Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Unhappy Adversaries

When your adversaries are unhappy - rejoice!

There was no pressing reason for Xi Jinping to stop off in Moscow for a summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. There have already been two recent high-level contacts where critical issues in the Russia-China relationship were discussed. 

The Chinese leader had already met with Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Astana a month ago, and the Russian head of state had traveled to Beijing in May for the “One Belt, One Road” conclave. And both leaders, of course, were already scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Germany later this week.

No, the decision for Xi to travel to Moscow first and for Putin to host him in the Kremlin is meant as a direct and clear message to the United States and to the administration before the President leaves for Europe: we aren't pleased with the direction of U.S. policy, and we have options.

One must also assume that Xi is giving Putin the benefit of his experiences during his face to face meetings with 45 at Mar-A-Lago earlier this year, as well as his “read” of the American president, prior to Putin's own first direct encounter at Hamburg.

This could prove to be very critical in how that meeting unfolds. Xi, of course, was honored with a meeting with 45 in the more intimate setting of 45's Florida hideaway, but was also “interrupted” by the decision to launch an American cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack in Idlib.

Will Xi convey a sense that 45 employs a bit of  37's “madman” approach and that one must be cautious in dealing with the U.S. president? Will he advise Putin that  45 talks a good game but then can't seem to get his preferences through the U.S. policy process? (A precedent Putin has already experienced with 44 and 43.) And does Xi still believe it is possible to do business with the administration, or will he counsel the Russian president that expectations about 45 the deal maker were overrated? Or, given the political turmoil in Washington, it is time for both Moscow and Beijing to forge ahead and create more “facts on the ground” whether in Ukraine, Syria or the maritime zones of the Pacific?

Of course, China and Russia remain cautious in defining the limits of their strategic embrace. Both will complain about U.S. actions and promise verbal and moral support, but neither Moscow nor Beijing has been pushed—yet—to consummate any sort of Eurasian entente. Neither side has completely foreclosed on the hope that, at some point in the future, 45 the deal maker will gain bureaucratic control of the U.S. national security apparatus and be prepared to sit down to negotiate.