Putin-Xi ‘No Limits’ Tie Traps China

It has invited the encirclement the Middle Kingdom sought to avoid.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

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

Sometimes your best friend can be your worst enemy. This is the case today with the “no limits” relationship of Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping. 

Not only has Putin’s invasion of Ukraine reconsolidated the waning NATO alliance system in Europe; it has spawned the sibling of a neo-NATO for East Asia with the security pact agreed among the U.S., South Korea and Japan at Camp David last weekend. The three countries formally pledged for the first time that a threat to one is a threat to all that would be met by a coordinated defense.

The bitter antipathy harbored over the entire post-World War II period between Japan and South Korea was only overcome because the first land war in Europe in nearly eight decades made military conflict with a more assertive China palpably imaginable in their own region. Before that, Xi’s rattling of the sword over Taiwan was considered more of a nationalist rant than a probability.

This new development has upended China’s own strategy of keeping these two Asian powerhouses at odds precisely to prevent a surrounding alliance aimed at containing it. It is in this sense that Xi’s “no limits” embrace of Putin has brought China’s fear of being encircled ever closer. 

Back in 2014, the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, the former South Korean foreign minister, Yoon Young-kwan wrote presciently of what has now come to pass: “China’s efforts to enhance its influence as a rising power in an assertive way will actually backfire and result in an unintended encirclement of China by her neighbors. The irony is that this ‘security dilemma’ was exactly what happened in Europe when Kaiser Wilhelm II, confident of the rising power of Germany, began to practice a muscular diplomacy in 1890.” 

The misadventure of Xi’s friend in Ukraine has only deepened that nascent dilemma in East Asia,  strengthening the very trans-Pacific ties that were steadily weakening due to the gravitational pull of China’s economic clout.

The Entangling Of Timescales

In the emotional state of nations, nothing is ever forgotten. What is fascinating about the current moment is that the postures being taken on all sides today are shaped by historical triumphs and humiliations alike, entangling the fighting of past wars in the anticipation of what might come next. 

For the U.S. and those countries surrounding Japan, including China and South Korea, the top concern for the post-WWII decades was to prevent the “land of the rising sun” from ever re-militarizing, especially with respect to attaining the kind of nuclear weapons unleashed upon it. 

I remember Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew saying to me in one conversation that even allowing Japan to send its forces outside of the country for multilateral peacekeeping operations would be like “giving a chocolate liqueur to an alcoholic. Once the Japanese get off the water wagon, it will be hard to stop them.” We’d all be happier, he said, if Japan stays under American protection, leaving it “to concentrate on high-definition television.” 

Here, President Joe Biden’s strategy bears in mind the last war as well as the next one. One key element in the U.S. thinking behind the recent Camp David security pact, beyond the obvious objective of containing China, was to reaffirm its security umbrella so that Japan is not tempted to toss out the pacifist constitution America forced upon it after defeat in 1945. And it was meant to avoid South Korea going nuclear as a deterrent to its menacing brethren in the North, something more hawkish local voices are preaching. 

China and Russia are battling different demons of the past. Xi is seeking to rejuvenate Chinese civilization, hoisting it back to its rightful centrality in the world after being subordinated by Western imperialism. Putin, possessed by a millennial vision of restoring the “great Russia” of the 11th century, is seeking to recover from the post-Cold War humiliation of becoming a rump state.

These visions linking the long past to a revived future are all converging in the mounting tensions of the present. In their stunning miscalculation, both Putin and Xi seem to have determined that Biden’s summary withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, combined with the cultural civil war and populist revolts wreaking havoc across the democratic world, signaled a historically irreversible weakness of which they could take advantage. 

One lesson they have now surely learned is that, even a global hegemon in relative decline still packs a lot of vigor in its tail. At this point in time, it appears that Putin and Xi will go down in history not for achieving their aims, but for setting them back through their monumental misreading of the global West.

A Symbiotic Antagonism Unleashed

The consequence of these entangled timescales is that a symbiotic antagonism, manifested in no-limit partnerships and fortified alliances, has taken hold, propelled forward by its own logic into hostile arrangements that cast the die. Once these structures are in place, just like the fraught alliances of the European empires at the turn of the 20th century that compelled the march toward war, they fuel their own momentum.

The recent Camp David pact comes on top of the AUKUS agreement between the U.S., U.K. and Australia to deploy nuclear subs to roam the contested seas of South and East Asia. And that is in addition to the Quad group that brings India into the anti-China mix with Japan, Australia and the U.S., along with a new agreement with the Philippines to host more U.S. military bases in the north of the country near Taiwan.

In response to all this, Russia and China have been conducting more frequent joint military exercises in the region, most recently in the Sea of Japan and off the coast of Alaska.

One wracks the mind searching for ways to break this logic despite everyone knowing from history where it all leads. Perhaps all that can be hoped for is that the (so far) cold conflict in Asia can be managed through a protracted détente so its fervent enmity loses steam before it can boil over.