The Emergence of the China-Russia Consensus in the Middle East

“Two of the most powerful men in the world are gathering for face-to-face talks in one of the wealthiest and most influential nations on Earth. The United States, for decades the undisputed global hegemon, is not involved.”

These words appeared in Newsweek hours before Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their first in-person summit in over two years since the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the globe. As anticipated, the February 4 meeting in Beijing, which came as the XXIV Winter Olympic Games prepared to open in the Chinese capital, was followed by a joint statement outlining a plan to deepen bilateral coordination between China and Russia on a range of issues, from foreign policy and defense to trade and economic endeavors.

The message was clear: the old world order of U.S.-dominated unipolarity, long ailing from open-ended conflicts abroad and hyper partisan strife at home, had died. Less of a coup d'etat and more of a calculated merger of strategies on the world stage, China and Russia’s decision to coordinate their combined power and influence will likely have profound implications for the future of international relations.

And in the Middle East, a resource-rich region at the center of some of the world’s deadliest conflicts and most intense crises in recent years, China and Russia have already begun to carefully balance risk and opportunity to foster a foothold in a region where the U.S. has firmly established itself as the leading guarantor of the lucrative oil and gas reserves and routes that fuel much of the globe.

The term “coordination” is key in Xi and Putin’s joint statement because it’s what sets China’s relationship with Russia apart from Beijing’s ties with any other government in the world. The Chinese government and its ruling Communist Party has built a network of “partnerships” of differing, categorized degrees of intensity with more than 100 countries, including more than half of the Arab League states as well as Iran, Israel and Turkey, and several international organizations, including the Arab League itself, over the years but, since 1996, only between China and Russia has there been a “strategic partnership of coordination.”

This relationship has advanced over the past quarter-century, producing the pivotal Sino-Russian Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2001, and has since blossomed into a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for the new era,” a phrase first adopted in 2019.

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Defining the nature and implications of this “new-type” dynamic is difficult, especially as much of the discourse, especially in the West, has been consumed by Cold War comparisons. Certainly, the past is critical to understanding underlying motivations by Moscow and Beijing, for the former the devastating effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union on Russia’s posture vis-à-vis NATO in Europe and for the latter the oft-cited “century of humiliation” that saw China subject to unprecedented intervention from Western powers and rival Japan and overlapping civil wars from 1839 to 1949 that killed at least as many people as World War I.

But Chinese and Russian officials and experts go to great lengths to reject the Cold War paradigm in the 21st century as well as overt suggestions that the U.S. might leverage one power against the other as was the case when Washington cultivated ties with Beijing to spite Moscow half a century ago.

Then-U.S. President Richard Nixon’s famous trip to China and the ensuing strategy came only in reaction to an bilateral, ideological dispute that had emerged between the People’s Republic and its more powerful, fellow communist neighbor. Today, China and Russia’s bonds, amplified by a rare warmness expressed by Xi and Putin in their personal interactions, makes such a schism unlikely in the near-term, even if Washington foreign policy circles have counted on it for some time.

Worse still for Washington is a marked decline in the U.S.’ most potent asset, its soft power, in many parts of the world.

More important to U.S. hegemony than its leading military capabilities is the cultural, economic and diplomatic clout that has allowed the U.S. to maintain far more bases than the rest of the world combined. And perhaps nowhere has this soft power come under such stark challenge as it has in the Middle East.

Two decades of so-called “forever wars”—a term co-opted by both President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden—has produced uncertain outcomes and drew the united ire of both China and Russia. And the nations with which the U.S. is partnered share little in the way of democratic values that Washington has preached to friends and foes across the globe. Rather, ideals such as “security,” “stability” and “sovereignty” are viewed as critical for various governments to maintain rule over their constituencies and avoid state-on-state clashes.

Whereas interventionism on various scales has been a cornerstone of the U.S. playbook in the Middle East, from the invasion of Iraq to the arming of insurgents in Libya and Syria to remove undesirable leaders, China and Russia have promised to shore up state power with far less concern for conflicting interpretations of human rights or free elections. “Non-interference in internal affairs” is a central tenet of the doctrine Beijing and Moscow are seeking to define here.

For China, the path to the Middle East has been paved along the Belt and Road Initiative, which counts nearly every country in the region, with the exceptions of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, as participants. Even among this trio, the appetite for Chinese investment is only growing and not a single nation in the region joined U.S. calls to condemn China on allegations of widespread abuses against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang despite the region’s Muslim-majority population and Israel’s own experience with genocide, of which Washington has accused Beijing.

For Russia, Moscow’s diplomacy has proven an attractive avenue for state and non-state actors embroiled in intractable disputes that otherwise disallow direct talks or fall afoul of the U.S.’ far more selective process of with whom it will or will not speak. Moscow’’s traditional military might, amplified by a years-long modernization campaign, has also been an influential factor, with a number of regional countries expressing interest in Russian arms such as the S-400 surface-to-air missile system, a platform already acquired by Turkey despite triggering sanctions from its U.S. ally.

While neither China nor Russia can match the U.S. military posture in the Middle East, the example of Syria, the only country in the region where Moscow has intervened militarily on a significant scale, has proven a consequential test for Washington’s ability to assert its foreign policy goals in the face of a near-peer competitor willing to invest in opposing interests. Beijing and Moscow teamed up early on in the Syrian crisis to block United Nations Security Council endorsement of an intervention, displaying a willingness they lacked months earlier over Libya, and, as the conflict evolved over the past decade, a burgeoning convergence of the two powers’ has emerged in the continued rule of President Bashar al-Assad and the gradual rehabilitation of his image among even U.S.-oriented Arab states.

Russia has leveraged its position to expand its presence in two strategically located bases on the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean, the southern flank of the NATO alliance, and has presented itself as an arbiter willing to speak to nearly all sides of the ongoing civil war, including through active channels of communication with the Syrian government, Iran, Turkey, the U.S., Kurdish forces and certain opposition organizations.

Syria is also one of the most recent official additions to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which promises to provide badly needed funds to skirt U.S. sanctions and pursue reconstruction of the war-torn country. Here, Russia-enforced stability may finally draw Chinese capital once elusive to Syria, strengthening Damascus’ position and offering access to the same ports near which Russia deploys air and sea power.

But just as the U.S. experience in Syria signaled a blow to Washington’s foreign policy projection, Beijing and Moscow still face considerable obstacles given the country’s continued unrest, competing regional interests and lack of serious efforts for peace, even if the two powers’ efforts are currently trending positively for their interests.

Far more consequential, perhaps, may be the extent to which China and Russia succeed in forging inroads with Iran, where the prospects of a U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear deal, if successful and lasting, may mean a more open, yet potentially more competitive arena, and in balancing the geopolitical playing field in the wealthy monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, where a U.S. attempt to shift geopolitical priorities to the Asia-Pacific has been met with skepticism and uncertainty from longstanding partners, leaving ample room to demonstrate the “new-type” partnerships that Xi and Putin hope to be a model for international relations.

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At first sight, Russia and Iran seem to have compatible – or even similar – approaches to the JCPOA and regional security. Moscow’s emphasis on the need for all parties to return to the nuclear deal in its original form and avoid raising new demands at this stage is in line with Tehran’s view that the JCPOA is “concluded and sealed” and cannot be renegotiated. However, the more Russian officials elaborate on their views on regional security, the less attractive they appear to become to the Iranian side, Valdai Club experts Hanna Notte and Hamidreza Azizi write.
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