Why ‘no limits’ Putin friendship will be a problem for Xi Jinping
Almost three weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping declared a “no limits” friendship.
This included Putin supporting Xi’s self-declared right to take Taiwan, including through force, and Xi supporting Russia’s claims with respect to Ukraine. Having met more than 30 times since 2013, the leaders of the two most powerful authoritarian countries openly pledged to oppose American global pre-eminence, weaken US alliances in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, and overturn the primacy of liberal democratic norms in place since the formal end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.
Time will tell whether Putin has ruthlessly outmanoeuvred all of us or set back his imperial plans by inflaming Ukrainian nationalism, invigorating NATO and reviving the suppressed martial instincts of European states.
What is more certain is that Xi has seriously erred by aligning so publicly with Putin. His miscalculation will make things more difficult for Beijing to achieve its imperial ambitions in Asia even as the West is tied up responding to the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine.
Both dictators share a disdain for liberalism and worry about the power of the US and its allies. Yet they pursue different approaches to advance their ambitions.
Russia’s economy is more than 12 times smaller than the combined gross domestic product of NATO members in Europe. As a result, Putin has only a few cards to play, namely military intimidation and threats to disrupt the flow of gas to Europe.
China also uses material coercion and threats against neighbours, but its approach is much more subtle and varied than Putin’s. Beijing’s plan is to lull most regional states into a false sense of security or dissuade them from rearming against China. The former is achieved through convincing states they have nothing to fear and much to gain from a Sino-centric order. The latter is achieved through persuading smaller countries there is no point trying to resist the might of the People’s Liberation Army.
However, Putin is proof we no longer live in the benign post-Cold War world of the ’90s and an authoritarian order is not the same as a liberal system. A Chinese sphere of influence over East Asia could be as unpalatable as a Russian one over eastern and central Europe.
Nothing shocks and focuses the strategic mind as the illegitimate use of force by an invading power and watching the loss of innocent lives in real time. Putin’s savagery is convincing the world that preparing for a fight is the only possible way to dissuade revisionist authoritarian states from starting one in the first place.
The fact Asia lacks a collective security arrangement such as NATO could make things more difficult for Beijing. The trans-Atlantic requirement for consultation and consensus gave Putin the strategic advantage. In contrast, the US does not need all formal treaty allies in the region to agree before a strategy is adopted.
It is enough that those with the will and ability such as Japan and Australia find the stomach and means to stand their ground and push back – which in time will create a more favourable balance and persuade others to join. Indeed, current events will give greater momentum to new arrangements such as AUKUS and the Quad while those on the front line such as Japan and Taiwan will plan more urgently for the worst.
The Xi-Putin axis could come back to bite Beijing in another way. The region has tied itself in knots in failing to respond to what experts refer to as “grey zone” activities by China. These are actions that fall beneath the threshold of what is considered an act of war.
For instance, we foolishly convinced ourselves that Beijing’s constant and increasingly bold incursions into Taiwanese and Japanese air and maritime space, as well as those of several Southeast Asian nations, are grey-zone activities against which we ought not to overreact or even respond – just as Putin’s troop build-up over months was explained away as a coercive negotiating tactic rather than a hostile act.
Putin crossing the line from intimidation to war will cause the region to rethink standards of restraint and proportionality when responding to Chinese grey-zone activities. Each Chinese incursion should not justify a forceful response. But the willingness to increase the non-military costs to China each time it makes an incremental move will grow.
Furthermore, Xi craves regional and global legitimacy for the Communist Party and all that it stands for. Beijing knows it cannot create an Asian sphere of influence and dominate the Indo-Pacific through material coercion alone. The UN General Assembly is often hostile towards the West. Yet 141 countries supported the non-binding resolution demanding that Russia unconditionally withdraw its forces from Ukraine, with only five voting against. China abstained. The fact Beijing cannot even articulate a credible justification for the actions of its new best friend means China will be profoundly tainted by the company it keeps.
Beijing has a dilemma. If Xi shows loyalty to Putin, he joins the latter as a pariah while the sanctions against Russia will harm Chinese companies doing business with Russian entities. This is a problem for a China still heavily dependent on advanced economies to grow its material power and technological prowess. If Xi walks away from Putin, he loses credibility with his most important authoritarian ally without winning back trust and friendship with democratic nations. Either way, China will be in a lonelier position than if the no-limits friendship was never declared in the first place.
The enemy of one’s enemy may seem like a friend, but Russia is now a major problem for China.
John Lee is a non-resident senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC. From 2016 to 2018 he was senior adviser to the Australian foreign minister.