Two months after Biden’s presidency, the US government’s strategy of mobilizing allies to put pressure on China is already showing results. But the tactic is forcing Beijing to strengthen ties with its own partners: Russia, North Korea and Iran.
In recent weeks, Beijing has had a taste of President Biden’s new Chinese strategy: Foreign Secretary Anthony Blingen strongly condemned China’s human rights abuses at a meeting in Alaska. A few days later, the European Union, Britain, Canada and the United States decided on joint sanctions to condemn the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Australia and New Zealand merged.
But now it shows that there are friends in Beijing as well. Beijing announced on Saturday that it has signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement with Iran.
Although China has shown a willingness to work with Washington on a wide range of issues, it does indicate that it is maintaining great influence among countries outside the Western sphere of influence, and will further complicate Biden’s international agenda in a polarized world.
As for China, the sanctions announced by the EU on March 22 against the authorities in Xinjiang were strongly condemned from a large Western camp. One thing Beijing hoped for was gaining confidence through an investment deal last year. China was outraged by the sanctions and immediately retaliated by imposing its own sanctions on European politicians and academics, affecting the long-awaited agreement.
The war of words escalated dramatically as European governments called on Chinese ambassadors to voice their displeasure, while China angrily pointed to a history of atrocities, including in Europe’s Holocaust.
Just as China’s relations with Europe exploded, so did Russia. On March 22, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov landed in China, 72 hours after a heated meeting between Blingen National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts. He argued for joining forces to lift the US dollar’s grip on the international tariff system that makes U.S. sanctions possible. Lavrov accused the United States of abusing its military power and swiped reporters in the EU at Quilin.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded positively. This is the latest showcase for improved relations between China and Russia, two historically distrustful neighbors. In 2018, when Russian President Vladimir Putin was firing pancakes with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Vladivostok, 300,000 Chinese troops joined Chinese troops for the largest Russian military exercise since the Cold War. In recent years, Russia has increasingly become entangled in China’s economic machine. Russia’s GDP is dwarfed by China, but it also plays a key role as China’s second largest oil supplier after Saudi Arabia.
G and Putin are thus driven by the need for geopolitics and their authoritarian, nationalist personalities. But the picture is very subtle. Putin may have decided that the United States and the European Union are enemies, and he wants China to join him in a liberal camp. But the Chinese are embarrassed by that.
Old friends, new deals
Under the new Chinese sanctions, European select officials, researchers and their families will not be allowed to do business with China. But individual countries can still negotiate unilateral trade agreements with China, and the EU investment agreement with China will now be ratified by parliament, although it is highly unlikely that it will include blocked members and be punished by Beijing, but trade could still thrive.
Meanwhile, China is rapidly strengthening the support of trusted allies around the world. Last week, Xi sent a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un praising the relationship between the two historic comrades and pledging humanitarian assistance.
Last Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on a tour of the Middle East, a divided region that will give him an almost identical friendly welcome. Wang will be suspended in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran. The country is subject to US sanctions, which are largely offset by Chinese oil purchases.
Some details about the 25-year partnership between China and Iran were released on Saturday. The previously leaked draft document suggested a broader agreement, including cooperation on infrastructure, telecommunications and security, with a vague appearance. China insists it is ready to assist in multilateral efforts to denuclearize North Korea and Iran or to restart the Paris climate agreement, and there is no need to link cooperation with Washington on these issues.