The following is the ninth installment of an extended report on one of the most important geopolitical developments of the 21st century: the increasingly comprehensive alliance between China and Russia and its implications for Eurasian and regional powers across the planet. To follow the series, click here.
Western propagandists blithely overlook that the Sino-Russian alliance is built on strong foundations. Do not forget for a moment that Xi Jinping’s first overseas visit as president was to Russia – in March 2013, a full year ahead of the Ukraine crisis that led to Western sanctions against Moscow. Yet Western analysts insist that the Russian-Chinese entente was a “pivot” by Russia, ensuing from its estrangement with Europe.
Speaking ahead of his visit to Russia, Xi said the two countries were “most important strategic partners” who spoke a “common language.” He called Russia a “friendly neighbor,” and said the fact that he was visiting so soon after assuming the presidency was “a testimony to the great importance China places on its relations with Russia. China-Russia relations have entered a new phase in which the two countries provide major development opportunities to each other.”
In an interview with Russian press on the occasion of Xi’s visit, President Vladimir Putin said Russia-China cooperation would produce “a more just world order.” Russia and China, he said, both demonstrated a “balanced and pragmatic approach” to international crises. (In an article in 2012, Putin had called for further economic cooperation with China to “catch the ‘Chinese wind’ in [its] economic sails”.)
One significant outcome of Xi’s talks with Putin was the formalization of a direct contact between the two high offices in Moscow and Beijing. In July 2014, Sergei Ivanov, then chief of staff of the Presidential Executive Office in the Kremlin, and Li Zhanshu, then head of the Secretariat of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, institutionalized this format when the former visited Beijing.
That was the first ever such format of contact for the Chinese side directly with another country. Li and Ivanov (who was received by Xi Jinping in Beijing) drew up the roadmap for a multifaceted relationship riveted on intensive top-level contacts, and cemented the strategic partnership.
Four years later in a September 2019 visit to Moscow in his new position as chairman of the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress, Li Zhanshu said at a meeting with Putin in the Kremlin, “Nowadays, the US is carrying out double containment of China and Russia, as well as trying to sow discord between us, but we can see this very well and will not take that bait.
“The main reason is that we have a very solid foundation for mutual political trust. We will continue strengthening it and firmly support each other’s aspiration to walk down the path of our own development, as well as defending national interests and ensuring the sovereignty and security of the two countries.”
Li told Putin, “In the last few years, our relations have reached an unprecedentedly high level. It was possible primarily because of strategic leadership and personal effort of the two leaders. Chinese President Xi Jinping and you are great politicians and strategists who think globally and broadly.”
In fact, the joint statement signed by Xi and Putin on June 5 last year in Moscow during the Chinese leader’s state visit to Russia was widely noted as a pivot that elevated the relationship to the new connotation of the China-Russia “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era.”
A Chinese commentator, Kong Jun, writing in the People’s Daily at that time described the June 2019 statement as showcasing “the maturing of a relationship featuring the highest degree of mutual trust, the highest level of coordination and the highest strategic value.” Simply put, Xi’s state visit Russia last year signaled that the two countries were on the threshold of building allied relations de facto though not de jure.
A functional military alliance was in the making too by that time. Exactly three months after Xi’s state visit to Russia, Putin spoke publicly for the first time about an “alliance” with China – precisely, in front of a domestic audience on September 6, 2019, in Vladivostok.
Since then, of course, the messages exchanged between the Russian and Chinese leaders routinely began to underscore their pledge and firm determination to jointly safeguard “global strategic stability,” as enunciated in the June 2019 joint statement issued after Xi’s state visit.
In October last year, hardly four months after Xi’s state visit to Moscow, while addressing a political conference in Sochi, Putin dropped a bombshell. He disclosed, “We are currently helping our Chinese partners to create a missile attack warning system. It is a serious thing that will drastically increase the defense capabilities of the People’s Republic of China. Right now only the US and Russia have such systems.”
A day later, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov lauded Russia’s “special relations, advanced partnership with China … including in the most sensitive [areas] linked to military-technical cooperation and security and defense capabilities.”
Separately, Sergei Boyev, director general of Vympel, a major Russian weapons manufacturer, confirmed to state-run media that the company was working on “modeling” the missile attack warning system for China. “We can’t talk in detail about it because of confidentiality agreements,” Boyev said.
Alliance for global strategic stability
Putin’s speech in Sochi in October 2019 was hugely significant, in which he lauded the “unprecedented level of mutual trust and cooperation in an allied relationship of strategic partnership” between Russia and China. Putin noted that the missile-attack early warning system (Systema Preduprezdenya o Raketnom Napadenii – SPRN) would be “seriously expanding the PRC’s defense capabilities.”
Also, Putin denounced as futile the US attempts to contain China through economic pressure and by building up Asia-Pacific alliances (such as the Quad) with other regional states.
Commenting on Putin’s speech, the pro-Kremlin news site Vzglad flagged that while Moscow and Beijing would not be signing a formal political-military alliance treaty any time soon, the two countries were de facto allies already, closely coordinating their activities in different areas, building together a new world order that might lead to the eviction of US influence from Asia.
This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times. It is the ninth article in a series. Part 10, the concluding article, will examine how military transfers between Russia and China are cementing an enduring alliance.
M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.