On Friday, a joint statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping proclaimed that their strategic and diplomatic partnership has “no limits.” The lengthy declaration promised cooperation on issues including climate change, cybersecurity and the exploration of space.
It’s tempting to dismiss these proclamations as mere rhetoric. Certainly, flamboyant statements are no substitute for concrete action. But the joint statement serves as a signal of Russia and China’s plan to cooperate on the current Ukraine crisis — although there is no actual mention of Ukraine. Perhaps more importantly, it’s an explicit salvo in the wider contention over the rules and norms of the global order.
The conflict over Ukraine is a conflict over international order. That makes it nearly impossible to resolve.
A sign of solidarity on Ukraine?
Friday’s statement represents a marked departure from China’s behavior in previous global crises. When Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008 — at the opening of another Beijing Olympics — China resisted pressure to lend its support. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit held that year, for example, Chinese President Hu Jintao blocked Russia’s efforts to gain recognition for the Russian-occupied provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In 2014, Russia invaded and then annexed Crimea and went on to support separatists in eastern Ukraine. Here again, China remained relatively silent. China did abstain from votes on two U.N. Security Council resolutions that would have discouraged countries from recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But rather than framing the abstention as supporting Russia, officials in Beijing explained that the Crimean issue simply involved too many complex “historical and contemporary factors” to make a resolution possible. And while China refused to support U.S.-led sanctions against Russia, it did ultimately abide by them.
In contrast, in both last week’s statement and the meeting between Putin and Xi, China now appears to be making its support for Russia as visible as possible. And it’s doing so despite a strong warning by U.S. officials that Washington would use an “array of tools” against any country — including China — that helps Russia evade sanctions.
Lots of references to ‘core interests’
A key point to note are the numerous references in the joint statement to “core interests.” Here’s an example: “The sides reaffirm their strong mutual support for the protection of their core interests, state sovereignty and territorial integrity, and oppose interference by external forces in their internal affairs.”
What are these core interests? References to “NATO expansion” and “color revolutions” suggest that Putin wants to make it clear that U.S. support for Ukraine threatens Russia’s core interests — despite any specific mention of “Ukraine” in the document. For China’s part, its core interests are more explicit. One section states that “the Russian side reaffirms its support for the one-China principle, confirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and opposes any forms of independence of Taiwan.”
This language of “core interests” is nothing new. China’s leaders have long appealed to core interests when referring to issues of national sovereignty. Up until the 2000s, Beijing limited such appeals to claims over Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. In 2010, reports suggested Chinese officials were also referring to claims to the South China Sea as “core interests.”
The fact that Friday’s declaration uses the language of core interests in oblique references to the Ukraine crisis is significant. China uses this specific language to signal when there is little room, if any, for negotiation on a specific issue. By invoking core interests in the Friday joint declaration, China appears to be communicating that it will treat Russia’s territorial claims as if they were as nonnegotiable as its own claims to Taiwan.
The rhetoric of a liberal world order
The Xi-Putin statement suggests solidarity beyond the current Ukraine crisis. Throughout the declaration, the leaders articulate their commitment to work together to defend the stability of the world order. They jointly promise to defend international law, work to strengthen institutions such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization, and accept their responsibility as “world powers” to bring stability to international politics.
Rather than outwardly oppose the existing international order, Xi and Putin chose to purposefully appeal to liberal norms and principles to justify their position. In the first section of the statement, the two leaders commit themselves to supporting democratic principles, noting that they “share the understanding that democracy is a universal human value … and that its promotion and protection is a common responsibility of the entire world community.” Later on, the statement promises to uphold human rights, economic globalization and norms of nuclear nonproliferation.
Some research might say that appealing to liberal norms suggests Xi and Putin have limited ambitions. If Beijing and Moscow do not advance an alternative vision of order, then they are not seriously challenging the legitimacy of U.S.-led liberal institutions.
Yet, far from following liberal norms, Xi and Putin are strategically qualifying liberal rhetoric with their own preferred norms of national sovereignty. Despite the proclaimed support for democracy and human rights, for example, they simultaneously insist that “every nation has its own unique national features, history, culture, social system” that shape how these rights play out in practice. Universal liberal principles are only so universal in practice.
And Xi and Putin’s rhetoric makes clear that the two countries no longer accept U.S. leadership within these global institutions. The declaration refers to Russia and China as “world powers” three times, and it calls for the “establishment of a new kind of relationships between world powers on the basis of mutual respect.” It declares Beijing and Moscow’s commitment to using their own power to shape “a polycentric world order.”
A joint statement is no substitute for joint action, of course. China and Russia have no formal alliance, and any partnership will come with challenges. But the Xi-Putin declaration represents a deepened commitment between the two countries to a shared view of the world, one with potential implications both for the current crisis in Ukraine and the broader international order.
Stacie Goddard is Mildred Lane Kemper professor of political science and the Paula Bernstein faculty director of the Madeleine K. Albright Institute at Wellesley College. She is the author of “When Right Makes Might: Rising Powers and World Order” (Cornell University Press, 2018).