There was no pressing reason for Xi Jinping to stop off in Moscow for a summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. There have already been two recent high-level contacts where critical issues in the Russia-China relationship were discussed. The Chinese leader had already met with Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Astana a month ago, and the Russian head of state had traveled to Beijing in May for the “One Belt, One Road” conclave. And both leaders, of course, were already scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Germany later this week. No, the decision for Xi to travel to Moscow first and for Putin to host him in the Kremlin is meant as a direct and clear message to the United States and to the Trump administration before the President leaves for Europe: we aren’t pleased with the direction of U.S. policy, and we have options.
The agenda reads like a bill of particulars against U.S. actions in the last several months: missile defense deployments in South Korea, freedom of navigation operations around Chinese-claimed territories in the South China Sea; the U.S. posture towards Ukraine and American actions in Syria. The common thread to these discussion points is continued dislike of the assumption that the United States has the right to act without consultation or following its own interpretation of international rules. The fact that these points were discussed suggests that Putin and Xi plan to present a united front against Donald Trump at the G-20 summit in Hamburg. Given that Xi will fly from Moscow to Berlin to then meet with German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has expressed her dissatisfaction with the stances taken by the Trump administration on trade and the environment, it indicates that efforts are underway to make the American president the odd man out at this gathering of the leaders of the leading powers, and to prevent him from dominating the agenda. For Putin, who still has very clear grievances at the attempt of the Obama administration to try and freeze him out at the 2014 G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, it may prove to be a pleasant change to have Trump be the focus of ire and irritation.