Putin And Xi Are Way Beyond The Rubicon

Planetary cooperation on climate may be the most consequential casualty of the East-West divide.

Putin and Xi in Beijing on May 16. (MIKHAIL METZEL/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping first declared their “no limits” relationship in February 2022 and then stuck with it as all-weather friends after the invasion of Ukraine, they crossed the Rubicon in their confrontation with what they regard as the “hostile” U.S.-led world order.

Their summit last week, which defiantly deepened the relationship on both the economic and military fronts, placed the 21st-century Czar and Red Emperor well down the road toward a “new era” beyond the liberal world order they plotted when taking tea at Zhongnanhai, the walled leadership compound in central Beijing. Analogously speaking, they are now halfway to Rome where Julius Caesar, in the historical reference, provoked civil war and established a dictatorship on his return from conquering the peoples of Gaul.

The meeting took place as Russia has been gaining ground on the battlefield against NATO-backed Ukraine, thanks in no small part to the economic lifeline from Beijing, while U.S. President Joe Biden imposed 100% tariffs on Chinese-made electric vehicles, doubled the 25% tariff on solar cells, initially imposed by Donald Trump, to 50%, and tripled the levy on Chinese EV lithium-ion batteries.

It appears that China’s strategy of straddling both support for Russia and continued economic ties with the West is becoming as untenable as wishful thinking in the West that it could drive a wedge between Putin and Xi. The “powerful driving force” of their proclaimed solidarity is fostering precisely the “bloc” system and “Cold War mentality” decried by their rhetoric — even if they are not entirely misplaced in blaming the West, which in many ways is a co-culprit in stoking the intensifying clash I have previously written about in this space.

As is always the case in patterns of escalation, one is a condition of the other. Push entails pushback, then pushback against pushback and on and on.

In short, we are already getting a clear picture of what the new era ahead will look like. As conflict overwhelms the diminishing ballast of integration forged during the period of globalization, solid blocs — geocultural, geopolitical and geoeconomic — are so hardening they will not be easily dismantled once firmly in place.

Breaking Up Over A Common Interest

This fortification of a “multipolar world” is relegating the hopes of constructive planetary cooperation on climate change to the ranks of other impossibilities like a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. In the historical frame, that may be the most consequential casualty of where we are headed.

It is richly ironic that Biden’s new tariffs on Chinese green technologies are justified by the claim that fair competition has been stifled by industrial policies of the very kind the U.S. is now itself implementing through the Inflation Reduction Act, which, in turn, are rattling America’s own allies in Asia and Europe under the same claim. And that is on top of the even richer irony that the planetary imperative to battle global warming has become the province of renewed nationalism.

One can imagine Biden’s logic: “If I don’t project a decisive image of protecting American jobs and industry from Chinese exports, all those votes in the upcoming election by the besieged working middle class in America’s swing states will go to Trump, who not only denies climate change altogether, but has essentially pledged to disrupt American democratic norms.”

As the climate clock ticks on, would Biden be able to claw back protectionist barriers if reelected, especially if Europe follows suit and China reacts in a way that blocks the inflow of exports upon which NATO allies defending Ukraine, notably Germany, so substantially depend?

Pre-war experiences in the past have taught us that protectionism is a wrought racket. But it is a particularly dangerous gamble to politically weaponize green technologies when the Earth habitat is on the brink of an irreversible cascade toward calamity. Time that is running out will tell where that leads.

As it stands, the best hope going forward hinges on the capacity of “global localism” to circumvent geopolitics frozen into blocs through subnational cooperation of willing networks among cities and regions across the world — though that, too, will inevitably be constrained to the extent the free flow of green technologies are.

When bidding farewell to Putin at the doorstep of the Kremlin on a state visit to Moscow in March 2023, Xi’s departing words were: “Right now there are changes — the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years — and we are the ones driving these changes together.”

China and Russia have not only charted but repeatedly reaffirmed that divergent path, which will now be mirrored by the West. The protracted period of post-Cold War purgatory is definitively over and another era which divides the world anew is just beginning.