This is big.
The two leading authoritarians of our time have declared unprecedented common cause, perhaps even a de facto security alliance, with aspirations of shaping a new world order to replace the one fashioned by the United States and its partners after World War II.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to make sure the world didn't miss the importance of their 38th personal meeting in Beijing on Friday, just hours before the opening of the Winter Olympics and with more than 100,000 Russian troops threatening Ukrainian independence and sovereignty.
So, they publicly released the entirety of their audacious, 5,300-word joint statement in English this weekend, declaring that "a trend has emerged towards redistribution of power in the world" – namely toward them and away from the U.S. and its democratic partners and allies.
There's a lot in the statement worth reading and digesting, but here's my rough executive summary: Russia and China are throwing in their lot in a gesture of cooperation that exceeds even Stalin's partnership with Mao, in each other's regions and around the world. For the first time, Beijing has joined Moscow in opposing NATO enlargement and embracing Putin's vision for a new European security order. Russia returned the favor by opposing the new Australia-U.S.-U.K. security agreement, endorsing its One China Policy, embracing the Russia-India-China cooperation format, and blessing its Arctic role.
Russia and China aren't calling their partnership an alliance of the NATO variety, but they aren't shy about its ambitions.
Xi and Putin, read the statement, "reaffirm that the new inter-State relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliance of the Cold War era. Friendship between the two States has no limits. There are no 'forbidden' areas of cooperation (emphasis added), strengthening of bilateral cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries."
A Biden administration official sees a silver lining in that the statement doesn't mention Ukraine by name, perhaps showing China's discomfort with the prospect of invasion but, at the same time, Xi has said nothing to dissuade Putin's escalation.
In the statement, the two sides are redefining the very meaning of democracy to embrace their repressive systems that censor media, prohibit dissent, lock up political opponents and support like-minded authoritarian systems.
Ludicrous as this democracy embrace might sound, it's further evidence that China and Russia are trying to wrest the high moral ground from electoral democracies through Orwellian gobbledygook.
"The sides note," reads the statement, "that Russia and China as world powers with rich cultural and historical heritage have long-standing traditions of democracy, which rely on thousand-years of experience of development, broad popular support and consider of the need and interests of citizens."
Further, "It is only up to the people of the country to decide whether their State is a democratic one." Elsewhere, however, it warns "that the advocacy of democracy and human rights must not be used to put pressure on other countries."
The broad areas the agreement embraces are head-spinning.
The sides agreed to more closely link their economies through cooperation between China's Belt and Road Initiative and Putin's Eurasian Economic Union. They will work together to develop the Arctic. They'll deepen coordination in multilateral institutions and to battle climate change.
Back in June 2019, I wrote in this space, "It's time to start worrying more about what could become the most profound geopolitical shift of the post-Cold War years. China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin are deepening their two countries' strategic alignment even as long-time democratic allies across the Atlantic grow more distant."
Perhaps the biggest mistake Western strategists have made since then has been to separate the Chinese and Russian challenges to the post-Cold War international order as distinct and only loosely related. The Biden administration even hoped to "park" the Russia issue as it dealt with the more pressing and long-term China challenge.
Yet for all the two countries' historic animosities and considerable remaining differences, perhaps never in their history have they been closer. Never since World War II have the leading authoritarians of their time been so strategically aligned or personally close – at a time when both have an eye on their historic legacies.
As Putin considers his own options regarding Ukraine, his relationship with China also could help him manage any potential new sanctions through deepened energy agreements and financial arrangements.
On Friday, China and Russia announced new oil and gas deals valued at an estimated $117.5 billion. Rosneft, Russia's largest oil producer, announced a new agreement to supply 100 million tons of crude through Kazakhstan to China's state company CNPC over the next 10 years, while Gazprom agreed it would ship China 10 billion cubic meters of gas a year through a new pipeline.
There's no denying the economic numbers: Last year trade between the two countries hit a record $147 billion, making China Russia's largest trading partner. Western intelligence sources consider the time of maximum danger for Ukraine to be after Feb. 20, the last day of the Olympics, which at the same time coincides with the end of the massive "Allied Resolve" military exercises in Belarus (that could mask invasion preparations). It also is a time when the Ukrainian ground and rivers remain sufficiently frozen to allow for heavy military equipment to move most effectively.
Whatever Putin chooses regarding Ukraine, however, this week's joint statement underscores a tectonic shift in global relations that will require far more creative, collaborative and long-term thinking among the U.S. and its partners.
The growing closeness between Russia and China has increased both countries' advantages at a time when their leaders believe they have the momentum, that democracies have weakened, the U.S. is politically divided, and where new technologies are empowering authoritarian leaders' ability to surveil and control their societies.
It's tempting to poke holes in the 5,300-word joint statement, noting its inconsistencies and its hypocrisy. What unites Russia and China remains mostly their opposition to the U.S. They've cynically appropriated the concepts that define U.S. foreign policy – democracy, human rights, and economic development – although their actions are ridiculously inconsistent with their rhetoric.
Without a more aggressive and consistent push-back among democracies, expect more Chinese-Russian push forward. It would be a profound mistake to see the Ukraine crisis in isolation at a time when Xi and Putin have provided its disturbing context.
—Frederick Kempe is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.