Vladimir Putin is successfully ‘playing the China card’ against the US, analysts say

  • The chances of Washington driving a wedge between Beijing and Moscow are significantly diminished by how different conditions are than when Nixon did it in 1972
  • Putin and Xi Jinping are ‘working together now to really push back and try to change the order that they view doesn’t advantage either of them’

Moscow was shocked when US president Richard Nixon drove a wedge between the Soviet Union and China 50 years ago but now Russia is returning the favour, analysts said on Wednesday as they assessed the US-China-Russia dynamic and President Vladimir Putin’s threat to further invade Ukraine.

Since 2014, Putin’s Russia has effectively exploited Beijing’s rising disenchantment and frustration with the United States, amplified by the confrontational policies of Donald Trump’s administration.

“Putin played the China card on us,” said Evan Medeiros, Asia studies chairman at Georgetown University. “And that’s been very, very successful. So … the challenges of us trying to divide them are substantial.”

The ties between Russia and China were strengthened when President Xi Jinping supported Moscow’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, analysts said, support that could be reciprocated should Beijing try to take Taiwan by force.

“It contributes to Putin sense of confidence and helps explain why Putin judges that this is his time to push his maximalist demands,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security.

“He knows he has a partner in crime. He’s got Xi in his corner. They’re working together now to really push back and try to change the order that they view doesn’t advantage either of them.”

The US government is also raising the alarm about those efforts, with State Department spokesman Ned Price pointing to the lengthy communique issued by Moscow and Beijing earlier this month as evidence of a joint vision of a “destructive” new world order.

“This is an order that is and would be profoundly illiberal, an order that stands in contrast to the system that countries around the world – including, by the way, Russia, and in some ways [China] – have built over the last seven decades,” Price said on Wednesday.

He called on Beijing to instead use its “considerable influence” on Moscow to urge Putin to refrain from violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, noting that the inviolability of territorial sovereignty was a staple of China’s own statecraft.

But analysts said the chances of the US driving a wedge between Beijing and Moscow again were significantly diminished by how different conditions are now.

China is no longer the weak nation it was in 1972. Washington was also able to exploit other fissures, such as China’s fear of a Russian attack after their 1969 border clashes, and some Chinese leaders, including Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai, who favoured reform and greater ties with the West.

Now the two autocratic nations are far more strongly aligned on many counts, including shared defence interests and their distrust of democracy, human rights, rule of law and a free media.

US President Joe has expanded the sanctions against Russia to include penalties against the company that is building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline

“Even if China’s not outright and blatantly backing up Russia, there are areas of their partnership that they can still continue to work together and deepen and that are consequential to the United States,” said Kendall-Taylor.

But their national interests are far from identical, with differences that include their respective penchants for stability, said analysts at a Centre for Strategic and International Studies event.

“The Chinese don’t want a breakdown of global order … China’s rise has been facilitated by globalisation. They just want globalisation more on their terms, increasingly in terms of disadvantaging the United States and other Western economies,” said Medeiros, who served as the top Asia-Pacific policy adviser in president Barack Obama’s administration. “Putin wants to break it.”

China also has significant economic and political interests in Ukraine as part of its Belt and Road Initiative that could be undermined by protracted disruption and war.

“They will have to balance that with the kind of support that we see them giving Russia now,” said Angela Stent, director emerita of Georgetown’s Russian studies department. “I think we’ll have to watch the reaction to the sanctions.”

On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden announced sanctions targeting two large Russian banks and Russia’s sovereign debt in response to Putin’s sending “peacekeeping” forces into Ukraine’s eastern breakaway regions.

He expanded the sanctions on Wednesday to include penalties against the company that is building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

US analysts said the natural fissures might eventually pull China and Russia apart, but any divide could be a long way off given the strength of their current shared interests.

Others questioned the logic of trying to expand the China-Russia rift at all, arguing that this only risked pushing the two authoritarian states closer together.

“I think we spent way too much time, especially in Washington … thinking about how we need to divide Russia from China,” said Michael McFaul, international studies professor at Stanford University.

“We should be thinking much more strategically about how to unite the democratic world.”

US President Joe Biden speaks about the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine from the White House on Tuesday


With around half the world’s GDP, the US and its allies are in a strong position to stand up to Russia and China, said Price, adding: “We have innovation, we have entrepreneurship, we have a shared set of values that we really think are a core instrument of national power.”

McFaul said the strongest US asset is not its computer chips, aircraft carriers or soldiers. “It’s our ideas. That’s where we’re strongest against Xi Jinping,” he said. “That’s where the world is on our side.”

Analysts noted the irony of the wedge strategy coming full circle.

“The United States today finds itself in the similar situation to what the Soviet Union was in the early 1970s,” said Stent.

“And today, the US is in the position where we see these two powers coming together. I think that it’s impossible at this point to try and persuade Russia that it should weaken its ties with China.”

Author: Mark Magnier, SCMP

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