China has long quietly supported Russia’s war in Ukraine. Then there was clear resentment when Xi condemned Putin’s nuclear threats. Now the uncanny dictator friendship should flourish again.
At the end of the year, Xi and Putin once again wanted to demonstrate to the world that their new axis of dictatorships is stronger than ever. In December, the two held joint maneuvers around the coasts of Taiwan and Japan. Moscow and Beijing have moved even closer together since the start of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine at the end of February. The rulers Putin and Xi see their countries’ cooperation as the closest of all possible partnerships.
The fact that Xi Jinping assured the German Chancellor during his visit to Beijing that the People’s Republic is against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine cannot hide this either. This minimum consensus among civilized nations in no way means a departure from Moscow, which the phone call between the two autocrats shortly before New Year’s Eve should once again underline.
Although the People’s Republic has never officially admitted military support to Russia, weapons technology may have found its way to the front in occupied Ukraine via North Korea. Putin and Xi are both supporters of North Korea’s Stone Age regime of Kim Jong-un (just as they are closely associated with the mullahs’ regime in Tehran).
According to the New York Times newspaper, Pyongyang conducted 88 missile tests last year, and several of the missiles landed in seas belonging to Japan or South Korea, causing the armies of both countries (and the US Army, which is stationed in both countries as an ally ist) has put on alert. There is also agreement that North Korea is now capable of nuclear missiles.
For its part, Beijing fired rockets during the naval blockade of democratic and free Taiwan in August, which fell off the coast of Taiwan. This was Xi’s retaliation for US politician Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island. Beijing claims that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic. In truth, however, the CP never ruled over this island, which is now a thriving democracy.
Moscow and Beijing are both aiming for an escalation in the western Pacific, their maneuvers now are not intended to calm the waves that have been raised in the past few months. The Kremlin has repeatedly reinforced Xi’s claim to Taiwan. The two dictators can pull together here, since Xi has no interests in Ukraine and Putin has none in Taiwan.
Beijing’s aim beyond Taiwan is to brutally negotiate the international waters of the West Pacific into national ones in order to be able to dominate world trade as it pleases. To this end, Chinese militias have already occupied islands belonging to the Philippines. In addition, the People’s Republic has created artificial islands and militarized them.
The ultimate goal is to drive the United States, which is a partner of the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, out of the Pacific, so that the new hegemon can dominate the countries of the region, militarily and economically. In the past, Beijing has made it abundantly clear that the two are intertwined: According to a report by the magazine “Foreign Affairs”, China has tried 123 times since 2010 to politically enforce its ideology through economic pressure.
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Russia is pulling in the same direction here as China, because the common enemy of the two rulers, Putin and Xi, is the United States. Nevertheless, China is pulling the strings here and not Moscow. In October, Vladimir Putin had to report to the Chinese “paramount leader” on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting and answer “questions and concerns” about the Ukraine war. The Kremlin might see itself as an equal partner alongside Beijing. In reality, however, the People’s Republic is a much more powerful player today than Putin’s Russia.
The number of successful economic gag attempts alone shows that the People’s Republic is more deeply connected to the global economy, which as a production location and sales market cannot really be ignored by any country in the world.
Xi and Putin’s common goal is to wear down the free world. The phone call between the two shortly before New Year’s was also in this spirit. In it, they declared that together they want to “make the world a safer place”. Given the wars and skirmishes that Putin and Xi have instigated, it is both a farce and a mockery.
Both had already claimed in February that their countries are better democracies than those of the free world. However, the two rulers drilled into their subordinates that democracy should be understood as the subjection of the people to the will of the ruler, not freedom of expression, critical thinking, free and fair elections and an independent press.
However, there has recently been movement in the relationship between the two, because Xi has his back to the wall at home. Its zero-Covid policy has flopped. At least one million corona deaths are expected in the People’s Republic, which can be attributed to him. It is therefore to be expected that the pro-democracy protests will return to China.
The alliance with Putin should show strength and serve as confirmation that Beijing has something to say on the world stage. And Putin can ask for more support from China. The new year can therefore bring both: an escalation, because Putin in Ukraine and Xi in China are swimming away. That is why Beijing could give its blessing to Putin’s plan to launch a new offensive from Belarus. And Putin could give Xi military support in attacking Taiwan. Or the world sees the triumph of freedom and democracy in the new year: the end of the dictators Xi and Putin.
Alexander Görlach is Honorary Professor of Ethics at Leuphana University in Lüneburg and Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. After stints in Taiwan and Hong Kong, he has focused on the rise of China and what it means for East Asian democracies in particular. From 2009 to 2015, Alexander Görlach was also the publisher and editor-in-chief of the debate magazine The European, which he founded. Today he is a columnist and author for various media. He lives in New York and Berlin.