President Donald Trump fancies himself one of them. A member of a small, elite club of strongman leaders, among them leaders of the most powerful countries on the planet. These first among unequals include the presidents of Russia and China, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
But while Trump thinks he’s at the center of the action – among his proudest moments as president have been side by side with the one or the other – he is not. To the contrary. He is at the margin, patently perceived as a dupe and a fool, as well as an opponent, while Putin and Xi play footsie.
Putin and Xi each have their own reasons for being furious with Trump. No matter Trump’s curious history with Putin, America’s sanctions against Russia continue. And, no matter Trump’s early overtures to Xi, America’s trade tiffs with China threaten to escalate into a full-fledged trade war. In response, Putin and Xi did what people do in such situations: They joined forces, in this case literally, against their common enemy, temporarily certainly, Trump.
In fact, they went further. At their summit meeting held just last week, which happened also to include impressive displays of Russian military might, they went to great lengths to present themselves as pals. They discussed military cooperation, strengthening economic ties, and using local currencies for cross-border trade. Putin, moreover, spoke of Xi as his “great friend.” Xi, in turn, addressed the “comprehensive cooperation between China and Russia in the development of the Far East.”
During the heyday of the Soviet Union, and the early days of Communist China, the two countries had close ties. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s they split, their relations for decades more characterized by enmity than comity. So it’s not as if Russia and China are natural allies. They are not, which is why the U. S. need not fear the two countries will indefinitely remain strategically aligned, or their two leaders necessarily fast friends. Putin and Xi have a marriage of convenience. But, there is no question that for the moment they enjoy a relatively warm relationship. Just as there is no question that for the moment Trump’s ties to both men are frayed.