While celebrating 75 years of Beijing-Moscow diplomatic relations, the Russian President Vladimir Putin paid an official visit to China on May 15-16 and along with the Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to strive for a just world order and de-escalate war in Ukraine. In his first visit abroad since his re-election and second in the last six months to China, Putin is desperate to cope with wide-scale Western sanctions imposed on Moscow following its occupation of Crimea in 2014 and attack on Ukraine in February 2022.

The depth of Sino-Russian relations is limitless with trade hovering around 240 billion dollars a year and Beijing’s dependence on getting oil and gas from its northern neighbour.

One is perhaps aware of the fact that Moscow was an ardent supporter of the Chinese revolution of October 1949, but the two allies ended up in an ideological schism in the late 1950s leading to the surge of territorial disputes and border skirmishes in 1969.

The two communist giants had strained relations with each other till the time the USSR disintegrated in December 1991 and the Russian Federation as a successor state of the Soviet Union decided to mend fences with its former adversary. The realities engulfing the post-Cold War era along with the U.S.-led world order pushed Beijing and Moscow to forge strategic understanding and then partnership to combat perceived American tutelage in world affairs.

Now, Putin and Xi are allies with strategic foresight and vision. The Chinese President during his meeting with the Russian meeting prudently asserted that, “China is ready to work with Russia to uphold fairness and justice in the world.” Putin responded by stating that, “relations between Russia and China are not opportunistic and not directed against any one. Together we uphold the principles of justice and a democratic world order that reflects multipolar realities and is based on international law.”

How the two arch-rivals of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are now strategic allies and how China and Russia provide cogent leadership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) needs to be analyzed from four angles. First, it was the high-profile visit of the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Peking (now Beijing) in May 1989 that paved the way for mending fences between the two old adversaries.

The demise of the USSR provided China space to usher in a new era of relationship with Moscow sharing a common threat perception against the U.S.-led world order. If Russia emerged as a weak state following the collapse of the USSR, China would emerge as an economic power. Following the departure of Boris Yeltsin from power in 2000 and the rise of Vladimir Putin Russia began to recover from the debacles of the 1990s.

The duo of Putin and Xi led to a paradigm shift in the world order as Russia and China as permanent members of the UN Security Council, formidable nuclear states with huge military arsenal decided to challenge the U.S-led world order and provide an alternate leadership through SCO and BRICS. In the meantime, Russia under Putin also recovered from its economic predicament and along with China forged a strategic partnership.

Second, the West’s strategic planning to encircle and contain both Russia and China by allying Australia, the UK and the U.S. (AUKUS) and U.S., Australia, India Japan (QUAD) also deepened the threat perception shared by China and Russia. If the U.S. engaged with India, Japan and Australia to forge a strategic alliance in the Indo-Pacific region, it would strengthen the Atlantic Alliance by expanding NATO with the inclusion of the Nordic neutral states of Finland and Sweden.

The more the United States and the West tried to encircle and contain Russia and China, the more the two giants were compelled to strive for a multipolar world.

China is the world’s second-largest economy and Russia is geographically the largest state with a population of only 160 million and blessed with huge deposits of strategic minerals and natural resources like oil and gas possess the capability to confront NATO, AUKUS and QUAD.

How long Putin and Xi will remain in power needs to be seen because the disappearance of that duo will surely mitigate the Sino-Russian strategic alliance. Putin after his re-election is now Russia’s longest-serving ruler and the same may be the case with Xi which ensures stability in their ties.

Putin took the opportunity of his Beijing visit to thank China for its role in the Russian-Ukrainian war. According to the Associated Press (AP) “China claims to take a neutral position in the conflict, but it has backed the Kremlin’s contentions that Russia was provoked into attacking Ukraine by the West, and it continues to supply key components needed by Moscow for weapons production. China, which hasn’t criticized the invasion, proposed a broadly worded peace plan in 2023, calling for a cease-fire and direct talks between Moscow and Kyiv.

The plan was rejected by both Ukraine and the West for failing to call for Russia to leave occupied parts of Ukraine.” If China has not condemned Russia for its attack on Ukraine, it is against escalating the war which will negatively impact its economy. In the last few years, China unlike Russia and the United States, has emerged as a mediator and conflict management player. Its role in mending fences between Iran and Saudi Arabia and initiating the process of dialogue between Hamas and PLO needs to be examined in its use of soft power in international and regional diplomacy.

Third, as long as the belligerent stance of the United States to contain China and Russia continues in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe, one can expect the deepening of strategic ties between the two neighbours. With China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in almost 100 countries the real threat for the West comes from Beijing’s soft power initiatives. China has some leverage over Russia to refrain from escalating war in Ukraine.

By pursuing Russia to opt for negotiations and diplomacy China hopes to establish its mark in global affairs as a follower of peace through soft power.

With an enormous ‘trust deficit’ between the West and Russia on ending the war in Ukraine, China’s perceived neutral stance on the Russian-Ukrainian war will not work because Beijing is being accused by the United States of pursuing a dual role. Finally, it is in the interest of both Russia and China that they are not isolated in global affairs.

The overt American support to Israel in its war in Gaza tends to isolate Washington and Tel Aviv in the UN and other international fora. It is the strategic triangular of China, Russia and Iran which needs to be taken seriously. Despite years of American policy of imposing sanctions on Iran and Russia, the two countries can get away because of China’s help.

Ground realities shaping fragile global order negate space for democracy and human rights. If the United States condemns Russia and China for human rights violations, at the same time Washington is accused by critics of siding with Israel in its policy of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. The more the U.S. and the West try to exert pressure on Russia and China, the more the two powers will deepen their strategic alliance.

When threat perception shaping the strategic mindset of Moscow and Beijing is U.S.-centric, it will certainly get the endorsement from such countries in the global south that are against American American-centric world order.

What are the options for Pakistan to deal with the limitless depth of the Sino-Russian partnership and alliance and the U.S.-led West to encircle the two neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe?

Neutrality in the growing schism between the Sino-Russian alliance on the one hand and the West on the other is the only option left for Pakistan with prudent foreign policy initiatives to promote de-escalation of conflict between the two sides.

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