Putin vs Xi Jinping: Who Owns the Playground?

Sasha Mordovets – Getty Images

Welcome again! Get ready to analyze one of the century’s most important races to power in today’s Motherland Russia blog. It is common knowledge that the international scene is changing. We are experiencing the gradual decline of the US’ world order and its established institutions. What does this mean for the current global leaders? Well, picture a hungry pack of animals gazing at their delicious prey. Between the animals, we find two bears. One of them is brown and the other… a panda. Who will win?

It is evident that Russia and China are two of the most relevant world powers nowadays. Putin and Xi Jinping, both men of character and great ambition. Unsurprisingly, the two of them seem to have their own ideas regarding possible new world order. And so the race begins, and on their way to the US, they have decided to stop midway to stock up for the trip. Does the Middle East sound like an appropriate place?

The Middle East and its economic potential

Russia has been a major player in the region for a while. Nevertheless, it increased its influence when Putin decided to get involved in the Syrian Civil War in 2015. As I have explained before, Putin is truly interested in the economic potential of the Middle East: together they produce around half of the world’s oil and natural gas. This is one of the reasons why the Russian President has invested so much in the area, both in countries whose regime is closer to his (like Iran) and in other which are more tied to the West (such Saudi Arabia).

Today’s economic giant, China, also saw the opportunities that the Middle East has to offer. The region is not only a new market to conquer, but also one of its main oil providers, next to North Africa. However, there is a more imperative issue catching Xi’s attention: the strategic positioning of Middle Eastern states. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) deepened the relationship between the Chinese, making countries such as Jordan, Israel or Egypt essential for Xi Jinping to fulfil his plan, since they provide access to Europe (especially through the Suez Canal).

Political and military influence of the bears in the Middle East

When leaving the economic side behind, we discover that there is not much Xi Jinping can do against Putin’s claws. Russian historical ties go way further than the recent presence that the Chinese leader has had. Putin has engaged in all types of military activity with the regional states, from arms sales (mainly to Iran) to active interventionism in their wars (from which we can highlight the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen). Political and diplomatic relations have also been regular. 

On the other hand, Chinese military involvement has been almost non-existent and exclusively limited to defending Xi Jinping’s interest in the region, since the leader wanted to avoid being caught in the never-ending cycle of the conflicts. I can highlight the creation of a military base in Djibouti or the little presence in the Gulf. When it comes to political actions, the most salient event is the diplomatic work around religion and the current situation with the Uighur population in mainland China. The Middle East is mainly Islamic territory, and religion plays an important role in its daily life. Therefore, the situation with the Uighurs could result in bad press for Xi Jinping and his government, and as a result of his big road project. Something to avoid at all costs.

It is still unclear who has more influence in the economic environment of the area, even though it is possible to assure that the historical ties between the Middle East and Russia will allow Putin to have a broader reach into the affairs of the Middle Eastern governments. On the other hand, Xi Jinping depends on the success of the BRI to establish China as a power in the region. Nonetheless, Putin’s military and diplomatic supremacy are easily visible. As a result, the brown bear has a great advantage over the panda, but we will have to wait and see if Putin’s influence over the Middle East is enough to stop Xi Jinping’s quest for hegemony over the rest of the globe.

Elvira Bermúdez Fernández

General Coordination-Internal