The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Russia and China said their friendship had ‘no limits.’ It’s up to the United States to impose some.

President Biden holds virtual talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Situation Room at the White House on March 18. (Handout via Reuters)
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President Biden’s nearly two-hour virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping ended inconclusively Friday morning. Mr. Biden, the White House said, advised Mr. Xi of the “implications and consequences” for Chinese “material support” of Russia in its bloody but faltering effort in Ukraine. Mr. Xi responded — according to an official statement — with anodyne words about the shared “international responsibilities” of the United States and China to “make efforts for world peace and tranquility.” For anyone who thinks China’s attitude toward President Vladimir Putin’s war — an “absence of denunciation,” as White House press secretary Jen Psaki politely described it — might be about to change, much less that Beijing might pressure Moscow to accept a cease-fire and negotiated settlement, the modest results of the Biden-Xi encounter constitute a reality check.

For the foreseeable future, at least, the friendship with “no limits” that Russia and China declared on Feb. 4 is holding. It has many sources. One is economic self-interest; China imports energy and food, which Russia exports. Even more powerful is their shared desire to limit the influence of the United States, and the liberal-democratic model of governance it represents. Having met personally more than three dozen times, Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi have both internalized the idea that the Soviet Union fell due to its leaders’ lack of will, rather than the communist system’s own flaws. Mr. Xi told a 2012 Chinese Communist Party conference that the Soviet system collapsed because its elite’s “ideals and convictions wavered” (in implied contrast to China, whose rulers crushed a democratic movement at Tiananmen Square in 1989). “We lost confidence for only one moment,” Mr. Putin echoed in his speech declaring war on Ukraine on Feb. 24, “but it was enough to disrupt the balance of forces in the world.”

The Russia-China alignment, in short, reflects the fact that both are led by two deeply anti-American dictators who see their own will as crucial to assuring the United States’ long-term decline (and that of its allies in Europe and Asia) from which they expect to benefit. Yes, Mr. Putin’s war is going badly — for him — and presents China with real short-term risks, both economic and political, not the least of which is a global backlash against being perceived as Russia’s enabler. Mr. Xi, his sights set on pro forma reelection to a third term in November, has no need for any new concerns on top of a slowing economy and a spreading coronavirus. Nevertheless, Mr. Xi is likely to view Mr. Putin’s month-long debacle patiently, in the context of his long-range geopolitical goals, and to reduce China’s investment in the relationship with Moscow — his personal project — only reluctantly.

In the short run, the most the United States and its allies, in both Europe and East Asia, can aim for is to prevent Beijing from rearming Russia, as U.S. intelligence reports — quickly denied by both Moscow and Beijing — suggested it might. The Biden administration must continue warning China that any such step would have painful consequences, and back those warnings up. Over the longer term, the United States and its allies must bolster military and economic ties, showing China that it cannot use its commercial power to divide them. For democracies, this crisis is a test of will, too.