strengthen our relations of comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction.” He spoke of bolstering an alternative financial system, such that Beijing, Moscow, and other rogue actors could circumvent U.S. and European sanctions. Lavrov emphasized that they needed to be able to transact business “in national and international currencies other than the [U.S.] dollar,” so they could avoid the bite of Western financial sanctions.

Much of Lavrov’s remarks were focused on the value of international organizations. To that end, the Russian and Chinese foreign ministries released a joint statement “on certain aspects of global governance in modern conditions.” In one sense, it is an example of diplomatic gaslighting. No one could take it seriously on its face. Much of the language in the document mirrors what you would expect to hear from a liberal-minded internationalist, or a progressive. For instance, the two autocratic countries call upon the international community “to contribute to the establishment of a fairer, more democratic and rational multipolar world order.” 

Does anyone really think that Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping are concerned with fairness or ensuring that there is more democracy? 

If you think about the subtext lying just beneath the superficial wording, then the joint statement begins to make more sense. The short document is split into four points. Let’s examine what may be the true meaning behind each. 

The first point begins: “All human rights are universal, indivisible and interrelated.” A few sentences later, the two countries write of the “interdependent” development of “human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Now, neither the Russian, nor the Chinese political system is based on anything resembling the American notion of freedom. And neither regime truly respects any Western version of “human rights.” 

So, what is the real point of this language?  I suspect it can be found in this sentence: “It is time to stop attaching a political agenda to the topic of human rights and abandon the practice of using it as a pretext for interfering in the internal affairs of other states and applying double standards.” 

Moscow and Beijing argue elsewhere that America’s “human rights” record is poor and, therefore, the U.S. government has no right to judge their own abysmal behavior. America has well-documented flaws. But as Jonah Goldberg writes, this comparison is grossly inaccurate when you look at the CCP’s current genocidal and oppressive behavior. Only a Blame America Firster, or a Kremlin apparatchik, would approve of such a false equivalency. Putin and Xi do not want the U.S. to rally international opinion against their evil deeds, which their representatives claim is an example of “interfering in the internal affairs of other states.” One of the best ways for them to neutralize this American attack on their moral standing is to accuse the U.S. of “applying double standards.” No honest party should buy it. 

The second point begins with a risible statement: “Democracy is one of the achievements of humanity.” This wouldn’t be laughable if it were uttered by a true democrat. But it is a bit rich coming from the Russian and Chinese foreign ministries. 

Needless to say, there’s nothing democratic about Putin’s or Xi’s regimes, and they do not admire democracy. Their mouthpieces spend much of their time lambasting America’s political system. The real purpose of this second point can be found in its final two sentences, in which the Russian and Chinese diplomats state that “there is no single standard for a democratic model” and it’s the “legitimate right of sovereign states to independently determine their own trajectory.” In other words, the U.S. has no right to decry the CCP’s crackdown on dissidents in Hong Kong, or its menacing rhetoric aimed at Taiwan, or Putin’s assassination campaign. The two countries again portray any critique of their anti-democratic maneuvers as an “[i]nterference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.” They argue that do so under the “pretext of ‘promoting democracy’ is unacceptable.” 

One can debate the wisdom of trying to promote democracy inside mainland China or Russia. In my view, the U.S. has little ability to do so and should focus on protecting already existing democracies from the combined CCP-Kremlin threat. However, that doesn’t mean the Biden administration should back away from its criticisms, which are necessary to draw a sharp comparison between the American-led West and the world Moscow and Beijing want to create. 

The final two points offer a clue as to how Putin and Xi seek to advance their interests. The joint statement praises “[i]nternational law” as “an important condition for the further development of humanity” and holds up the United Nations as a crucial institution for the “maintenance of international peace and security.” Obviously, the Chinese and Russian foreign ministries wouldn’t think so highly of the United Nations and affiliated organizations if they didn’t see them as useful for advancing their own interests. The Trump administration was beginning to re-examine these institutions through this prism, especially in light of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) servility to the CCP during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. The Biden administration is eager to play a role within these institutions. As one of his first acts in office, President Biden quickly rejoined the WHO in January, undoing Trump’s decision to leave the body. But much work remains to be done if the U.S. wants to prevent the CCP and the Kremlin from using these organizations for their own ends. That’s clearly what they intend to do. 

Speaking in Guilin on March 23, Lavrov was unambiguous concerning Russia’s and China’s embrace of the United Nations. “We share the opinion that Russian-Chinese foreign policy interaction remains a vital factor in global affairs,” Lavrov said. He went on to allege that the U.S. aspires “to undermine the UN-centric international legal framework by using the military-political alliances of the Cold War period and creating similar closed alliances.” 

“We noted the growing importance of the joint activities of Russia, China and a wide range of other countries to preserve the current system of international law in the context of the increasing Western attempts to promote its concept of a rules-based international order,” Lavrov said. 

In other words, Russia and China have their own version of an “international order” in mind—and it’s a deeply anti-American one. 

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.