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What the Biden-Putin summit has to do with China

Killian Bayer
June 15, 2021

At a low point in US-Russian relations, US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met face-to-face. China is one of the reasons.

Flags of the US and Russia on the Mont Blanc bridge in Geneva, Switzerland
Image: Peter Klaunzer/KEYSTONE/picture alliance

US President Joe Biden wanted to spend time in a room with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and the translators to better understand what drives the Russian president and what the real issues are, said Ian Bremmer, a US foreign affairs expert and Time magazine columnist.

"That's very important to him. His empathy does come from that. I mean, if Biden has a superpower, that's probably what it is," Bremmer told DW.

By February 2021, relations between the two nuclear powers had reached a 30-year low. Biden had called Putin a killer, which triggered outrage in Moscow. Suddenly, however, things changed and plans were made for a private meeting in a neutral space, in Switzerland.

The US seeks to normalize relations with Russia — mainly because of China, according to Raimund Krämer, who teaches international politics at the University of Potsdam. "The main focus of Biden's European trip serves the greater goal of forging alliances against China," he told DW, adding that much is evident in the G7, NATO and EU summits as well as in the meeting with the Russian president.

Two aircraft carriers and smaller ships at sea
Two US aircraft carriers in the South China SeaImage: U.S. Navy/Jason Tarleton/abaca/picture-alliance

The list of topics up for debate between Biden and Putin is long: disarmament treaties, the Ukraine conflict, Syria, Iran's nuclear program, Libya, Afghanistan. Not to mention human rights violations, the suppression of the free press and opposition in Russia, pro-government hacking attacks, and the hijacking of the Ryanair plane by Russia's ally Belarus. One topic will not be on the agenda, although it has become the focus of American foreign policy: China.

Bremmer said that, while it is unlikely Biden and Putin will talk directly about China, it is clear the US sees China as a key antagonist on the global stage, which in turn influences US strategy with respect to Russia.

US favors steady relationship with Russia

The ongoing confrontation between the United States and the People's Republic of China came to a head shortly before Biden's trip to Europe. Three days before the G7 summit, the US announced it would approve a trade agreement with Taiwan — a provocation for China. A day later, the US Senate passed a $244 billion (€201 billion) package of legislation to combat China's technological dominance. One day before the summit, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told the Pentagon to bring more of a focus on strategy on China.

Putin and Xi smile and shake hands
The presidents of China and Russia in 2019Image: picture alliance/AA/Kremlin Press Office

"I think that the reality of the Chinese relationship, Chinese influence and power and the difficulty in aligning other countries in the world with the US on China means that we'd rather not have big problems on the Russian front," said Bremmer.

Ralf Fücks, director of the Berlin-based Center for Liberal Modernity think tank, takes a similar view, arguing that clearly, "China is present in the background." The US has no interest in escalating the conflict with Moscow, the Russia expert added. "It's really just a side issue for them that interupts their attempts to consolidate their strategic positions vis-a-vis Beijing," he said, adding that it's a strategic option for Putin to expand cooperation with China, which he has already started doing.

Ian Bremmer
Ian Bremmer Image: Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Getting too close to China is 'dangerous for Russia'

Since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow and Beijing have strengthened their bilateral ties. The halt of a significant portion of foreign direct investment in Russia was an immediate consequence of western sanctions. Attempts to offset that loss by turning to China have been only partially successful. The Russian economy has been stagnating for years. Real incomes are falling, while frustration among the population is on the rise.

Russia is trying to participate in China's economic growth. New pipelines to China are under construction and Russia has been supplying the Chinese with modern weapons systems that Beijing is not getting from the West. "Russia is helping the Chinese build a military satellite defense system," according to Sarah Pagung of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). "But they are very cautious because in the end, of course, they don't want the Chinese to simply copy military technology that the Russians have developed and then become independent," the DGAP Russia expert argued.

Russian intercontinental ballistic missile launcher drives through Moscow
A Russian intercontinental ballistic missile launcher rehearsed for a parade in 2012Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Kolesnikova

It is the authoritarian common ground that drives Putin to Xi Jinping's side, said Ralf Fücks of the Center for Liberal Modernity. "There is, in effect, a new international axis of authoritarian powers that see a common opponent in liberal democracy and the liberal world order." Russia, he added, fears China more than it sees China as a strategic partner.

"For Russia, too much closeness with China... it's more a danger than something good," Victoria Zhuravleva, the head of the Center for North American Studies at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, told DW. The United States could provide a counterweight to China for Russia to move between, the political scientist said, adding that could be a way of balancing the two powers.

Walking the seesaw of power politics is the position Russia seems to seek, a center among many in a multi-polar world. "Russia's favorite position is still that of a kind of mediator between Asia and the West," said Katharina Bluhm, director of the Institute for Eastern European Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. "The mediator role is an illusion today, partly because China is unlikely to grant it to Russia."

Two soldiers in camouflage with weapons besidee a military vehicle
Russian troops take part in drill exercises in CrimeaImage: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP/picture alliance

"I think Biden's decision to meet with Putin certainly has created anxiety on the part of China, which I think it's a smart move by him us at this point," said Yawei Liu, a China expert with the Carter Center thinktank.

"We'll find it increasingly difficult to deal with two opponents, China and Russia. So it's better to divide and conquer. You know, from that perspective, I think it's a very smart move."

Biden's messages to Russia and Europe

Not all experts feel confrontation with China is what drives Biden's summit with Putin, however. Kristine Berzina of the German Marshall Fund said the main purpose of Biden's entire European trip is a show of solidarity with US allies. Russia, she said, is perceived as a destabilizing force. 

"A big priority is to show the fact that the United States is not going to be tolerant of of of Russia's ongoing, increasingly menacing, threatening and belligerent behavior in its near abroad and globally," said Berzina.

 That destabilizing influence is also a factor as far as Torrey Taussig of the Harvard Kennedy School is concerned.

"The United States is focused primarily on China, but it also acknowledges that Russia is able to carry out a tremendous amount of chaos and destabilize democracies in the US and Europe," said Taussig.

G7- summit, seven men and two men pose for photo
Global leaders at the G7 meeting in 2021Image: Patrick Semansky/AP/picture alliance

However, the simple fact that he is invited to a meeting is a major domestic political success for Putin, said Pagung, who added that the Russian media portray it as a kind of "recognition of Russia's great power status." Putin, Pagung said, has nothing to lose. Biden, on the other hand, will have to make his position on Russia crystal clear and point out Russian wrongdoing if he is to be successful.

This article has been translated from German