It’s Not Just Trump Who’s Good At Putting On A Big Show

Official Chinese government photo of Presidents Xi and Putin together for a boat ride

You know who else is? China’s President Xi.

It all started with Xi just happening to turn up in St. Petersburg last week, while Trump was in Europe to commemorate the anniversary of D-Day. Oh, and Xi called Putin his “best friend”, a comment that got really played up in Chinese media, and even by the BBC!

What immediate impact is that buddy weekend with Russian President Putin likely to have on global relations? Other than to distract from NATO nations’ show of unity that’s lasted 75 years? None at all. But Xi calling Putin his best friend, and making sure Chinese media spread the word illustrates just how well he knows Trump. Because Trump thought Xi’s best friend was him. Even with a trade war raging, Trump has repeatedly gone out of his way to say he doesn’t blame the Chinese President for unfair trade practices. Rather, he blames previous U.S. Presidents. Trump has repeatedly called Xi “a great friend”, although Chinese media is also helpfully pointing out Xi has never reciprocated with similar epithets.

That’s gotta hurt. Trump’s so sensitive to how he’s viewed by world leaders, and goes to such great extent to cozy up to them, he even pledged recently not to spy on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. When the Wall Street Journal reported this week that Kim’s brother, whom he reportedly had assassinated, might’ve been a CIA operative, Trump’s response was “that would not happen under my auspices.” When the only appropriate response really would’ve been “way to go, CIA!”

Russia and China do share borders and many common interests. And the Russian Navy has a large and sometimes overlooked presence in the Pacific. One thing that was emphasized according to the South China Morning Post was Russia’s offer to sell soybeans to China, since it’s stopped buying them from the U.S. in retaliation for Trump’s tariffs.

Despite their geographic proximity, Russia is not China’s biggest trading partner, but China is Russia’s. And China runs a trade surplus with Russia too, though billions less than it does with the U.S. Interestingly, Russia buys a lot of prescription medication from China, while China buys mostly petroleum products from Russia.

And Xi and Putin cozying up to each other is interesting in some other ways too, even if it’s just for show and to make Trump jealous. We’ve suggested Russia and China may be at cross-purposes vis-a-vis the U.S. President headed into the 2020 election. Russia seems ready to put its considerable online knowhow behind Trump again, while China, which is also good at hacking, might prefer a Democrat given Trump’s fondness for tariffs. But if Putin and Xi can work things out…who knows?

Since that initial tete-a-tete more stories have been conveniently trickling out about China and Russia aligning their efforts more. For instance, that they’ll look to do more deals together, and include India also. Russian government mouthpiece RT has also been running pieces lately celebrating deals being increasingly done in currencies other than U.S. dollars, which for practical purposes is pretty impossible to do on a large scale right now, especially as long as China continues to keep the value of its currency artificially low. (Trump’s right, they do that.) And Russian and Indian currency is notoriously unstable and often also over-engineered. We guess they could use Euros.

But look, nothing is likely to come out of any of this except more strategic showmanship. Keeping up a counter-narrative to Trump’s. And Xi’s got a huge crisis on his hands right now he very much wants to provide distractions from: surprisingly strong anti-government protests that have virtually shut down Hong Kong. How do we know he’s taking those protests very, very seriously? If you go to English-language Chinese “news” sites there’s no coverage of it at all. Not a peep. Xi doesn’t want to make a show of his handling of that. Instead, top stories today? “China, Kyrgyzstan agree to enhance ties to new heights” and “Xi attends opening of Beijing International Horticultural Exhibition.”