China, Russia Show Off Tight Ties Again at Security Forum

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(Bloomberg) -- China and Russia publicly reinforced their bond at a military forum in Beijing, a move that defies the US and comes as plans take shape for Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden to meet.

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The two men used speeches critical of Washington’s policies on Monday at the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing to show solidarity. “Certain countries keep stirring up trouble around the world,” Zhang Youxia, vice chair of China’s top military body, said in a veiled swipe at the US. “They deliberately create turbulence, meddle in regional affairs, interfere in other countries’ internal affairs and instigate color revolutions.”

Zhang’s comments were quickly followed by similar ones from his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, who attacked the American dominance of the world stage. “The US is working tirelessly to maintain its hegemony, which will disappear soon,” said Shoigu, who is sanctioned by the US and European Union over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The pair also met on the sidelines of the forum, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. Zhang said in the sitdown that China is ready to “jointly safeguard global strategic balance and stability.”

The comments are the latest example of the close partnership that has formed between Moscow and Beijing, especially since Putin ordered the attack in February 2022. Xi and Putin declared a “no limits” friendship just before the invasion, and Beijing has since provided Russia diplomatic and economic support in the face of Western sanctions. China has gotten a boost in exports to Russia, and a steady supply of fossil fuels.

Earlier this month, Xi hosted Putin in Beijing, reiterating that China supports Moscow’s efforts to safeguard its national sovereignty, while also seeking a breakthrough on a gas pipeline. For Putin, it was his first trip abroad to nations other than former Soviet states since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against him in March for alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

The pair also used the Belt and Road Forum to make the case the world needed an alternative to the US-led world order, one that was more answerable to the Global South, which encompasses developing nations in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

More: Xi, Putin Hail Benefits of Alternative to US-Led World Order

Road to Summit

The latest show of warm Russia-China ties comes amid signs Xi and Biden will meet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November. US and Chinese officials have agreed in principle on a meeting, though the two sides must still finalize the arrangements, according to an American official.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi just met Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Washington, and cautioned afterward that path to a sitdown will not be smooth, requiring effort from both sides to reach consensus.

“Even if there is the broader hope and likelihood that the top political leaders will be meeting, this alone is not going to prevent their diplomats or military officials from time to time calling each other out for what they perceive as bad behavior,” said Dylan Loh, assistant professor of politics at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

The Xiangshan Forum, styled as Beijing’s answer to Singapore’s Shangri-la Dialogue, begins as a series of military tensions around the globe test geopolitical ties. The Israel-Hamas war has put Beijing’s push to bolster its role as a global peacemaker under fresh scrutiny.

China’s refusal to condemn Putin’s war in Ukraine has further strained ties with the US. Tensions are also simmering between China and the US in the South China Sea, the body of water that Beijing claims as its own, where warplanes and naval vessels have engaged in a series of tense encounters. Biden warned China last week the US would be forced to intervene if Beijing attacks Philippine vessels in the area.

More: China, US Release Dueling Videos With Accusations of Provocation

Military Turbulence

China’s defense minister normally opens this week’s forum but that’s been complicated by turbulence in the nation’s military leadership. Li Shangfu was ousted from the role earlier this month, and Beijing has yet to announce a replacement for the US-sanctioned general. His firing came after Xi abruptly removed top generals managing the country’s nuclear arsenal over the summer.

Instead, Zhang delivered the opening address. A longtime associate of Xi, he’s one of several top officials who could become the nation’s next defense minister, which in China is essentially a diplomatic role. The 73-year-old — a rare senior Chinese military official with combat experience, having fought against Vietnam decades ago — met visiting defense chiefs from Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, East Timor and Belarus over the weekend.

China’s appointment of a non-sanctioned defense minister could reopen the door for top-level military exchanges with the US after China refused such talks until curbs on Li were lifted. Beijing invited US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to this week’s gathering — a potential sign it’s ready to restart top-level talks.

Washington’s top official at the event is Cynthia Carras, principal director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia, in line with the precedent of previous US attendees. The official schedule for the Xiangshan Forum doesn’t list Carras as a public speaker, though figures from Indonesia, Brazil and gave addresses on Monday.

Taiwan, the self-ruled democracy Beijing considers its own territory, is another major flashpoint in the US-China relationship and Zhang spoke forcefully on the topic to open the forum. “No matter who tries to split Taiwan from China in any form, the Chinese military will never allow that to happen and will never be soft on them,” he said.

See: What We Know About China’s Missing Defense Minister: Q&A

Global South

Much like the recent Belt and Road event, the Xiangshan Forum is another venue for China to bolster its standing among Global South nations, a race where it has a wide lead over Washington.

That’s important for Beijing as it mounts a challenge to the US-led world order, particularly among poorer nations keen to work with the world’s second-biggest economy on infrastructure projects and market access. More than 60 developing nations are sending an official delegation to the event, according to an attendee list provided by the forum organizer.

“In a world mixed with challenges and turbulence,” Zhang told attendees, Xi is “setting the right direction toward common security and lasting peace.”

Shoigu, the Russian official, echoed Zhang, calling on countries to distance themselves from the “Western bloc.” “Relations between Moscow and Beijing can serve as model,” he said. “It has become more and more attractive.”

(Updates with Zhang and Shoigu meeting.)

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