The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Russia and China announce a bid to make the world safe for dictatorship

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photo during their meeting in Beijing on Feb. 4. (Alexei Druzhinin/KREMLIN/SPUTNIK/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

There was potent symbolism in the warm meeting between President Xi Jinping of China and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, as the Winter Olympics opened in Beijing. At a time when other countries are troubled by the actions of these Eurasian giants — from Russia’s threatened invasion of Ukraine to China’s genocide against the Uyghur people — the two dictators took center stage to support one another.

More important, they matched that show of unity with substance: a remarkable joint statement, running more than 5,000 words, that can be described only as a blueprint for combined confrontation with the United States. The two countries endorsed each other’s foreign policy wish lists, with Russia affirming China’s opposition to “any forms of independence of Taiwan” and China denouncing “further enlargement of NATO.” China agreed to buy $117.5 billion worth of oil and gas from Russia.

Though not quite a green light from Beijing for Russian aggression against Ukraine, which was not mentioned by name, the statement signals that, if Russia invades, China will help Mr. Putin withstand the crippling economic sanctions that the United States and its allies plan to impose. In fact, the document says, there are “no limits” to the two’s “friendship” and “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation,” suggesting that it could some day extend into intelligence sharing and weapons development.

Not since the early Cold War and the alliance between Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong have Moscow and Beijing pledged so openly — and comprehensively — to cooperate in world affairs, during what the Xi-Putin joint statement called “a new era of rapid development and profound transformation.” For perhaps the first time in modern history, the West faces a Russia-China pair, both of which are not only unremittingly hostile but also strong militarily, modern technologically, solvent economically and stable politically.

To be sure, China-Russia 2.0 is as ideologically brazen as the Stalinist version of the 1950s. The joint statement begins by denouncing the democracy and human rights advocacy of the United States and other Western nations as a “one-size-fits-all template to guide countries in establishing democracy.” It argues — self-contradictorily — that human rights are universal but should be "protected in accordance with the specific situation in each country and the needs of its population.” Applying this flexible standard to China and Russia, the document concludes that these two one-party states actually practice democracy in keeping with their own “long-standing traditions.”

Russia and China have many potential points of conflict — economic, territorial and otherwise — that could eventually divide them as they did 60 years ago. Over time, Russia might chafe at the imbalance of a partnership with a much larger and richer China. What seems most relevant for now, however, are their strong shared hostility toward the United States and their belief that it is a declining power whose weakness can be exploited: “a trend has emerged towards redistribution of power in the world,” as their joint statement says. Their nostrums about peace and development aside, what Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin clearly seek is a world made safe for their dictatorships. Western democracies must be equally determined about countering them.

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