Last Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a virtual meeting. It consolidated their deepening relationship.
Putin hailed "a new model of cooperation ... between our countries," to be based on "noninterference in internal affairs, respect for each other’s interests, and a determination to turn our common border into a 'belt' of eternal peace and good neighborliness." Xi pledged to work with Russia "for a shared future."
Some Western analysts have expressed the hope that Russia could be used to counter the rise of China. Such thinking isn’t unreasonable. China and Russia share borders, providing a potential source of friction. Both Beijing and Moscow are ruled by forceful personalities who have managed to dominate their respective political systems — potentially, the argument goes, making a standoff more likely.
And far from being unthinkable, there is a history of conflict between both Russia and China, most recently during the Cold War. Beginning with the Nixon administration, the United States successfully exploited a fissure between the Soviet Union and China. The so-called Sino-Soviet split was a landmark event in the Cold War, with Moscow and Beijing engaging in monthslong border clashes in 1969. Both sides even feared that the other would go to the nuclear brink.
Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, successfully exploited the split, engaging in triangular diplomacy in which Washington used negotiations with one power as leverage to get concessions from the other. The Nixon administration’s policy resulted in détente, a lessening of tensions, and several arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. But it makes for a poor model in confronting today’s Russia and China. The reason?
The Sino-Soviet split did not have its basis in territorial disputes but in ideological rivalry. Mao Zedong was unwilling to view himself, or his country, as subservient to that of Joseph Stalin’s eventual successor, Nikita Khrushchev. Relations deteriorated between the two countries, with each seeking to be perceived as the leading communist power.
The Russia that has emerged from its ashes is no longer communist. And the China of today, while Leninist politically, has discarded Mao’s adherence to communism as an economic model. Both, however, remain fervently anti-Western in action and thought. This is the basis for their pledges of "shared cooperation" — and it looks likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
The writer is a Washington, D.C.-based foreign affairs analyst. His views are his own.