Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin share a toast. Photo: AFP / Zuma

The initiative by Beijing to propose a virtual meeting between President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which took place on Wednesday, radically transforms the geopolitics of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) relentless eastward expansion and the Western military deployments on Russia’s borders. 

The announcement of the meeting in Beijing came within a day of a Group of Seven meeting of foreign ministers in Liverpool, England, on Sunday, which echoed Washington’s rhetoric over an alleged Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian border and threatened Moscow with “massive consequences and severe cost in response.” 

The G7 meet itself was intended as a new show of Western unity against Russia and China to get the West on the front foot. For the first time, ASEAN countries were also included in the G7 ministerial as a part of plans by US President Joe Biden’s administration to begin a new “Indo-Pacific economic framework” in a renewed attempt to roll back China’s influence in the region. 

Also read: Putin, Xi running circles around Biden’s hybrid war

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ambassador Wang Wenbin said on Monday that the virtual meeting between Xi and Putin was expected to “take stock of the bilateral relations and cooperation outcomes over this year, make top-level design for the relations next year, and exchange views on major international and regional issues of common concern.” 

Wang anticipated that the Xi-Putin video conference “will further enhance our high-level mutual trust, vigorously promote China-Russia ‘back-to-back’ strategic coordination and the robust development of all-round practical cooperation.” And he concluded: “This will provide more stability and positive energy for the complex and fluid international landscape.” 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later disclosed that Putin and Xi would address during the talks NATO’s belligerent rhetoric and the tense situation in Europe. To quote Peskov, the two leaders “will exchange their views on international affairs. The recent developments in international affairs, especially on the European continent, are now very tense and this definitely requires discussion between the allies, between Moscow and Beijing.”

US President Joe Biden speaking at NATO headquarters. Photo: AFP / Olivier Hoslet

Peskov added that Russia is facing “a very aggressive rhetoric both from NATO and the US,” which also needed to be discussed. In effect, Peskov highlighted that the emergent tense situation on the European continent warrants Russia holding consultation with its close ally China. 

No doubt, this signifies an extraordinary dimension to the Russian-Chinese alliance. What role, if any, China is going to play in the evolving scenario will be keenly watched, in particular, as winds for a perfect storm are howling in both Eastern Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. 

Most important, would the discussion on Wednesday fall within the ambit of the plan for Russia-China military cooperation for 2021-2025, which the two countries signed on November 23?

While signing the document, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying: “China and Russia have been strategic partners for many years. Today, in conditions of increasing geopolitical turbulence and growing conflict potential in various parts of the world, the development of our interaction is especially relevant.” 

Specifically, Shoigu drew the attention of his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe to increasingly intensive flights by US strategic bombers near Russian borders. He said: “This month, 10 [US] strategic bombers practiced the scenario of using nuclear weapons against Russia practically simultaneously from the western and eastern directions” and came as close as 20 kilometers to the Russian border. 

Shoigu also noted a rise in the number of US bomber flights over the Sea of Okhotsk, where they practiced the launch of cruise missiles, saying it posed a threat to both Russia and China. “In such an environment, the Russian-Chinese coordination becomes a stabilizing factor in global affairs,” Shoigu said. 

In a brief statement, China’s Defense Ministry said at that point that the two sides would “continue to deepen strategic cooperation between the two militaries, continue to strengthen cooperation in strategic exercises, joint patrols and other areas, and continue to make new contributions to safeguarding the core interests of China and Russia and maintaining international and regional security and stability.” 

Yet Shoigu was speaking only a few weeks ago. Reporting on the pact, the South China Morning Post commented that China and Russia “are edging closer to a de facto military alliance to counter growing pressure from the United States.”

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2020. Photo: AFP / Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik

At the very least, the signing of the roadmap on military cooperation signaled Russia’s and China’s willingness to resist US pressure by relying on combined military efforts, if necessary. 

The US is unable simultaneously to confront both China and Russia militarily, and if the latter were significantly to pool its military power and foreign-policy objectives, that would alter the Eurasian balance of power and disadvantage the US. 

The US still has the most capable military in the world and there is no question that it is more powerful than China or Russia alone, but a newfound unity between the latter two could be strategically draining for Washington. 

Lyle Goldstein, an expert on China and Russia who served for two decades as a research professor at the Naval War College up until October, told Newsweek on Monday: “I think Moscow and Beijing calculate that they can really keep us [Washington] in a kind of maximum confusion, because the theaters are so distant from each other, and the forces involved are quite different.

“I do think they see a gain here in kind of pulling us in two directions at once.” 

Curiously, in Goldstein’s estimation: “I don’t think the United States is prepared to go to war in Ukraine. I don’t think the United States is prepared to go to war over Taiwan. I stand by both those points. So to do both, no, absolutely not.” 

He explained that the Ukraine and Taiwan scenarios in particular “are maximally stressing as they involve high-intensity warfare in theaters that are extremely difficult against opponents that have that single measure of focus. Either one of them on their own would be highly stressing and I would argue, if we were to get involved, there’s a good possibility that we might lose.”

Be that as it may, the video call on Wednesday sets the stage for Putin’s visit to Beijing at Xi Jinping’s personal invitation as the chief guest at the upcoming Winter Olympics from February 4-20. 

China's President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 11, 2018. Photo: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office / Anadolu Agency
More talks are scheduled next year between China’s President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: AFP / Russian Presidential Press and Information Office / Anadolu Agency

From the look of it, the two leaders’ face-to-face meeting in Beijing in early February will be an event of great significance for global stability and the further consolidation of the strategic partnership between the two countries. 

Conceivably, the virtual meeting on Wednesday amid the rising tensions in Russia’s relations with the US is a display of the realization in Beijing that “only by joining hands can China and Russia counter the attack from the US-led clique and avoid falling into passivity,” as Cui Heng, a well known Chinese scholar at the Center for Russian Studies of East China Normal University, told the Global Times. 

Lest it gets overlooked, the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation signed by China and Russia in 2001 enshrines that “Russia recognizes the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government representing the whole China. Taiwan is a constituent part of China.”

The pact is a foundational document on which the Sino-Russian alliance is anchored.  

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.