Xi and Putin´s Romance Flourishes as Vaccine Diplomacy Unites Them

  • Putin and Xi celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party and the 20th anniversary of the  Russia-China Treaty on Good-Neighborliness by renewing it.
  • With mutual assistance and collaboration, both nations seek to become global vaccine suppliers.
  • While shared markets could raise tension between the two leaders, their romance seems rock solid.
Xi Jinping presenting Putin with a friendship medal / Actualidad RT

Why is Xi Jinping’s camaraderie with Vladimir Putin now a romance? 

Answer: Good neighborliness was simply not enough 

Two important anniversaries highlight the shift to a romance between Putin and Xi. This week the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is turning 100 years old, making this the longest autocratic regime in modern times. Putin did not miss the opportunity to call Xi to congratulate him on his party’s anniversary. During this phone call, the two leaders decided to extend the Russia-China Treaty on Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation between both nations. The treaty, originally signed in 2001, which highlights non-intervention principles and economic cooperation, is itself celebrating a 20 year anniversary. 

In a joint statement, both leaders agreed to renew this treaty due to alleged fundamental interest and echoes of peace and development. Xi went as far as stating this was a: “(…) vivid example of building a new type of international relations and community with a shared future for mankind”. Putin, on the other hand, showed his love by congratulating the party and recognizing the past exchanges with the party while hoping to enhance exchanges in the future. 

In fact, Russia and China have had a very ample history of good relations since the beginning of the century. Since the Good-Neighborliness treaty was signed in 2001, the countries have ventured into many joint projects. From crude and natural gas shared pipelines to the Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant, energy cooperation between Xi and Putin is impressive. Moreover, the leaders have also agreed to joint space forces.

With an agreement signed between the China National Space Administration and Russia´s Roscosmos State Corporation for Space activities to establish a permanent lunar base in March 2020, Xi and Putin once more proved their mutual affinity. Future cooperation is also on the table. According to Chinese sources, the energy and trade cooperation between the two nations is expected to reach a trading volume of $200 billion by 2024

However, the COVID19 pandemic has offered a new realm of friendship for the leaders: vaccine diplomacy. In May 2020, Putin asked for Xi´s help in manufacturing its Sputnik V vaccine to speed up production. Since then, the Russian Direct Investment Fund, responsible for international cooperation of the vaccine has collaborated with Chinese companies such as Hualan Biological Bacterin Inc, Shenzhen Yuanxin Gene tech Co, and Tibet Rhodiola Pharmaceutical Holding Co to produce their vaccine.

However, the cooperation does not end in shared production. Putin also announced three deals with China for over 260 million doses of the Chinese jabs and Xi will be testing Chinese vaccines in Russia as well. While harmonious, there are some frictions between the leader´s ambitions when it comes to shared markets in traditional areas of Russian influence mainly in Central Asia and Mongolia. However, the tensions do not seem to get in the way of Xi and Putin´s mutual desire to collaborate on all fronts.

What does Xi want? 

Answer: To establish a Silk Road of health diplomacy 

With massive spending and propaganda, Xi has made it very clear he wants the Chinese Dream. Unlike the individualistic American dream, the Chinese dream involves returning the entirety of China to its historic power and glory mainly through trade. Xi sees vaccines as a possible path to expand the Belt and Road Initiative. As Chinese officials point out, they wish their country to be remembered as the Silk Road of Health Diplomacy with a “global public health system that will benefit all humanity” in Xi´s words. This ideal has led many Chinese vaccine companies to turn from largely producing domestically to supplying global markets. Especially during the pandemic, Chinese firms have exported millions of doses abroad.

What does Putin want? 

Answer: Pretty much the same soft power boost

Putin’s ambitions do not lay far from Xi´s: becoming a global supplier of its Sputnik V vaccine. In fact, it is no surprise that the vaccine is named after the 1957 satellite launch that restated Soviet military and space power in the Cold War era. Russia´s vaccine diplomacy objectives were very clear early on. It was the first country to approve its COVID-19 vaccine last summer and the first country to release the jab to the public. However Putin´s ambitions to become a global supplier of vaccines is part of a larger geopolitical strategy: placing Russia as force to be reckoned with by eroding confidence and dividing the West. In deed, Sputnik V has met this target. 

Amidst European concern over repeated Russian cyber-attacks and tensions escalating in the Ukrianian border, the approval and rollout of the Russian vaccine has created even more tension. While as a bloc, Europe has been hesitant to the vaccine with the French Foreign Minister describing it as “more a means of propaganda and aggressive diplomacy than of solidarity and assistance”, others like Orban in Hungary have been ready to sign deals for Sputnik V.

In other countries, like Slovakia and Czech Republic, internal and regional politics has been widely contentious over the topic of closing Sputnik V leading to resignations of high ranking offficials and diplomatic turmoil. Forcing the EU to be for or against Sputnik V, Putin has very effectively highlighted and hightenent the existent misham that is EU-Russia strategy. A divided and contentious Europe is an important shared interest boosting the romance between Putin and Xi. 

What is Putin doing? 

Answer: Closing deals and spreading mistrust 

Within weeks of being approved, Putin started actively marketing abroad and announcing multiple deals to supply other countries. So far, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Putin is winning the “public relations” battle. Russia secured supply deals as of June 24, 2021, with Alegería, Argentina, Belarus, Bolivia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, China, Egypt, Honduras, Hungary, India, Iran, Italy, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Mongolia, and Nepal. However, his ambitions crashed with the reality of production capacities in Russia, making Putin´s collaboration with Xi a must. While the official number of exports is uncertain, Airfiniy, a London-based science analytics company, estimates Putin has agreed to supply some 630 million doses to over 100 countries, with only 11.5 million doses exported so far. 

However, this plan is larger than vaccines. Both Xi and Putin have faced very strong criticism of spreading misinformation and mistrust. The EU released a study by the External Action Service (EEAS) accusing both leaders of having their state-own media sestematically spread mistrust on western vaccines through senasionalisation of their safety concerns, baseless death accusations and promoting the superiorty of their own vaccines. The EEAS called it “state misinformation”. Not only are the leaders fostering mistrust in the West, but they are promoting their own jabs which in turns means more business. 

What’s the romance’s fate and what about you?

Answer: From global health to shared interests, the romance is not like to fade 

What does this romance mean to you? In terms of global health, it’s probably good news if you live in a mentioned country, As Chinese production companies can aid the fulfillment of Putin´s supply commitments and vice versa. Geopolitically, the plot thickens. While Xi rejoiced in the joint statemente that this romance has “(…) injected positive energy into the international community through their close cooperation”, few other world leaders see it as positive. 

From more control over international organizations such as the WHO, to military concerts, this alliance is seen as a threat to American and Western dominance in international affairs. For Putin and Xi, who are openly opposed to a “liberal world order”, the US and EU`s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is a clear opportunity to promote their geopolitical goals through vaccine diplomacy while highlighting the accomplishments of authoritarian responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The jury is still out on which system has handled the crisis better, but the romance between Xi and Putin is unlikely to fade.