Wednesday, February 9, 2022

The Morning: A new axis

We explain the China-Russia 'alliance of autocracies.'

Good morning. China and Russia have formed an "alliance of autocracies."

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in Beijing last week.Pool photo by Alexei Druzhinin

Putin and Xi

The last time Xi Jinping left China was more than two years ago, for a diplomatic trip to Myanmar. Days later, he ordered the lockdown of Wuhan, which began China's aggressive "zero Covid" policy. By staying home, Xi has reduced his chances of contracting the virus and has sent a message that he is playing by at least some of the same pandemic rules as other Chinese citizens.

Until last week, Xi had also not met with a single other world leader since 2020. He had conducted his diplomacy by phone and videoconference. When he finally broke that streak and met in Beijing on Friday with another head of state, who was it?

Vladimir Putin.

Their meeting led to a joint statement, running more than 5,000 words, that announced a new closeness between China and Russia. It proclaimed a "redistribution of power in the world" and mentioned the U.S. six times, all critically.

The Washington Post called the meeting "a bid to make the world safe for dictatorship." Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia, told The Wall Street Journal, "The world should get ready for a further significant deepening of the China-Russia security and economic relationship."

Today's newsletter offers a guide to that relationship, with help from Times correspondents around the world.

Ukraine and Taiwan

The current phase of the relationship has its roots in Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. The European Union and the U.S. responded with economic sanctions on Russia that forced it to trade more with Asia, Anton Troianovski, The Times's Moscow bureau chief, notes. China stepped in, buying Russian oil, investing in Russian companies and more.

"The conventional wisdom used to be that Putin didn't want to get too close to China," Anton said. That's no longer the case.

Russia returned the favor in recent years, buying equipment from Huawei, a Chinese tech giant, after the Trump administration tried to isolate the company.

In the grandest sense, China and Russia are creating a kind of "alliance of autocracies," as Steven Lee Myers, The Times's Beijing bureau chief, puts it. They don't use that phrase and even claim to be democracies. "Democracy is a universal human value, rather than a privilege of a limited number of states," their joint statement read. "It is only up to the people of the country to decide whether their state is a democratic one."

But the message that China and Russia have sent to other countries is clear — and undemocratic. They will not pressure other governments to respect human rights or hold elections. In Xi's and Putin's model, an autocratic government can provide enough economic security and nationalistic pride to minimize public opposition — and crush any that arises.

"There are probably more countries than Washington would like to think that are happy to have China and Russia as an alternative model," Steven told us. "Look how many countries showed up at the opening ceremony of Beijing 2022, despite Biden's 'diplomatic boycott.' They included some — Egypt, Saudi Arabia — that had long been in the American camp."

Russia's threat to invade Ukraine has added a layer to the relationship between Moscow and Beijing. The threat reflects Putin's view — which Xi shares — that a powerful country should be able to impose its will within its declared sphere of influence. The country should even be able to topple a weaker nearby government without the world interfering. Beside Ukraine, of course, another potential example is Taiwan.

For all these common interests, China and Russia do still have major points of tension. For decades, they have competed for influence in Asia. That competition continues today, with China now in the more powerful role, and many Russians, across political ideologies, fear a future of Chinese hegemony.

Even their joint statement — which stopped short of being a formal alliance — had to elide some tensions. It did not mention Ukraine by name, partly because China has economic interests that an invasion would threaten. The two countries are also competing for influence in the melting waters of the Arctic. And China is nervous about Russia's moves to control Kazakhstan, where many people are descended from modern-day China.

"China and Russia are competing for influence around much of the world — Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America," Lara Jakes, who covers the State Department from Washington, said. "The two powers have less than more in common, and a deep or enduring relationship that goes beyond transactional strategies seems unlikely."

As part of its larger effort to check China's rise — and keep Russia from undermining global stability — the Biden administration is likely to look for ways to exacerbate any tensions between China and Russia, in Kazakhstan and elsewhere.

The bottom line

The "alliance of autocracies" remains informal for now. But it is real, and it extends beyond China and Russia to include other countries — like Hungary, Turkey and Venezuela — that work together to minimize the effect of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. The world's democracies face a growing and interconnected challenge from a very different political model.

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And the Oscar goes to …

It's Oscars season. Here are the highlights from yesterday's nominations announcement, ahead of the ceremony in late March.

Who led the pack? The Netflix western "The Power of the Dog" secured 12 nominations, while the sci-fi epic "Dune" earned 10. Steven Spielberg's take on "West Side Story" and the historical drama "Belfast" — about the Troubles in Northern Ireland — each scored seven nominations.

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Snubs: The drama "Passing" — about old friends navigating the color line in 1920s New York — didn't get any nominations, and the Academy ignored Lady Gaga's performance in "House of Gucci." Denis Villeneuve, the force behind "Dune," was also overlooked for directing.

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Now Time to Play

The pangram from yesterday's Spelling Bee was unjamming. Here is today's puzzle — or you can play online.

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If you're in the mood to play more, find all our games here.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. Satchel Paige became the first Negro League player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame 51 years ago today.

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Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti, Ashley Wu and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at

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