The leaders of Russia and China clench their claws, draw closer

MOSCOW (AP) – They are not leaders for life, at least technically. But in political reality, it appears that the powerful mandates of China’s Xi Jinping and, starting this week, Russia’s Vladimir Putin will extend much deeper into the 21st century, even as the two superpowers whose destinies they lead gain more influence. with each. passing year.

What’s more, as they consolidate political control at home, sometimes with tough measures, they are working together more substantially than ever on a growing challenge to the West and the world’s other superpower, the United States, which elects its leader each. four years.

This week, Putin signed a law that allows him to potentially stay in power until 2036. The 68-year-old Russian president, who has been in power for more than two decades, longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin , lobbied through a constitutional vote last year that allowed him to run again in 2024 when his current six-year term ends. He has overseen a systematic crackdown on dissent.

In China, Xi, who came to power in 2012, has imposed even tighter controls on the already repressive political scene, emerging as one of his nation’s most powerful leaders in the seven decades of Communist Party rule that began under the regime. often brutal of Mao Zedong. . Under Xi, the government has detained, imprisoned or silenced intellectuals, legal activists and other voices, cracked down on the Hong Kong opposition, and used security forces to crack down on calls for minority rights in Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia.

Xi has sidelined his rivals, locked up critics and tightened the party’s grip on information. An ongoing crackdown on corruption has won popular support and kept potential competitors at bay.

His steady consolidation of power led to the removal of term limits on the Chinese presidency in 2018, demolishing a convention the party had established to prevent a repeat of abuse by Mao’s one-man rule. Xi also telegraphed his intention to remain in power, breaking with tradition and without indicating a preferred successor. One who seemed eager to take on the role, Sun Zhengcai, was ousted in 2017 and sentenced to life in prison on corruption charges.

And in Russia, Putin’s most outspoken critic, Alexei Navalny, was arrested in January upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from nerve agent poisoning that blames the Kremlin, an accusation Russian authorities have denied. In February, Navalny was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

By challenging the West, Putin and Xi have seized on nationalist sentiments. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine boosted Putin’s approval ratings to nearly 90% before they weakened amid economic woes and unpopular pension reform.

But the impact of Putin and Xi’s lasting hold on power hardly ends at the borders of their respective nations. It spreads outward in the geopolitical balance of power in myriad ways.

As Moscow’s relations with the West plunged to post-Cold War lows amid allegations of election meddling and piracy attacks, Putin has increasingly sought to strengthen ties with China. And while China has so far avoided a confrontation with the West like Russia’s, it is under increasing pressure from Washington and its allies over Beijing’s human rights record in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

US President Joe Biden has taken an increasingly tough line on both leaders, recently describing Putin as a “murderer” and having his top national security advisers criticize China for a litany of problems. Such approaches suggest that Moscow and Beijing will have incentives to build an even stronger alliance.

Like their nations, the two leaders have also fostered a closer relationship.

Putin and Xi have developed strong personal ties to reinforce a “strategic partnership” between the two former communist rivals as they compete with the West for influence. And although Moscow and Beijing have rejected the possibility of forging a military alliance in the past, Putin said last fall that such a prospect cannot be completely ruled out.

While both Putin and Xi appear to be firmly entrenched, numerous challenges remain. The pandemic, on the one hand, posed a huge challenge for both rulers, and they took an equally cautious approach when it struck.

Putin responded last spring by introducing a six-week blanket lockdown that hit the already weak Russian economy badly. His approval rating plummeted to a record low of 59%. Later, the government eased restrictions and steered clear of further lockdowns, which helped reduce economic damage and shore up Putin’s ratings.

Xi remained out of the public eye in the uncertain first weeks, possibly out of fear that any misstep could have given rivals a chance to topple him. In the end, China controlled the pandemic better than many other places, enhancing Xi’s position as a leader.

Xi must also figure out how to satisfy ambitious young politicians who may find their careers hampered by his long tenure. And he has to show that his extended rule will not lead to the excesses of the Mao years, especially the disastrous and deeply traumatic Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.

“Xi has to handle an essential paradox. He reveres Mao and is building the same cult of personality and party centrality, ”said Daniel Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “But he knows that his people fear and detest Maoism, so he also has to pretend that he is not Mao. For now, he is an undisputed strong leader who addresses the cracks and fissures in the party and society through Maoist-style campaigns and purges. “

Putin faces even more daunting challenges. Russia’s economy is a fraction of China’s, and its overwhelming dependence on exports of oil and gas and other raw materials makes it vulnerable to market fluctuations. Western economic and financial sanctions have cut off Moscow’s access to Western technologies and capital markets, slowing the economy and impeding modernization efforts. Stagnant living standards and falling incomes have fueled growing discontent.

Russia’s increasingly close ties with China are part of its strategy to offset Western sanctions. Chinese companies provided substitutes for missing Western technologies, helped with major infrastructure projects like supplying power to Crimea, and funneled cash flows to ease the burden of sanctions on tycoons connected to the Kremlin.

“Beijing helped Moscow, at least to some extent, to resist pressure from the US and the EU,” wrote Alexander Gabuev, the leading China expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center in a recent analysis. “This assistance also allowed Moscow to become more assertive in other parts of the world, from being present in the Middle East and Africa to supporting the Venezuelan regime and interfering in US elections.”

Military cooperation continues to be a frontier of great importance. As pressure from the United States has mounted, Russia has moved to expand military ties with China. His armed forces have carried out a series of joint drills, and Putin has pointed out that Russia has provided China with cutting-edge military technologies.

But a total alliance: put the joint military power of Xi and Putin in their nations? Something like this seems less abstract when the increasingly close relationship between the two long-term leaders is taken into account.

“We don’t need it,” Putin said in October. “But theoretically, it is quite possible to imagine it.”


Ken Moritsugu, Greater China news director for The Associated Press, reported from Beijing.


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