Russian President Vladimir Putin is known for thinking rather highly of himself, extolling his virtues as a symbol of manliness. Many Westerners mock the staged photo opportunities that show Putin riding shirtless on a horse, shooting guns, swimming in freezing lakes or toppling his judo opponents. The Chinese internet on the other hand, buys into his schtick– writing op-eds and foreign policy blog “love letters” to what they see as Putin’s masculine dominance.
This love affair appears to extend to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who Putin recently called out as the only world leader who celebrated his birthday in a gushing interview with Chinese state television that signifies the growing closeness between the two US adversaries.
In his description of the time he “sliced some sausage” and drank vodka with his Chinese counterpart the Russian president had apparently forgotten — or perhaps overlooked — the fact that earlier the same day other world leaders had sung “happy birthday” to him at an Asia-Pacific summit. In Putin’s mind, those other Asian leaders don’t offer the power or prestige that the Chinese do — much like choosing your table mates in a high school cafeteria. The only question is whether it will be Xi or Putin in charge of this Mean Girls clique.
Putin’s interview was broadcast by CCTV on Wednesday ahead of a visit to China this weekend. His comments come at a time when Xi is edging closer to the authoritarian Russian leader as Beijing’s relations with the United States become increasingly tense and unsure. The Anti-Trump crowd blame the increasingly tight-knit relations on what they might describe as aggressive and capricious foreign policy — those who have watched China and Russia for any significant length of time knows that this is par for the course for them as they are known put aside their own differences to stress their common interests in geopolitics and security when it suits them. This love hate relationship goes back decades, but currently the love fest is burning brightly.
Putin who is attending the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Qingdao this weekend, was keen to heap praise on Xi, calling the Chinese leader a “reliable partner and good friend” and boasting about their special personal rapport. Putin said in the interview, “I won’t hide it, we had a shot of vodka and sliced some sausage. We finished the day’s work and he celebrated my birthday with me. This might seem irrelevant, but to talk about President Xi, this is where I would like to start.” Putin was reminiscing about an Asia-Pacific leaders’ summit in Bali, Indonesia in October 2013 during which he celebrated his 61st birthday.
Russian state news agency ITAR-TASS reported that at a late-night meeting Xi had presented Putin with a cake while the Russian leader pulled out a bottle of vodka for a toast. The two then discussed their fathers’ experiences in the World War II over shots and sandwiches. A shared love of Communism and unbridled power might also have been topics of conversation.
“I’ve never established such relations or made such arrangements with any other foreign colleague, but I did it with President Xi,” Putin told CCTV in the interview filmed in the Kremlin on May 31. In fact, he was forgetting a lot of other people, especially the former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Earlier that day in a conference room, Yudhoyono had strummed a guitar and sang “Happy Birthday To You” to Putin, as a smiling crowd, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former South Korean president Park Geun-hye, clapped along. Perhaps Yudhoyono’s guitar playing did not quite meet Putin’s threshold for memorable birthday experiences.
State visits are often a good measure of diplomatic relations between two countries and Xi has made the trip to Moscow more than any other capital since he first took power of the PRC in 2012. Xi and Putin have broken bread together in person some 20 times. During his last trip in July 2017 — Putin even hung an elaborate medal on Xi’s neck — signifying Russia’s highest state order, the Order of St. Andrew.
A looming trade war between the U.S. and China and escalating tensions in the South China Sea leave a gap for the Russian to fill in terms of strategic friendship. Russia is also less likely to have concerns with some of the more unethical practices the Chinese may undertake in global influence operations and human right violations. On those issues, the two are more kindred spirits than they would be with other major Western powers.
When it comes to economic issues, the Chinese and Russians are also singing from the same page and strengthening their relationship. Two-way trade reached US$84 billion last year, up 20 per cent from 2016, and the two sides have 73 joint projects worth more than $100 million USD. Their cooperation is heralded in the regional economic block known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, seen by many as a counterweight to the dominant presence of the U.S. and its regional allies.
If history is any indication, the bromance will continue if it remains convenient for both. Loyalty however, will be as fickle as you might expect from two egos who will always be jockeying for the top spot and rest assured that in the darker corners of foreign policy and influence operations, Russia and China will still be playing against each other.
Featured image: Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, awards Chinese President Xi Jinping with the Order of St. Andrew during a meeting in the Kremlin, in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, July 4, 2017. The Chinese President is on a two-day official visit to Moscow. | Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool photo via AP