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Parsing the meaning of the Xi-Putin meeting on the sidelines of the Beijing Olympics

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics was defined by a meeting of two world leaders on the sidelines. After Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the opening ceremony in Beijing last Friday, he met with China's President Xi Jinping. The two men declared there were no limits to their strategic partnership. And they went further, too. In a statement, China backed Russia's demand to stop the NATO expansion to the East. The countries took aim at the U.S. with a promise to, quote, "counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext." I spoke to Evan Medeiros, professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, about what we learned from that meeting.

So how significant was this meeting between Putin and Xi in the midst of this war of words between Russia and the U.S. and the threats of invasion?

EVAN MEDEIROS: The meeting was quite significant. But it wasn't a crossing of a threshold. The meeting was really a natural evolution of where the China-Russia relationship has been going in the last decade, but especially since 2014, and especially because of the Putin-Xi relationship. Both of them share concerns about the United States. They have a mutually beneficial economic relationship. They share a lot of military technology. So the meeting was really more of a culmination of trends that have been growing for a long time than some dramatic break and shift in global politics.

FADEL: What do you see as the most important outcome of the meeting?

MEDEIROS: The most important outcome to me was, No. 1, that Ukraine was not mentioned in the joint statement. So I think the Chinese - while expressing a lot of sympathy and concern for Russian concerns, the Chinese didn't outwardly, publicly back Russia's position on Ukraine.

FADEL: Why not?

MEDEIROS: I think, in large part, because the Chinese are concerned about a war. A war doesn't help China. It would lead to a spike in global energy prices. Chinese companies would probably get caught up in the sanctions. And China, while it has lots of concerns about the U.S., doesn't want a war with the U.S. and Europe, two of its largest trading partners.

FADEL: What types of risks are they taking by backing Russia's biggest security demand, for example, the NATO expansion? And where do they draw the line in backing Putin in this standoff with the U.S. over Ukraine?

MEDEIROS: Right now, it's unclear where exactly China draws the line.

FADEL: Right.

MEDEIROS: For the first time, China opposed NATO expansion, even though it's expressed concerns about U.S. alliances and Europe for a long time and doesn't like NATO calling out China, as it's done in recent years. But the Chinese are concerned about the state of their economy, the state of the global economy. I think the Chinese are concerned about getting drawn into a war with the United States and Europe. So the line is still unclear. And Putin wants to pull Beijing closer. And I think Beijing is trying to figure out how to calibrate that, because there is a lot of common interests between Putin and Xi. And that's driving this relationship forward.

FADEL: What do you make of the analysis that this is sort of autocratic leaders uniting versus Western Democratic leaders uniting to balance them out?

MEDEIROS: I mean, there's absolutely an element of that. You read this joint statement, it begins with them trying to appropriate the language of democracy, calling themselves democracies - which, obviously, they aren't - in a way to sort of suggest that their political systems, their authoritarian political systems, are actually more efficient and better at improving people's lives than democracy. So that's absolutely a part of their agenda.

FADEL: Now, so far, the biggest threat to Russia, if they were to invade Ukraine, are U.S. sanctions. Can China provide an economic lifeline to Russia in the case of sanctions?

MEDEIROS: China can absolutely provide an economic lifeline. The question is, at what cost? And we don't know precisely what the sanctions are yet. And we don't know how expansive they'll be. But they're very likely to touch the Chinese financial system and/or Chinese technology companies. And I think that that's what Beijing is trying to calibrate right now. It wants to express sympathy for Putin, doesn't want NATO to expand. But on the other hand, it doesn't want to get drawn into a sort of new Cold War - Version 2.0.

FADEL: Is Xi watching what the U.S. might do with Russia vis a vis Ukraine to predict what the West and what the U.S. might do if China were to try to seize Taiwan?

MEDEIROS: Absolutely. I think there's a very close analogy between looking at American and Western unity, resilience and capability to determine what the United States might do if China started to significantly coerce, if not invade over Taiwan. Now, of course, the Taiwan situation is substantially different because the U.S., you know, has a policy of strategic ambiguity when it comes to Taiwan. But in broad terms, I think there is an important analogy here.

FADEL: And what does it mean for China that Putin is opposing Taiwan's independence?

MEDEIROS: Well, that's not a new position by Putin or Russia. Russians have said this for a long time. What surprised me in the joint statement was how narrow and restrictive the language about Taiwan was. Putin didn't give Xi anything new. And it makes one wonder whether or not Putin asked Xi for more on Ukraine, and Xi Jinping didn't give it to him. And as a result, Putin didn't give Xi Jinping a lot more on Taiwan.

FADEL: So really, this strategic partnership that we're seeing today has developed because of this personal relationship with Xi and Putin?

MEDEIROS: No. It hasn't developed because of it. It was moving in that direction already. I think that the personal relationship has just accelerated that trend.

FADEL: So what does the U.S. do in the face of this strengthening relationship?

MEDEIROS: I think the United States is going to have to strengthen its alliances globally, a unique U.S. asset, strengthen its position in international institutions, make sure that its global military posture remains robust as Putin and Xi get closer. In many ways, I think of the Putin-Xi relationship as basically an alliance minus a mutual defense commitment because it is substantial. And both leaders aren't leaving anytime soon.

FADEL: Evan Medeiros, professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. Thank you so much for joining us.

MEDEIROS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LNS' "KABELJAU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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