Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping talked grandly of a new phase of cooperation that beckoned between their two nations when they met on the sidelines of an Asian security summit in Shanghai on Tuesday.
The two men have a few things in common: both are strong, authoritarian leaders, fiercely nationalistic and keen to counter Washington’s influence in the region, albeit in different ways: but they also found something else they shared this week, a desire to commemorate World War II.
In their joint statement, the two men talked about celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, an anniversary that does not even fall until next year. A strange priority you might think, except that both men have been intent for some time on making as much political capital as possible about their respective country’s roles in defeating fascism.
China is locked in an increasingly bitter rivalry with Japan, not only involving a maritime territorial dispute but also an unresolved argument about the legacy from that war. Beijing argues that Japan has never come to terms with, or properly apologized for, the atrocities committed by its troops during World War II, and that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is intent on undermining the country’s pacifist constitution put in place after its defeat in 1945. Its newspapers are full of reminders of Japan’s warlike past, while memories of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Nanjing in 1937 are repeatedly revived to make a political point. The United States and the West, it argues, should be taking China’s side in its dispute with Japan, because they were on the same side against Japanese fascism seven decades ago. It has become such a hot issue that Germany refused Xi permission to include an official visit to a famous Holocaust memorial during his trip to Berlin in March, worried that he would try to make political capital out of the event, by arguing that Germany, unlike Japan, had indeed come to terms with its past.
In Ukraine, World War II is just as topical and divisive an issue. There, pro-Russian separatists cast themselves as the inheritors of the Soviet army that defeated Nazi Germany. Their enemy -- the government in Kiev -- is cast as fascist, because of the presence of ultra-nationalist groups within the interim coalition. Never mind that the separatists and their Russian allies have been using quasi-fascist tactics themselves, capturing the organs of state by force, threatening and driving out journalists, spreading fear through virulent propaganda and looting government buildings with their faces masked by balaclavas.
Still, Putin used his address in Red Square during a grand military parade to commemorate the Soviet Victory in 1945 this month to warn that “Nazi swastikas and fascist ideas are still floating around the world.” Other senior officials were even more explicit in naming Ukraine.
Russia and China may be united by distrust of the United States, but they still remain wary of each other. The two leaders failed to sign a long anticipated multi-billion dollar deal on Tuesday to sell Russian natural gas to China, as Beijing haggles for a better price. China might be also slightly uncomfortable with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, although it will not take the side of the United States in that particular argument.
But Xi was reported as having told Putin the two men had similar personalities last year, and the pair seem to have found common ground on at least one other pressing issue. In Russia, Putin has been ramping up censorship of the Internet to muzzle his critics, something that Xi already knows an awful lot about. In their joint statement, the two leaders expressed concern that information and communication technology was being used in ways that “go against the goal of maintaining international stability and security, and violate national sovereignty and individual privacy.”
Perhaps the Great Firewall of China, as the grand apparatus of censorship is known here, could soon have a Russian rival.
Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.