Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia

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The limits of authoritarian compatibility

Pavel K. Baev
Nonresident Senior Fellow – Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe

Pavel K. Baev describes the limits of authoritarian compatibility between Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He argues that even as Beijing and Moscow try to display an outward friendship, they are not natural allies. China is a rising power, while Russia is on a downward trend. Mutual suspicions mar the relationship and undercut any intention to upgrade their relations to a strategic partnership. Baev also observes that structural corruption in both countries creates incompatibilities. Baev argues that the United States should exploit the divergences between the two countries.

Learn more about Global ChinaChina and Russia are two key revisionist challengers for U.S. positions in the world, but maturing authoritarian tendencies in their regimes do not make them natural allies. Many parochial features determine profound differences in China’s and Russia’s strategic agendas, and the heavy impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated hidden tensions and accentuated mutual mistrust. U.S. policymakers should not therefore assume the need to counter their emerging military alliance, but could rather aim at exploiting their disagreements.

China is a rising power and focuses on a return to the growth trajectory after the sharp spasm caused by the pandemic, while Russia may sink into another deep crisis, so its leadership is compelled to engage in revisionism from the position of weakness. The deep cultural differences between the most influential elite groups in China and Russia impede cooperative initiatives, and structural corruption inherent to both regimes does not provide for better connectivity. China is emerging as a cyber superpower and shows reasonable restraint in deploying this strength, while Russia experiments with using its limited cyber capabilities recklessly. The particular “friendship” between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin cannot provide a reliable foundation for further upgrades in the partnership. China is much more interested in sorting out its trade and economic issues with the United States than in backing Russia, which is stuck in an essentially unwinnable confrontation with the West. Russia is not able to provide any support to China in the trade wars and expects a steady aggravation of U.S.- China relations, seeing in this global conflict its only chance for escaping from the tight corner of unequal face-off with NATO. Both regimes performed poorly in dealing with the COVID-19 threat, but Russia, facing a deepening domestic crisis, may decide to challenge the West yet further in order to stimulate a mobilization of “patriotic” support for Putin’s leadership. China, instead of helping its overstretched and troubled neighbor, may opt to take advantage of this calamity.