Xi Jinping accomplished what he set out to do when he made Moscow his first destination abroad as China’s president: He got the press corps to run stories about how the two outsider powers are set to more explicitly cooperate in limiting Western influence in world affairs from here on out. PR success? Perhaps. But color us skeptical that any bigger change is afoot.
There’s a long history of this kind of ambitious rhetoric coming from the two countries, and it usually doesn’t amount to much. The Soviet Union and Mao’s China famously couldn’t make things work. And more recent history is littered with initiatives, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which were supposed to herald a new era of Sino-Russian cooperation but in fact have made little difference to world affairs.
Read down past today’s headlines on Xi’s visit and you’ll find most news sources including some caveats about the recent public display of affection. For example, many point out that Russia’s leaders are nervous about the country’s energy-rich but underpopulated Far East, considering it sits above a crowded and energy-hungry China. But beyond strategic concerns, there’s a more basic question of national pride at work. Al Jazeera interviewed Dmitry Babich, a Russian political analyst, who said:
I think it’s very flattering for Russia to have the new Chinese leader here… but I wouldn’t say that Russia and China form any kind of axis or, heaven forbid, any kind of military alliance—there are many reasons for this not happening but I think the main one is that if such an axis had been formed, Russia would be the junior partner and this kind of development doesn’t suit Moscow right now.
Seems right to us. Putin came to power promising to restore Russia to its former greatness. Playing second fiddle to China just doesn’t fit into that framework.
So for now, VM maintains that this is a big old nothingburger of an event. China and Russia will continue to cooperate and vote together against Western initiatives when it suits them, all the while suspiciously eyeing each other for evidence of intrigue. Though it’s always dangerous to draw conclusions based on past trends, we see no solid evidence that anything has changed in the well-established dynamic between these two countries.
[Xi and Putin meeting in China, June 6, 2012, courtesy of Getty Images.]