Europe Politics

Russia relishes divisions between China and the U.S., pouring cold water on Xi-Biden talks

Key Points
  • There was more than a hint of schadenfreude in the Russian media this week, ahead of the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his counterpart Joe Biden in the U.S. on Wednesday.
  • Russian media have already characterized the APEC summit in San Francisco as a poorly-attended event.
  • Russian newspapers barely mentioned the Xi-Biden meeting, while state-run news agencies focused on policy tensions between the U.S. and China.
  • Russia holds China in high esteem, and Beijing is one of its few remaining powerful allies.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his press conference at the Konstantin Palace on July 29, 2023 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
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There was more than a hint of schadenfreude in the Russian state media ahead of the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden in San Francisco on Wednesday, with Russia accentuating the geopolitical gulf between the two superpowers.

Russia will be watching the talks closely, given its alliance with China, and any signs of a rapprochement between Beijing and Washington is likely to earn a frosty response from Moscow.

Russian media have already reveled in pouring cold water on the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit where Xi and Biden are due to meet Wednesday. A reporter for Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency on Tuesday reported that a plenary meeting of the APEC summit chaired by U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai took place "in a half-empty hall."

"Despite the presence of most of the meeting participants at the table, including the representative of the Russian Federation, some of the chairs with signs remained empty. Dozens of chairs are also empty for event guests," the news agency said, according to a Google translation.

With more than a hint of glee, RIA Novosti contrasted its image of a half-empty conference hall with the U.S. Trade Representative Tai emphasizing to delegates "how important this event is for the United States." 

Most world leaders and high-profile guests at the APEC summit are not due to attend the event until Wednesday, while lower-ranking ministerial meetings have already been held in the last few days.

Xi Jinping, China's president, right, arrives at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco, California, US, on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. Xi arrived in San Francisco for a high-stakes meeting with his American counterpart Joe Biden on Tuesday, as the Chinese leader's first trip to the US in six years drew crowds of protesters and supporters onto the city's heavily policed streets. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Although arguably one of the biggest events to take place at the summit — Biden and Xi's encounter on Wednesday will be the first face-to-face meeting between the leaders in a year — it is being played down, with the main aim of talks being to reduce tensions and conflicting interests across a range of global issues.

These include significantly different positions over Russia and the war in Ukraine, the latest conflict in the Middle East and other areas of tension and rivalry in the geopolitical and economic arena, with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

Russia keen to stress differences

Russian news agencies were keen to emphasize those differences and the gulf between the superpowers ahead of the Xi-Biden meeting, as well as focusing on what China and Russia see as Western hegemony and attempts by the U.S. to maintain its dominance in global affairs.

They were also keen to focus on competing pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protests taking place in the U.S. as the summit geared up for the arrival of dozens of world leaders and hundreds of CEOs from the 21 member economies in the Pacific Rim. Russian President Vladimir Putin was not invited due to U.S. sanctions so Deputy Prime Minister Alexei Overchuk is representing Russia at the summit.

The Kremlin gave a muted comment on the forthcoming talks between Xi and Biden with Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov saying the meeting is not on the Kremlin's agenda but that it planned to monitor it.

"The two countries, in fact, are building bilateral relations. This is their right, so this is not a topic that is widely on our agenda," he said at a briefing, state news agency Interfax reported.

"But, of course, each such meeting — after all, of the two largest economies in the world — is important for everyone, so one way or another, we will monitor the messages that will accompany this meeting," he added.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 14: Supporters of Palestine march to the city's iconic Merchant Exchange Club where U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were attending a fundraiser November, 14, 2023 in San Francisco, California. Nearby, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), drawing dozens of world leaders and hundreds of CEOs from 21 member economies in the Pacific Rim, is being held through November 17. Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are scheduled to meet. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)
Kent Nishimura | Getty Images News | Getty Images

State news agency Tass noted Tuesday in a Google-translated report that the APEC summit had kicked off "against the backdrop of protests," and that while "the normalization of political and economic relations and the situation around Taiwan" could be discussed, Washington and Beijing "place different emphasis on the agenda of the upcoming negotiations, and expectations of their results."

Other points of contention aside from tensions over Taiwan include U.S. export controls and investment restrictions on Chinese tech and matters of national security after the suspected "spy balloon" incident, the agency noted.

A range of Russian newspapers including Kommersant, Izvestia, Argumenty i Fakty, Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Komsomolskaya Pravda did not feature any news on the APEC summit or Xi-Biden talks. A lone mainstream media voice, the business newspaper Vedomosti, featured an article summarizing niche areas where there could be specific agreements, such as efforts to combat the illegal trade in fentanyl and the restoration of military communication channels.

Russia has an interest in playing down any rapprochement between the U.S. and China and will view improvements in the relationship with concern. China is one of Russia's few remaining powerful allies, with Beijing refusing to condemn Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Putin and Xi have met numerous times in recent years — Xi said last month that he had met with Putin "42 times in the past 10 years" — with the most recent engagement taking place in October, when Putin travelled to Beijing for an economic summit.

Russia and China are aligned in their distrust of the Western world, which they see as trying to impose a U.S.-led international order, and in opposing Western sanctions and what they see as economic coercion.

While tensions continue in the background, the lines of communication remain open, however. APEC, to which the U.S., China and Russia belong, promotes free trade throughout the Asia-Pacific region, and the group pledged at its last summit to promote and uphold a rules-based multilateral trading system.

This pool photograph distributed by Russian state owned agency Sputnik shows Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shaking hands during a meeting in Beijing on October 18, 2023. 
Sergei Guneyev | AFP | Getty Images

Nonetheless, Beijing is believed to feel a deep-seated uneasiness over the economic disruption caused by Russia's ongoing war with Ukraine. Last month, Xi said Beijing would not engage in "ideological confrontation, geopolitical games or bloc confrontation," in an apparent reference to the West. Analysts believe both the U.S. and China have an interest in improving ties after a prolonged period of tension.

"The world's two most powerful countries neither like nor trust each other. and their relationship is structurally deteriorating as we move into a new phase of "de-risked" globalization, but both countries are also geopolitical adults, preferring stability to chaos and accordingly unwilling to get too close to rogue states," Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group, said in emailed comments Monday.

China's President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden at the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian island of Bali on Nov. 14, 2022.
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"So while the United States and China back different horses in both the Russia-Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war, the two countries also have strong interests in ensuring the conflicts don't expand further."

Bremmer added, "China's strategic interests in the rest of the world are primarily commercially driven, and Beijing is especially risk-averse there given the economic challenges at home ... For now at least, Beijing is considerably less interested in exploiting global geopolitical crises than in ensuring they don't deteriorate further, threatening China's economy and national security."