Shortcuts / 21 April 2022

The Russia-China alliance

Before the war in Ukraine and on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping entered into a strategic partnership to cooperate with each other and challenge the power of the West. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take a look at the 2 countries’ worldviews, how their relationship has grown over the years, and the challenges posed by the war in Ukraine.

Are we going back in time again?
You betcha. This time, we’re going back to China’s communist beginnings.

Take me through it…
So at the start of the last century, China was poor and its population was largely rural. Then there was a civil war which Communist revolutionary Mao Zedong won and the People’s Republic of China was created in 1949.

And then? 
Look, we’re really galloping here… There was the Great Leap Forward, where communities were organised into collectives. And then there was the Cultural Revolution which started in the mid-60s to bed down socialism. During that period, millions died due to famine and the regime’s brutal crushing of dissent until Mao’s death in 1976.

Who took Mao’s place?
That was Deng Xiaoping. His leadership saw China re-engage with the world and the global economy, and he re-established diplomatic relations with the US. For the first time, China was starting to be seen as a country that adhered to socialist ideals but could also be a player in the global economy.

And a big player, too…
For sure – the 80s and 90s were a period of rapid economic development for China. By the time of the global financial crisis in 2008, China was growing its economy by 13% a year. And when current President Xi Jinping took over in 2013, China was the world’s second-biggest economy.

What has Xi’s approach been?
He’s looking further than China’s borders and has policies that aim to more deeply embed China in the global economy.

The Belt and Road initiative. It’s a development strategy designed to build economic connectivity and growth across Asia and the Pacific. The idea is that China will fund and build infrastructure there, which it says is to help generate economic growth in those regions and encourage more sales of Chinese-made products.

What else is it about?
The initiative is also a chance for China to exert its influence and power on the world stage. It’s been accused of buying support from smaller nations with funding that’s very hard for the West to match.

What else has Xi been up to?
He’s certainly upped the nationalism… Under Xi, China has become more diplomatically and militarily assertive. We’ve seen that with China stepping up its control over Hong Kong, and posturing to forcibly reunify with Taiwan. These issues have become a flashpoint for the West.

So today’s China is quite different from the past?
It sure is. And Xi rejects a world order that sees the West on top. Instead, he’s embraced autocratic leaders in countries like Russia and Iran to make new allies who also want to compete – and beat – America and its allies.

I was wondering when you would mention Russia… What’s its deal?
Just like China, Russia has a huge history and a huge landmass – the world’s biggest, in fact. But in terms of its economy, it comes in at #11 in the world.

What made Russia what it is today?
Let’s go back in time again to 1917 when the Russian Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown and the Bolsheviks formed the Soviet Union. It remained in place until 1991.

Where does Putin come in?
Before the fall of the Soviet Union, he was an intelligence officer working for the KGB – the all-powerful Soviet intelligence bureau. He later became deputy chief of staff to President Boris Yeltsin, and then Director of the FSB – which is what the KGB turned into.

How did he rise to the top of politics?
When Yeltsin resigned unexpectedly on New Years’ Eve in 1999, Putin became acting president before being elected in his own right in mid-2000. He’s been dominant in Russian politics ever since.

Russia’s military’s nothing to sneeze at either…
That’s right. Military analysts say that between 2008 and 2012, it pumped a lot of money into building a smaller, more permanent force. And Russia is one of a handful of countries with nuclear weapons which the Kremlin says won’t be deployed anytime soon…

So Russia and China – how did that relationship begin?
They have ties that go back to the beginning of China’s journey into communism. But by the early 60s, that friendship unravelled as they fought for supremacy in the communist world.

But those ties were restored?
Yep – it took 2 decades, but in 1989 President Gorbachev visited China. And in 2005 – with Putin now in charge – China and Russia held their first joint military exercises, and things kept improving from there.

How much have things improved?
Well, put it this way – Xi and Putin have met more than 30 times. And the Chinese President has visited Russia more than any other country.

What do they have in common?
Both leaders had their clashes with the West. Russia had been hit with sanctions over its backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine in 2014, and China was locked in a bitter trade war with the US.

Right. So what did the 2 countries do?
Xi made an important visit to Moscow in June 2019. Billions of dollars of new trade were announced between the countries, and it was revealed that Huawei – the Chinese telco that had been blocked in the West – would develop a 5G network in Russia. Xi told the media conference that “President Putin is my best friend and colleague”.

Aww… So what about this new security pact?
That was signed during the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. It will see the countries working together on space, climate change, artificial intelligence and “control of the internet” which is seen to be an outlet of the West. It also involved a new gas deal worth an estimated $117.5 billion dollars.

So they really are besties…
Yeah, the 2 leaders said they have “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”. 

So does that mean China’s held Russia in Ukraine? 
Well, it hasn’t endorsed the invasion but it also hasn’t condemned it. And US officials say that Russia has asked for financial assistance to offset the economic sanctions along with weapons. America was one to warn China against doing that.

So it’s tricky? 
Isn’t it always? Analysts say it’s a big risk for China because it’s a rising power and far more economically dominant than Russia, whose power is declining. So while China might have the will to help Russia, it’s too integrated into the global economy to risk being sanctioned itself.

So there’s a lot still to unfold…
There sure is – and whatever happens, it will be world-changing stuff.

Squiz recommends:

Who are Putin’s daughters? – BBC

Xi and Putin admire some pandas – Reuters

Squiz Shortcuts - A weekly explainer on a big news topic.

Get the Squiz Today newsletter

It's a quick read and doesn't take itself too seriously. Get on it.