The recent bilateral summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin sparked a geopolitical summit craze. On June 24th, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron launched a spectacularly ill-conceived attempt to reach an EU-Russia summit that immediately fell apart. The next day, China’s Foreign Ministry announced a video conference between Putin and Xi Jinping scheduled for June 28th. The question arose what exactly should be discussed and whether there are significant bilateral initiatives to be announced or movement.
The video conference made for a decent theater. Celebrating the upcoming 20th anniversary of the bilateral signing of their nations’ 2001 friendship treaty, the two leaders went through the traditional laundry list of thematic priorities: renewal of the treaty, reaffirming the value of the strategic partnership, model declarations on the Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s Greater Eurasia Partnership, and the same goes for the North Sea Route. However, there was no public comment anywhere on any significant new policy development affecting a wide range of areas of common interest.
Even more revealing was Putin’s need to bypass the obvious fact that the Russian state’s resounding failure in COVID-19 management and vaccine distribution prevented the two leaders from meeting in person. None of the now important agenda items were brought in front of the cameras. However, the Russian reading of the event revealed Be aware of concerns on the destabilizing effects of the US withdrawal from international arms control agreements.
Elephants in the room
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is an area of common interest to Moscow and Beijing. Both governments were content with a status quo that included large U.S. spending commitments, the use of U.S. air forces, and a sizeable U.S. department that can be regularly deployed outside of Kabul and major air bases to aid the ANSF against the Taliban. Biden turned Moscow on the wrong foot by announcing the withdrawal, though the deadline was to be softened by the fact that 650 soldiers are now planned to be left in Kabul, an agreement that the United States will continue to financially support President Ashraf Ghani’s government and Horizon Air Forces will be stationed in Al-Udeid, Qatar to support military operations in the country. Nevertheless, the Taliban have gained significantly in ground in the past two months and Afghan government troops are now regularly trying to flee via Uzbeks and Tajiks in search of safety.
The lack of a joint declaration on Afghanistan at the recent Putin Xi summit is likely to reflect the high level of ambivalence between the two governments regarding the conflict. Russia has intensified its military contacts with both the Uzbek and Tajik governments and has sent more troops to Tajikistan. China has expanded its security partnerships and presence at the border, but has not communicated any policy changes. At the same time, Russia has visibly resigned as a “regulatory power” in regional initiatives. After a border battle between Kyrgyz and Tajik armed forces over non-demarcated territory in the Osh region, China received the foreign ministers of all six Central Asian states to discuss Afghanistan and regional economic development without involving Russia. Moscow has never organized a trilateral meeting or similar initiative between national leaders.
Far less worrying for Beijing – and more worrying for Moscow – is Belarus’ economic future. The weight of the US and EU sanctions is not enough to dampen the economy, but the loss of access to EU capital markets and targeted sanctions against its refineries have led Russian companies to cut oil shipments and Minsk to settle down leaving Russian banks and Russia’s financial markets borrowing more. Why should Beijing care? Belarus is an entry point for rail transports crossing Russia to Europe, although Ukrainian importers are starting to use Russian routes from China as well. Belarus is by no means a priority for China in Eastern Europe, but it does at least play a role in the network of connectivity that China has promoted over the past eight years as an economic panacea for Eurasia’s growth. However, based on the Putin Xi meeting, Belarus clearly does not deserve significant public comment.
On the biggest global issue of the day – public health responses to COVID-19 – China and Russia could hardly be more different. Russia’s vaccination campaign was a huge flop. Only about 15-16 percent of the population have received at least one dose since the January mass vaccinations began, and the current wave, made worse by the Delta variant, is overwhelming hospitals, bringing the relative increase in the death rate back to one since 1947 Highest level seen more times Even the Kremlin has openly admitted that its own vaccination target of 60 percent for the fall cannot currently be achieved.
On the flip side, in response to local outbreaks, China has been quick to lock down when needed and, despite concerns about the effectiveness of its vaccines, fully vaccinated over 220 million people, with vaccinations increasing significantly since early April and the rollout process so far smoothly.
Both China and Russia managed to “beat” the effects of the pandemic on their economies through their exports. The US economic stimulus packages and European safety nets allowed Western consumers to switch their spending on services to hard goods, while a new commodity price cycle began, adding to the value of Russian exports of non-oil and gas resources. However, the consumer recovery in China has been somewhat weaker than the recovery in exports, with signs now of a slowdown as credit conditions tightened to stave off speculation and manage capital inflows into the country since the pandemic began. Russia’s consumption recovery is fading under the weight of high inflation, limited government support for households and the new wave of the virus. Despite Moscow’s assumption that the sheer size of the Chinese economy would be enough to offset the persistent weakness of the EU’s economies since the global financial crisis, this will not clearly be the case in the coming year.
The Biden boom and Europe’s green dreams
These summits are not just a function of bilateral or multilateral agendas between nations. The background is the ups and downs of global markets, regulations and money. The scale of US stimulus measures has made the United States, not China, the engine of global growth right now, and an ongoing EU initiative to impose tariffs on high-carbon imports has forced Putin to commission a national decarbonization strategy for this October . The size of the markets is important, but the marginal growth of the markets is also important in assessing the ability of different nations to influence norms, rules and business practices. In practice, there is a new dynamic in the West which, when unevenly distributed, begins to weigh on Russia’s internal political economy.
China is a natural partner for Russia in the race for decarbonization. It makes much of the world’s solar panels, refines half of the world’s cobalt, has plenty of industrial know-how and experience building competitive renewable energy supply chains, and would benefit from a proactive role in oil exporters’ decarbonization plans. However, no attempt was made to signal coordination or interest in future collaboration during the conversation on Monday. China’s national emissions trading system failed to roll out until the target originally set by the government for the end of June, and the issue has only just got on the political agenda in Moscow with news that Anatoly Chubais will be responsible for managing Russia’s national carbon Trading system could be transferred.
The Sino-Russian relations, which have nothing to do with an “alliance”, will continue and in some ways deepen. Chinese companies are still interested in Russia’s human and natural resources, and Russian companies and investors want to find growth in the Chinese market. The Putin Xi meeting, however, emphasized performance over substance, limited by domestic political considerations and the scope of the two countries’ common interests. There is a feeling that there is no clear consensus on what order should be in Central Asia and Eurasia in general, and no attempt to show that not only the world’s democracies are playing a mean game about coordinating climate change efforts. Instead, China and Russia are repeating their focus on presenting a united front against the dominance of American and transatlantic power – without thinking about what that power is actually doing right now.