Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


At the end of the face-to-face meeting in Geneva between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden, Putin had the last word by quoting Tolstoy : "There's no happiness in life, only a mirage of it on the horizon."

Putin has seen off Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, all of whom wanted a "reset" with Russia. Putin is still here and, if anything, is more powerful at home and abroad. He has revived Russian pride and influence in the world.

But China, not Russia, was the dominant point of discussion at G7 and NATO summits. The final statement of the NATO Secretary General was : “The balance of power is shifting eastward. China is coming closer to us. We see China in cyberspace, in Africa, and investing heavily in our critical infrastructure.”

Biden is now looking forward to meeting Xi Jinping. Biden and Xi could meet on the sidelines of the G 20 summit in Rome at the end of October. In this regard Putin debriefed Xi on what happened inside the Geneva talks.

Current situation

The Geneva gathering showed that Russia-US relationship is marked by world views and geostrategic rivalry that separates Moscow and Washington on everything from the Middle East to human rights to acts of cyber sabotage and election meddling.

Still, the meeting sent a signal that both sides, at least for now, are working to avoid further deterioration even when their interests sharply diverge. This holds true for US-China relations where Biden and Xi could show that both nations can avoid direct conflict despite the heat of current tensions, provided that the talks do not devolve into vitriol like during the previous US-China meeting in Alaska.

So, at some point there could be a US-China summit and when that happens, Beijing and Washington will disagree on many topics. Biden will raise issues on human rights, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Xi will counter that these are internal, domestic issues. Yet, progress could be made where interests intersect on climate change, cyberthreats, disaster relief and Iran, for example.

There will not be any grand bargains or breakthroughs over the most contentious issues. At most, a Biden-Xi meeting could set the lower limit for disagreements rather than aiming for the heights that greater engagement brings.

China and Russia

Earlier this month, Russia and China celebrated the 20th anniversary of the “Treaty of Good-Neighborliness, Friendship and Cooperation” both stating that “Moscow and Beijing are consistent supporters of the formation of a more just, democratic and therefore stable polycentric system of world order”.

Xi and Putin have created a relationship of mutual interest. Like Putin, Xi also believes the West is waning. Russia and China look to history for inspiration and vengeance.

Putin and Xi share a similar world view. It is the view of a civilisation, not a nation. It is a long view of history informed by suffering and a sense of humiliation. History is not something recorded in books or commemorated, it is etched into the soul. History is lived.

China, Russia and US

At this early stage in Biden’s tenure, with some key positions unfilled, the US administration still needs to work out the best mechanisms to monitor the Beijing-Moscow dynamic.

It’s going to be incumbent on Biden to rethink US overall strategy: to contain and deeply, negatively engage both or try to differentiate the approach trying to improve relations with Moscow?

In more recent years, China and Russia have often worked in tandem on the diplomatic front, especially at multilateral institutions like the United Nations. The countries typically follow each other’s lead on issues of import to the other. On Syria policy, for example, China sides with Russia, which has troops in the war-torn Middle Eastern country.

Bilateral trade between the two countries is rising and there is increasing military and technological cooperation between Russia and China: advanced fighter airplanes, hypersonic technologies, very effective radars….

Russia and China have been conducting joint military exercises of increasing frequency and complexity. The countries’ technological cooperation can allow them to innovate faster together than the United States can on its own.

As they draw closer economically, technologically, militarily and diplomatically, and their cooperation in each of these spheres crosses new thresholds, their combined weight in East Asia and across Central Eurasia swells the challenge far beyond that posed by either alone.

This is why any US attempt to capitalize on divisions between Moscow and Beijing has to be extremely subtle and careful. America’s relationship with both countries is already fraught enough. Both sides are highly attentive to efforts to create tension or to split them, and they are very focused on what they perceive the larger, menacing problem: the US.

US and Europe

President Biden’s first foreign visit to Europe from June 9-16 will be remembered for how he tried to tame dissenting and doubting allies and to rejuvenate the transatlantic alliance by conveying a message of unity and resolve to an aggressive China (and a combative Russia), which is “trying to challenge the international order for unilateral gains”.

But the US and Europe have fundamental contradictions with regard to China and Russia. While the US faces an immediate threat from China, many European countries have extensive economic ties with Beijing and no security concerns. Several European countries were not happy that the resources of US (and NATO) would be drawn away from Moscow to a more distant China.

They were also worried that taking a hard line on China would make her less receptive to cooperate on more pressing multilateral issues such as climate change, control of pandemics and trade.

Political views in Europe have not been unanimous about how to approach Beijing. The open question is whether Biden’s renewed love for European allies will outlast his presidency.


With Putin done, Biden’s focus shifts to the dragon in the room: China’s Xi. US-China ties, however, are far more complex and consequential for the American economy than the relationship with Russia, and Biden’s window to meet and establish a productive relationship with Xi for the years ahead is closing.

Throughout his recent European trip and earlier meetings with groups like the Quad - the US, Japan, India and Australia - the Biden administration has sought to rally allies in a show of force against what it considers Beijing’s most egregious policies.

The Biden administration’s priority has been to strengthen ties with like-minded countries as part of a broader strategy to persuade Beijing to recalibrate and revise its policies,

In Europe Biden sought to rally G7 and NATO leaders around an agenda that included re-opening probes into the origin of the coronavirus, pushing back on Beijing’s heavy hand in places like Hong Kong and Xinjiang and calling for a Western competitor for Xi’s Belt and Road Infrastructure Initiative (BRI), the “21st Century Land and Maritime Silk Roads”.

Still, at some point, the two leaders will need to meet. The aim to directly engage with Xi stems in part from Biden’s belief that there’s no substitute for leader-level discussions and personal engagement.

But the personal relationship between the US and Chinese leaders has frayed. Biden met Xi repeatedly over the years, including as vice president, and gave a harsher assessment on the campaign trail last year, calling Xi a “thug” who “doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body.”


The most obvious venue for a face-to-face meeting is the upcoming Group of 20 Summit in Rome this October. It is just a possibility, as nothing is certain, and there has yet to be a publicly positive signal from Beijing.

Putin has said that the fall of the Soviet empire was the great catastrophe of the 20th century. He believes that Russia was humiliated by the West. This is why Putin plays on that sense of historical grievance to bind the Russian identity.

The same exists in China, where Xi also speaks the language of history and grievance in China. The West underestimates this, and that is a strategic mistake.

Joe Biden has set out a great contest between democracy and autocracy that will frame his foreign policy. Just as at the end of the Cold War, Biden believes history is on the side of the West. Putin would say Biden does not understand history at all, history is struggle and survival. He would tell him to read Tolstoy.

Biden’s initiatives could build on resetting relations with Russia, isolating China and emboldening some of Xi’s critics at home to question whether his wolf warrior diplomacy had yielded any positive results for the country. But, while the Chinese Communist Party is ready to celebrate 100 years of its foundation in July 2021, Putin and Xi will not fall into Biden's trap.