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THE US FACTOR

Following the Biden-Putin summit when the US leader highlighted the threats posed by China to Russia, Chinese and Russian leaders extended a friendship treaty and reaffirmed their partnership. How will this affect ties with the US?

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, Moscow, June 5, 2019

In a video meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 28, the two leaders issued a joint statement announcing the extension of the 20-yearold China-Russia Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation (FCT).  

Given the ever-closer ties between the two countries amid increasing tensions with the West in recent years, the decision to extend the friendship treaty was no surprise. But taking place shortly after the closely watched summit between Putin and US President Joe Biden in Geneva, Switzerland on June 16, it led to much speculation about the developing dynamics of the trilateral relationship between the US, China and Russia.  

Biden-Putin Summit 
China was widely considered to be a prime issue in the keynote summit between Biden and Putin, with the perception that Washington wishes to stabilize its relationship with Russia to instead focus its energy on China.  

Addressing media after his meeting with Putin, Biden described Russia as a struggling country with a long border with China, which aspires to become the world’s largest economy with the most powerful military in the world. “Russia is in a very difficult spot right now,” Biden said. “They are being squeezed by China. They want desperately to remain a major power.” 
 
Both Russian and Chinese officials made clear that ties are unshakable. In an interview with NBC before his meeting with Biden, Putin said that he sees there are “attempts at destroying the relationship between Russia and China. “China is a friendly nation,” Putin said, “It has not declared us an enemy, as the US has done.”  

In response to Putin’s remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in a news conference that “indeed, China and Russia are united like a mountain, and our friendship is unbreakable.”  

In the video meeting between Xi and Putin, Xi said the ChinaRussia relationship is “mature, stable and solid, and can withstand the test of any international storm.” The two leaders said the friendship treaty had helped take the bilateral relationship to an “unprecedented height,” and agreed to extend it for five years.
  
In the joint statement issued after the video meeting, there is no mention of the US, but some of the content is believed to directly address the efforts of Washington to alienate Russia and China.  

“Russia needs a prosperous and stable China, and China needs a strong and successful Russia,” reads that statement. “China and Russia have permanently settled historical issues regarding their mutual border with no territorial claim against each other. The two sides are committed to turning their long borderline into a bond for permanent peace and friendship between the two countries, as well as the foundation for the bilateral relationship,” the statement continues. 
 
Both countries agreed to uphold common values of humanity, including peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy and freedom. This was the first time the two heads of state jointly defined common values, which appears to be in response to Biden’s “valuebased” diplomacy.  

US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at Villa la Grange, Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021

Quasi-alliance 
While Putin said the joint statement “reflects the unique role of this instrument in the establishment of the modern model of Russian Chinese relations and their importance for the establishment of a fairer international order,” Xi said the China-Russia relationship has helped uphold “true multilateralism and global justice.”

Amid increasing US pressure on Moscow’s handling of domestic political opposition and Beijing’s stance on issues relating to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan, both leaders reiterated their opposition to interference in other countries’ domestic affairs “in the name of so-called democracy and human rights, and to unilateral sanctions.”  

Signed in July 2001 in Moscow, the FCT outlines guidelines for strategic cooperation between China and Russia. The most talked about part in the West is Article 9, which states: “When a situation arises in which one of the contracting parties deems that peace is being threatened and undermined or its security interests are involved or when it is confronted with the threat of aggression, the contracting parties shall immediately hold contacts and consultations in order to eliminate such threats.”  

For many observers, the clause implies that if one of the two countries comes under attack, the other would be obligated to react, which provides a foundation for a full military alliance. In the past years, there has been much discussion about a possible formal alliance between China and Russia, especially after Putin said last fall that the prospect of a military alliance with China cannot be ruled out entirely.  

According to Professor Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University, despite closer ties between Russia and China, the two countries will not form a military alliance. “While Beijing has said there is no ceiling for the development of the China-Russia relationship, their cooperation will never reach the level of the US and its military alliances,” Yan said.  

On the contrary, both China and Russia appear to be trying to distinguish their partnership from what the joint statement called the US-led “Cold War-era military alliance.” While Xi described the China-Russia relationship as “a gold standard of a new model of international relations,” Putin called it “an example of 21st-century interstate cooperation."  

In an editorial published on June 28, the State-owned Global Times claimed in an editorial that Washington thinks it can drive a wedge between Russia and China by talking about which side in the bilateral relationship is dominant because “the alliance of the US and other Western countries is dominated by Washington” and that serves “the US’s hegemonic strategy.”  

“By contrast, China and Russia are equal in their comprehensive strategic partnership,” says the editorial, “Neither China nor Russia will tell the other side how to deal with relations with the US or any other third country.”  

So far, the status of China-Russia relations appears to suit both countries’ global diplomatic approach. For years, China has been promoting the concept of a “new-type of major power relationship,” which centers around ideas of equality and mutual respect. Russia, for its part, has been striving for global recognition as a great power.  

In an article published in Singapore-based newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, Xiang Lanxin, a professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, argued that a major policy adjustment in Biden’s rapprochement with Russia is to deal with Russia on level ground.  

In his summit with Putin, Biden referred to the US and Russia as “two great powers,” which marks a change from the rhetoric of former US president Barack Obama, who called Russia “a regional power” in 2014 and downplayed Russia’s global role in the following years. By recognizing Russia’s global status, Biden could manage to stabilize the bilateral relationship, but most experts believe that it will have no major impact on China-Russia ties.  

United Front 
In an article published on chinausfocus.com, Cui Lei, an associate research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, said that given the deep structural conflicts between the US and Russia, and the strong anti-Russia sentiments in US domestic politics, there is little the Biden administration can offer to swing Russia against China.  

“There are no major outstanding disputes between Russia and China,” Cui said. “On the contrary, both face hostility and sanctions from the US. Cooperating with each other seems to be the only choice.”  

Cui pointed out that on the economic front, bilateral trade with the US and Russia amounted to only US$20 billion in 2020, a fraction of the trade volume between China and Russia which reached US$108 billion in 2020. “Unless there is a major strategic realignment, it’s simply inconceivable that Washington can alienate Russia and China,” Cui added.  

Given the strong ties between Russia and China and a stabilizing relationship between the US and Russia, it seems that the US China relationship remains the biggest uncertainty in their triangular interaction.  

Following the Biden-Putin summit, the White House suggested that Biden could meet with Xi in the coming months, possibly on the sidelines of the G20 summit to be held in Rome in late October, although so far it is not known how many G20 leaders will attend in person. Beijing’s reaction appeared lukewarm as China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “it is aware of the reports but has no further information to offer.” Citing Chinese experts, a South China Morning Post report said that as there appears to be little room for compromise between the two sides, China is “not keen” on such a meeting.  

Immediately after the virtual meeting between Xi and Putin, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi opted to not attend in person a keynote G20 foreign and development ministers meeting held on June 29 in Matera, Italy. Given the tension between the US and China, Wang’s decision to only attend the meeting virtually was interpreted as trying to avoid meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, which could have seen a repeat of the harsh exchanges during their earlier meeting in Alaska in March.  

In the meantime, Wang’s Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov was also absent from the G20 ministerial meeting in person, which could indicate a subtle message that the two countries will continue to coordinate with each other in their diplomatic activities.  

While it remains unclear whether the proposed meeting between Xi and Biden will materialize, the US will most likely continue to face a united front from China and Russia in the coming months and years. 

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