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Xi and Putin’s Summit for Autocracy
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Xi and Putin’s Summit for Autocracy

The two leaders stressed the strength of their relationship and vowed to protect each other’s interests.

Last week, the State Department hosted the Summit for Democracy, a long-planned event dedicated to one of the central themes of Joe Biden’s presidency. According to Biden, the world is currently embroiled in a contest between autocracies and democracies. The virtual gathering was intended to help buttress the latter. This didn’t escape the attention of the world’s two leading autocrats: China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. 

This week, Xi and Putin offered counterprogramming in the form of their own virtual summit. While Biden’s online gathering included participants from dozens of countries, Xi and Putin limited their screen-to-screen encounter on December 15 to just the two of them. Here are several key takeaways, based on readouts provided by the Chinese and Russian governments.

Xi and Putin crowed that their partnership is stronger than ever and vowed that any effort to break their relationship will fail. 

Both Xi and Putin stressed that their countries’ relations are the “best in history,” even during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has apparently drawn them closer. Putin added that they enjoy a “high degree of strategic mutual trust.”

According to a summary prepared by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the two men explained that their cooperation covers a wide-ranging sphere of activities. For instance, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the “Treaty of Good-neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation,” which the countries have renewed. This treaty and other accords have ensured that China and Russia support “each other’s core interests, thus defending the national dignity and common interests of both countries.”

Indeed, one could say that even though they have not entered into a formal military alliance, each country has pledged to protect the others’ vital interests. Putin listed the ways in which they’ve become integrated, saying the two nations will continue to bolster their economic and trade ties, including cooperation in the “oil and gas, finance … aerospace and aviation” industries, as well as by working on “major projects of strategic importance.” Putin said he will also “promote greater synergy between the Eurasian Economic Union,” a Moscow-led economic project intended to aid post-Soviet countries, and Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

One line in the Chinese readout caught my eye more than any other. It reads: “No attempt to sow discord between Russia and China will ever succeed.” 

Perhaps that is bluster. But on its face, it is a stark rebuttal to the idea, advanced in some Western foreign policy circles, that the U.S. can drive a wedge between the two by granting various concessions to Moscow. It should be noted that Putin consistently rejects this proposal. Just last month, for example, he argued that the two countries enjoy “an all-embracing strategic partnership.”

Russia and China are trying to redefine democracy. 

As I’ve written in the past, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is trying to redefine democracy such that its totalitarian regime qualifies. This rhetorical strategy is intended to undermine the meaning of the word democracy at a time when the U.S. and its allies are seeking to draw a contrast between free forms of government and Beijing-style autocracies. Xi and Putin played this game during their virtual summit.

“President Xi stressed that democracy is a lofty aspiration and common value of all humanity and also a right enjoyed by people of all countries,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in its readout. “Whether a country is democratic or not and how to better realize democracy can only be left to its own people to decide.” In other words, China is already democratic enough, thank you very much. 

Xi was so bold as to claim that “[p]romoting greater democracy in international relations and upholding true multilateralism is the expectation of the people and the prevailing trend of the times.” 

Putin reinforced Xi’s talking points. “Russia is ready for more communication with China on defending true democratic rights and interests of all countries,” the Chinese readout states. 

Obviously, neither regime is truly democratic. Xi and Putin are not only attempting to muddy the waters on the meaning of democracy, but they are also seeking to deflect criticism of their human rights abuses. Xi lamented that other unnamed countries (the U.S.) are “trying to meddle” in their “internal affairs” under the “pretext of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’,” and thereby supposedly violating “international law.” Both Xi and Putin vowed to counter such efforts through the United Nations and other international bodies, claiming to be the true representatives of “multilateralism.” 

In other words, Xi and Putin are attempting to knock the U.S. and the West off the moral high ground. And they are going to continue using international institutions to buttress their own hands in the process.

Putin will attend the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. 

The White House announced earlier this month that the U.S. would not send any diplomatic or other official representation to the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games in Beijing. American athletes will compete, but the U.S. government and its allies will boycott the games due to the Chinese Communist Party’s genocide in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.

During his virtual meeting with Xi, Putin couldn’t resist the opportunity to draw a contrast, saying he looks forward to attending the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics in person. Putin also “reaffirmed Russia’s consistent opposition to attempts at politicizing sports.” 

But anyone who follows the Olympic Games knows that they are entirely political for Vladimir Putin and his cronies. And there is likely a double meaning to Putin’s complaint about others supposedly “politicizing sports.”

Winning gold medals at the Olympics isn’t just an athletic accomplishment for the Kremlin. It is a political victory. Dating back to the days of the Soviet Union, Moscow has always portrayed Olympic glory as a sign of its regime’s political vitality. And Russia has been consistently willing to break the rules to achieve victory. To be clear: All nations, including the U.S., have produced athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to skirt the rules. But Russia (and China) have done so on an industrial scale. The 2017 documentary Icarus became a must-watch during the pandemic, in part, because it documents the degree to which the Russian government facilitates and hides its athletes’ PED use. The Russians were even denied official representation at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro due to a massive doping scandal.

For Putin, the crackdown on Russian doping is not all that different from the American diplomatic boycott in 2022. In Putin’s view, the U.S. and others are politicizing sports. In reality, no one views the Olympic Games through the lens of politics more than the Kremlin’s master. 

Moscow backs Beijing’s position on Taiwan.

The U.S. government invited both Taiwan and Ukraine to send representatives to Biden’s summit for democracy. Both countries accepted the invitation. Of course, Xi and Putin perceived this as a major insult. No nations are more in the autocrats’ crosshairs than Taiwan and Ukraine. 

For his part, Putin vowed to support Xi’s stance on Taiwan. “Russia will be the most staunch [sic] supporter of the Chinese government’s legitimate position on Taiwan-related issues,” China’s readout states. Russia “will firmly oppose moves by any force to undermine China’s interests using Taiwan-related issues.” What this means in practice remains to be seen.

But as Beijing continues to ratchet up the pressure on Taipei, you can bet that Moscow will not stand in the way. 

The world’s two leading autocracies show no signs of breaking apart anytime soon.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.