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Why Xi and Putin think "the West is in free fall"

Photo: Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin are strategizing how to reposition themselves for a new, more powerful future amid a rapid deterioration of the U.S.-led global order.

What we're hearing: Xi and Putin, meeting Friday in Beijing and again yesterday in the city of Qingdao, don't appear to think they have the cachet — even combined — to create an entirely new system. Nor is it clear that at the moment they would want to trash the U.S.-led institutions that have anchored the global economy and political order since World War II.

But look for the mutually distrustful pair to feel out ways to transition to a new world in which a loose grouping of China, Russia and their allies can become more or less the geopolitical equals of the West.

  • In a special report yesterday, Axios' Jim VandeHei and Jonathan Swan wrote that President Trump is shaking up U.S.-led institutions.
  • Yesterday, for instance, Trump threw down lightning bolts from Air Force One when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dared challenge him on trade. He angrily tweeted that he withdrew the U.S. signature from a just-finished G7 summit communique.
  • Such spectacles feed Xi's and Putin's conviction that "the West is in free fall," says Mathew Burrows, former counselor at the National Intelligence Council, and now at the Atlantic Council. He tells Axios, "Both Xi and Putin have been surprised and shocked by the rapidity of the U.S. decline."
  • Burrows adds: "We’re descending fast into a Hobbesian world. Only the U.S. think tank community believes it can restore the liberal rules-based order: Such grand illusions!"

What this new world might look like: China's long-term vision is a world structured within its various big infrastructure initiatives. But Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, tells Axios that he does not see Xi and Putin for now attempting to replace the post-war multilateral architecture. He believes it will remain in place.

  • Rather, they are both looking for advantage from the mayhem — separately, Bremmer says, because, notwithstanding Xi and Putin's shows of bonhomie, "they don't trust each other."
  • "They both see opportunities, to be sure. Russia — to undermine the U.S. and divide the West. China — to expand their political and economic influence globally."
  • Bremmer's take: "Long term, China is the emerging superpower; Putin's a master tactician but doesn't have a plan."
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