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Xi and Putin share a deep resentment of the US, but China's new dominance over Russia could eventually shatter the alliance

Xi Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with China's President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.MIKHAIL TERESHCHENKO/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images
  • Russia and China have formed closer ties to counter the power of the US.

  • But China is the dominant one in the partnership, with Russia weakened by the Ukraine war.

  • The power imbalance could cause tensions and eventually end the alliance, says an expert.

At a Moscow summit last week, strongmen rulers Vladimir Putin of Russia and China's President Xi Jinping toasted their shared opposition to US power.

But despite the duo's show of unity against the grandiose backdrop of the Kremlin, analysts said the summit exposed the unequal power dynamics in the relationship, and Russia's weakened global position.

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The imbalance could be what eventually ends up shattering the alliance, according to Jonathan Ward, founder of Atlas Organization, a consultancy on US-China global competition.

World leaders have made Putin a pariah over his military's brutal and unprovoked bid to seize Ukraine. Meanwhile, wealthy democracies in western Europe have cut their ties with the Russian economy.

China's decision to instead deepen its economic connections with Russia amid the fallout from the invasion has been vital in keeping the Russian economy afloat, and it has also offered diplomatic and propaganda backing for the Kremlin.

At last week's summit, Xi proposed a peace plan in Ukraine that critics said mainly reflected Russian demands.

At the summit China secured sweeping access to the Russian economy in return for the lifeline Xi has handed Putin, and offered very little in terms of tangible extra backing for Russia in return.

"The China-Russia relationship is deeply skewed in Beijing's favor," said Ward, who is also author of 'The Decisive Decade' and 'China's Vision of Victory.'

"By destroying its relations with the West, Russia risks becoming China's economic acquisition."

"The imbalance of power in this relationship is the best reason for it to fail in the long-run – and the fact that China has historic grievances of its own against its 'strategic partner' to the north."

Putin/Xi
Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's President Xi Jinping at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.PAVEL BYRKIN/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Xi power play irks Putin 

During the summit Xi asserted his dominance, calling a meeting of Central Asian former Soviet Republics that the Kremlin has long regarded as being part of its sphere of influence, reported the Agence France Presse.

Putin responded with a move of his own likely to irritate Beijing, declaring plans over the weekend to station nuclear weapons in Belarus in direct contradiction to a joint statement issued with China only days before. Former US ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul described the move as a "humiliation" for Xi. 

Russia's repeated nuclear threats to Ukraine and its allies are among the sources of tension between Russia and China, said Ali Wyne, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, remarking that they placed Xi in "an uncomfortable position" as he sought to act as a mediator in the conflict.

But despite such tensions, the Russia-China alliance will likely persist because of the deep resentment Putin and Xi share over the US' status as the world's top superpower.

"The shared resentment of US influence that has anchored the partnership between the two countries since the end of the Cold War seems poised to grow apace," Wyne told Insider.

"However much it might bristle at the increasing asymmetry of its ties with China, Russia knows that it presently has no plausible path to a détente with the United States; it needs to keep Beijing onside, lest it find itself in a situation where the world's two foremost powers are mobilized against further aggression on its part," he said.

A new Cold War 

It's a situation comparable to the early decades of the Cold War, when the Communist regimes in Russia and China sought to counterbalance the power of the democratic US and its allies.

"As long as these two neo-totalitarian states are focused on rewriting the maps of Europe and Asia, they will stick together," said Ward.

But the key difference now is that the power dynamic is flipped, and unlike in the 1960s when Russia's economy was greater, China's economy is now around 10 times bigger than Russia's, and it has leapt ahead in areas such as technology.

In the long run, if Russia's imperial ambitions are thwarted, and China's plans to become the world's pre-eminent power constrained by the US and its allies, their differences could pull them apart, said Ward.

"None of that bodes well for the long-term, unless China consolidates a hold over this country," said Ward.

Read the original article on Business Insider