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Biden-Putin summit comes as US and Russia share something in common: a fear of China

As expected, the multi-hour summit between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin produced few major results. The only commonality leading up to the meeting was the recognition that US-Russian relations were at an all-time low in decades. The fact that Biden and Putin even continued their meeting could be seen as an accomplishment.

The brilliant luster that coats Russian-Chinese relations today masks deeper systemic differences. Russia has turned to China not necessarily because it wants to, but because it needs it.

But despite all their sticking points – Russian cyberattacks and intrusion into the US elections, disputes over Ukraine, NATO expansion and human rights – Biden made a key point at the start of their talks: the States – United States is always ready to cooperate with Russia when it is in the interest of the United States to do so. “I think it’s always best to meet face to face, to try to figure out where we have a mutual interest, to cooperate,” Biden said.

Given the constant turmoil in the news cycle, the idea of ​​Washington and Moscow coming together to solve problems seems unlikely, if not fanciful. Zoom out, however, and Biden and Putin have more in common on the world stage than they would like to admit: namely, how to balance China’s growing strength, which the Pentagon calls its main geopolitical challenge.

Like the Trump administration, the Biden administration views China as a rising power determined to rewrite the rules of the global road. The White House’s interim strategic guidelines on national security put China ahead of the pack in terms of strategic challengers, calling Beijing “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological might to launch a sustained challenge to one and an open international system.

While Russia may not be using those exact words, it is not immune to concerns about the sleeping giant awakening. In particular, Russia looks with suspicion on Beijing’s assertiveness in Russia’s near-foreigner. The United States should use this to its advantage rather than seeking to wage a battle on two fronts simultaneously against Russia and China, which would strain American resources and further cement the ties between Moscow and Beijing. Rather than escalating tensions with Putin, the United States should do its part to reduce animosity.

The collaboration between the United States and Russia to combat the rise of China may seem strange given the complicity between Moscow and Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin increasingly see each other as close friends, if not best friends. Moscow and Beijing are coordinating more and more frequently in the military sphere, with Russian and Chinese naval and ground forces conducting joint exercises in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The two countries are even strengthening their ties in space exploration.

Yet the shining luster that coats Russian-Chinese relations today masks deeper systemic differences. Russia has turned to China not necessarily because it wants to, but because it needs it. It is no coincidence that Moscow began to turn economically to Beijing after being subjected to increasingly severe sanctions from the United States and the European Union in retaliation for its annexation of Crimea. While lasting ties with China have helped the Kremlin maintain its crude oil exports, they have also increased Russia’s dependence on the Chinese market. China is now Russia’s biggest trading partner; Russia, meanwhile, is not even in the Chinese top 10.

Russia’s dependence on its large and sometimes thorny neighbor comes even as China’s power, influence and ambitions slowly encroach on Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Central Asia, for example, was commonly referred to as the domain of Russia – a region where the Kremlin had virtually no strategic competition. Today, however, the region is at the heart of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a series of infrastructure projects from Europe to East Asia aimed at strengthening economic reach and Beijing diplomatic mission, which it finances with hundreds of billions of dollars in loans.

The Chinese Communist Party is also making separate investments in Central Asia. For example, Kazakhstan, which was once part of the Soviet Union, received $ 27.8 billion from China to bolster its petrochemical industry. Turkmenistan, another former Soviet customer, has accepted billions of dollars in Chinese loans to develop its gas industry. This Chinese loan means that a landlocked Central Asian state is no longer at the mercy of Russia to export goods to the international market. For Putin, an uncompromising power politics expert and nationalist at heart, this loss of influence undermines his attempts to rehabilitate Russia’s image as a great power.

Like the United States, Russia also views some of China’s behavior as predatory. The Russian government recognizes the unintended consequences of accepting Chinese loans and does not intend to follow in the footsteps of countries like Sri Lanka and Montenegro that are struggling with a mountain of debt or being forced to cede control of it. ‘strategic assets to Chinese entities as compensation. . Just as China steals US military technology, Russian defense manufacturers have complained that Beijing is copying Russian military equipment without their consent.

Of course, just because Washington and Moscow have similar diagnoses on certain Chinese foreign policy behavior does not mean that the two powers will coordinate their respective policies. Those who think Biden can reverse Richard Nixon’s Chinese detente by going to Moscow and putting Russia on his side underestimate how much US-Russian relations are currently hampered.

What the Biden administration can do, however, is refrain from policies that bring Russia and China closer together or make a viable and productive relationship between Washington and Moscow more difficult than it otherwise should be. This will likely require the Biden administration to become much more realistic about what it can achieve with Russia and avoid dwelling on issues – in particular, how the Russian government acts inside. its own borders – which are likely to prove counterproductive and do little more than consolidate deeper animosity in the bilateral relationship.

Fortunately, both Biden and Putin can understand the urgency of doing just that. The joint statement released immediately after their meeting, in which the two pledge to “jointly engage in an integrated bilateral strategic stability dialogue in the near future,” reflects the pragmatism that is slowly seeping into the relationship. Putin’s statement that the United States and Russia have agreed to exchange ambassadors again was another small but essential step in the right direction.

The United States desperately needs a more comprehensive, long-term approach to Russia, one that not only resolves some of the disagreements of the past few months, but also prompts Putin to remain at least somewhat neutral in a now world. defined, for better or for worse. , like a great contest of power between the United States and China.

Vladimir Putin will never be an ally of the United States. But he probably doesn’t want to be China’s ally either, which would subject Russia to junior partner status. However, if relations between the United States and Russia remain as strained and counterproductive as they are now, the United States could possibly wake up to what it should most try to prevent: a formidable Sino-Russian joint anti-American bloc.

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