Mao Zedong arrived in Moscow in 1949 expecting to be feted for delivering China, the world’s most populous country, to Communism. Instead, Joseph Stalin humiliated him by making him wait for a meeting.
Although Stalin and Mao eventually signed a Treaty of Friendship, Mao chafed at being treated like a hayseed from a backward country. By the 1960s, Mao was openly feuding with the Soviets over leadership of the Communist world. The Soviet Union and China even battled each other in 1969 over disputed territory along their long border.
That created an opening for Richard Nixon’s trip to China on Feb. 21, 1972, a diplomatic overture aimed at peeling China away from the Soviet orbit.
In the short term, Nixon’s eight-day visit was an unambiguous success. Chinese leaders agreed to help spy on the Soviet Union. Nixon won re-election. The stage was set for China’s eventual integration into the global economy.
But as we mark the 50th anniversary of that visit, some U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts have second-guessed the wisdom of partnering with Beijing. Even Nixon apparently looked back on the strategy with mixed feelings, and possibly some regret. Russia was a military threat, but never an economic rival. China, however, is becoming the first power in a century capable of challenging American dominance on both economic and military terms.
Some American policymakers felt that China would eventually rise, with or without U.S. help. If you take that view, then welcoming China as a friendly partner, instead of a hostile power, made sense. Today, China has a far bigger stake in the international system and the U.S. economy than Nixon could have imagined possible.
Still, over the years, American policymakers have oversold the benefits of engaging China and have underplayed the risks. Steps by China toward a free-market economy didn’t turn it into a democracy, as many argued it would. And although a lot of American businessmen grew wealthy off China’s success, and American consumers were able to buy a lot of cheap stuff, many American workers suffered when factories moved to China. Over the last 20 years, Washington has been too preoccupied with the war on terrorism to think about how to prevent the United States from becoming too dependent on a Communist country that could prove to be fundamentally at odds with us.
President Xi Jinping of China makes no secret of his view that of the United States is a fading superpower that is intent on blocking China’s ascent to its rightful place in the world. Donald Trump slapped tariffs on Chinese goods, bringing an era of hopeful engagement to an end. But Mr. Trump’s isolationism benefited China, which filled the void of America’s global retreat. President Biden, who has rallied Europe, Australia and Japan with talk of fighting autocracy and making democracy bloom around the world, presents a thornier problem for Mr. Xi.
If the United States and Europe remain united, they form an economic bloc that is still roughly twice the size of China’s economy. But by framing the struggle as a fight between the “free world” and dictatorship, the Biden administration risks pushing Russia and China closer together into what some are calling a “new axis of autocracy.” This time, Moscow is the little brother, seeking support from Beijing. It could prove to be among the most consequential geopolitical developments in decades.
“What the West is doing now is the exact opposite of what Nixon did back then,” Adrian Geiges, the co-author of the forthcoming “Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World,” told me. “Russia and China are not natural partners. They are partners because of the common enemy — the United States and Western Europe.”
It’s too early to tell how far China will stick its neck out for Russia in its confrontation with the West over Ukraine. China’s leaders have long argued for a world free of formal military alliances. They’ve been cautious about getting entangled in other countries’ military conflicts.
But President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Xi took pains to present a common front recently when they issued an extraordinary joint statement hours before the opening night of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. The statement pledged that their cooperation would be “superior” to the one forged between the two countries during the Cold War. No area of cooperation would be off limits, presumably including Russia giving China its most advanced weaponry.
The two countries began edging closer together in 2014, after Russia’s invasion of Crimea prompted Western sanctions. Russia weathered the fallout with some support from China, which beefed up trade and its purchase of Russian oil and gas.
This month, the friendship appeared to break new ground. The statement marked the first time that China has supported Russia’s demand for an end to NATO expansion. By signing onto the text, Russia also supported China’s claim to Taiwan and both sides said they were “seriously concerned” about the U.S. decision to forge a military alliance with Britain and Australia and to cooperate “in the field of nuclear-powered submarines.”
President Putin and President Xi might not be natural allies, but they have an awful lot in common. Both see the United States as a chaotic hegemon. Both men were profoundly shaken by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which they viewed as a cautionary tale of what not to do. Both have clamped down hard on dissent and dispensed with or circumvented presidential term limits, paving the way for the potential to rule for life.
And both, longing to restore their countries’ role as great powers, are striving to recover territory that they see as having been lost to the West: Ukraine, in Russia’s case, and Taiwan, in the case of China.
The most striking thing about their statement was its sweeping declarations. It reads like a manifesto calling for the United States to recognize that it is no longer the boss of the world.
Two months after President Biden presided over a “democracy summit,” Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi assailed “certain states’ attempts to impose their own ‘democratic standards’ on other countries, to monopolize the right to assess the level of compliance with democratic criteria, to draw dividing lines based on the grounds of ideology.” The world has changed, they asserted. Russia and China should be respected as “world powers” that get to dictate what happens in their own backyards. The statement can be read as an attempt to peel America’s allies away, or to make Americans lose the will to fight.
The truth is that the world has changed. American democracy doesn’t look as shiny as it used to. Many people in around the world are tired of Westerners telling them what to do.
And yet the world is not jumping at the chance to be bossed around by the world’s largest surveillance states, either. It’s not an exaggeration to say that fate of the world depends on our ability to get the response to this “axis of autocracy” right. Americans have to stand up for our values and our allies without ending up in a catastrophic war. No matter how testy relations become, we should remember that the biggest threats we face today — climate change, the pandemic and nuclear proliferation — threaten Russia and China, too.
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