CNN  — 

As two autocrats traded tributes over a feast of quail, venison, Siberian white salmon and pomegranate sorbet, China and Russia seemed to conjure the anti-Western compact the US has long feared.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit this week to his friend, President Vladimir Putin, came at a critical moment of Russia’s quagmire war in Ukraine and of Beijing’s emergence as a great power whose influence now stretches far beyond Asia.

The entire visit has been refracted through a prism of both nations’ mutual antagonism toward the United States. And at every step, Washington, watching hawkishly from the sidelines, poured scorn on the idea of China as a peacemaker in Ukraine, accusing Xi of offering diplomatic cover to a thuggish Russian leader who was just cited for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

But whether China and Russia have truly forged the kind of united anti-US front long dreaded by Washington’s foreign policy professionals seems doubtful.

Still, the United States clearly now has a serious foreign policy challenge on its hands. The US is simultaneously gearing up for what many experts warn could become a Cold War with China and waging a proxy fight in Ukraine with its foe in the 20th century’s version of that showdown. And China and Russia, together, have more capacity to frustrate American goals in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Xi and Putin are united on a core foreign policy priority – discrediting and even dismantling a world order that they believe is built on Western hypocrisy and denies them due respect as great global powers. This resentment has festered in Putin’s mind ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, and he has tried for years to reshape the international system. But according to President Joe Biden’s national security strategy, China is the only US competitor with “the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to” reshape that order.

In the short term, China’s 12-point peace proposal for the war in Ukraine runs largely counter to US goals in punishing Moscow for its unprovoked invasion, although it appears to have little chance of gaining traction in Kyiv since it would lock in Putin’s seizure of swathes of Ukrainian territory. A separate peace plan proposed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – which would include a final peace treaty with Moscow and a special tribunal for alleged Russian war crimes – was not discussed between Putin and Xi on Tuesday, the Kremlin said.

But even if China declines what the US says are Russian requests for lethal arms, the country’s expanding economic and trade ties with Moscow could help Putin stay in the war for much longer. A grueling attritional conflict could not only bleed Ukraine’s military manpower dry, it could also test the resolve of US and allied states to continue to bankroll Kyiv’s resistance and open the kind of Western political divides over the war already emerging in the Republican presidential primary. And if Washington remains deeply committed in Ukraine – and depletes its own stocks of ammunition and weaponry, for instance – it may be less focused on what may be a generational tussle with China in Asia. That would suit Beijing just fine.

In order to puncture the choreography of unity in Moscow this week, the White House mounted a public relations counter-offensive during the Xi-Putin summit. And it reinforced its multi-billion-dollar support for Zelensky’s government by announcing on Tuesday the earlier-than-expected deployment of US Patriot missile defense systems. Ukrainians are learning to operate the systems at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where men and women aged 19 to 67 are training from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days per week, for 10 weeks, CNN’s Natasha Bertrand reported. The US will also accelerate the time it takes to ship Abrams tanks to Ukraine by sending older models, two US officials said Tuesday.

The American goal here is obvious – to demonstrate that while Putin might be welcoming Xi and soliciting more support for his brutal war, the West is not flinching in its support for Ukraine in a conflict Biden has portrayed as vital to saving global democracy from autocrats.

Global competition

But the US and China rivalry is playing out across a far wider global stage – one where Russia, despite its diminished global clout, might also be a useful ally to China.

Xi made no attempt to hide that his trip to Moscow was in the service of weakening US and Western power. Before he left, he warned in a statement that “our world is confronted with complex and intertwined traditional and non-traditional security challenges, damaging acts of hegemony, domination and bullying” – language usually reserved for Washington.

John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, laid out the strategic stakes more succinctly in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday.

“This is a marriage of convenience, not of affection, not of love … where they intersect is pushing back against the United States and our influence around the world,” Kirby said. “They’d like to change the rules of the game, and in each other, they see a useful foil.”

China’s model of authoritarian capitalism as the basis for a new global system could prove attractive to some states around the world, as it seeks to build ties in in Africa, central America and elsewhere. Some nations in the “global South,” like South Africa for instance, share China’s antipathy for some of the policies pursued by the US and its allies.

Former US ambassador to Beijing Gary Locke said Tuesday that the Xi and Putin talks were rooted in both nations’ mutual hostility to US power.

“China is trying to present itself as kind of a new force, standing up against the Western powers or the Western order. China and many of these other countries that are emerging much stronger economically and politically feel that they’re having to abide by the rules made by the United States and some of the European countries,” Locke said on CNN’s “Inside Politics.” “And they feel that they should have a say in the so-called bylaws of the country club. And they really resent the heavy-handedness and the dominance of the United States and the European countries in terms of so much of world affairs.”

But at the same time, Chinese and Russian ambitions will face a challenge from the fact that the Western alliance is healthier than it has been for years under Biden’s unifying leadership since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Russia-China friendship may also be less substantive than the Kremlin’s pomp might suggest. There was no sign from the Kremlin summit that Xi had either committed to throw his full support behind Putin by arming Russian forces in Ukraine or that he had persuaded the Russian leader away from his ruthless path in a way that might legitimize his status as a peacemaker.

And given that the China-Russia model relies on autocracy and intimidation, and that Moscow is increasingly a pariah and China’s nationalistic approach has also worried some smaller powers, there is reason to question just how effective a joint global diplomatic offensive might be.

A haunting geopolitical nightmare

The idea of a Russia-China strategic alliance has long preoccupied US policymakers.

The Nixon administration’s opening to Beijing in the 1970s was premised partly on dividing the People’s Republic and the Soviet Union, though territorial and historic antagonism between the communist giants already existed before the US initiative. After the Cold War, Russia was seen as far less of a threat to the US – until Putin’s hard turn against Washington over the last two decades.

One of the most revered architects of US Cold War policy, diplomat George Kennan, had warned before his death that NATO expansion into former Warsaw pact states in Eastern Europe could push Russia into Beijing’s arms. In his diary on January 4, 1997, he predicted that Moscow would respond as though it were victimized, further militarize its society and “develop much closer relations with the neighbors to the east, notably Iran and China, with a view to forming a strongly anti-Western military bloc as a counter-weight to a NATO pressing for world domination.”

Both China and Russia have recently moved closer to Iran – another sworn US foe. But their relationship, for all the warm words in the Kremlin this week, remains far short of a military tie-up and it is not a formal alliance like those, for instance, that the US maintains in Europe to deter Russia and in the Pacific, partly to balance China’s power.

The United States, as part of its off-stage commentary on the summit, has tried to keep it that way, warning for weeks that China should not provide arms or ammunition that Moscow badly needs with its forces struggling on many fronts against fierce Ukrainian resistance.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg renewed the warning on Tuesday.

“We haven’t seen any proof that China is delivering lethal weapons to Russia, but we have seen some signs that this has been a request from Russia, and that this is an issue that is considered in Beijing by the Chinese authorities,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.

The question of whether China would provide arms to Russia is a complex one, however.

Such a move would tend to cut against a reputation for avoiding bold foreign policy maneuvers outside its region, and would irrevocably line it up alongside a pariah power in Moscow. The Chinese economy would likely face stiff international sanctions, at a time when it has been struggling to recreate its roaring growth rates. Beijing might not just worsen its already tortured relations with Washington, but could also disrupt its equally crucial economic ties with the European Union.

China is already reaping significant benefits from the war in Ukraine – in terms of increased trade and the capacity to buy cut-price Russian gas and oil blocked from European markets. Sanctions could be an unwelcome counter-balance to that situation.

History also suggests that Beijing usually conditions its strategies purely on a ruthless calculation of its national self-interest. Its global image therefore – and an ultimate goal of creating an alternative political and diplomatic system to the Western-led global order – might be better served by posing as a peacemaker in Ukraine, rather than as Putin’s armorer in a proxy war that Russia may lose.

So while there is reason for the US to be concerned about how Russia-China cooperation might expand following the summit, it seems unlikely to be the game changer that Putin – who in body language and rhetoric came across as much the junior partner – might like it to be.