A balancing act: Li’s Appearance at the Moscow Conference on International Security

From August 14th to the 19th, China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu will be visiting Russia and delivering an address at the Moscow Conference on International Security. The 10th annual conference consists of more than 20 Russian-allied states, where participating parties discuss potential alliances and strategies to combat Western domination. As no Western countries have been invited to attend, the conference takes on a very Russian-centric perspective. Even Putin’s opening speech carried an underlying accusatory tone as he blamed the U.S. and NATO for forcefully imposing their ways on the rest of the world and stirring up conflict – particularly in Ukraine. The ensuing speeches by various Russian officials upheld the theme of Western culpability for worldwide security threats, particularly emphasizing their impact on escalating nuclear tensions.

The Chinese Defense Minister’s appearance at the conference was a surprise to some since China has repeatedly stated that it would not take sides following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the strong bilateral relationship between China and Russia is hardly news. Before Russia’s invasion back in February of 2022, Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a “no-limits friendship”, a relationship that has become apparent throughout the war in Ukraine. While Li has labeled China as a non-interfering party striving to promote peace in a “world of chaos”, China has consistently supported Russian diplomats and maintained solid trade relations with Russia. Although China has avoided forming a formal alliance with Russia, both nations seem united in their dislike of Western interference in their domination attempts. Even at the conference, while Li did not take as strong of an accusatory route as the Russian officials, he did warn the U.S. against “playing with fire”, particularly concerning U.S. support for Taiwan. 

While worldwide cooperation might be near-impossible due to the conflicting nature of their aspirations, Eastern and Western superpowers should work harder to avoid tensions for the sake of national security. Hosting such selective and biased “global” conventions which exclude any opposing viewpoints only encourages conflict and fails to bring about positive change. Instead, a pragmatic approach should be taken to form a healthy relationship between Eastern and Western powers, rooted in mutual respect and a willingness to find common ground. This could begin by limiting passive-aggressive comments targeted toward each other, as seen by Chinese and Russian officials during the conference. Leaving the “East vs. West” competition towards global dominance behind and instead using each nation’s strengths to pursue shared objectives like global health initiatives, nuclear non-proliferation, or other critical issues would yield more productive outcomes in everyone’s best interests.

Failing to make such efforts could lead to dire consequences. The Sino-Russian relationship could pose significant global military threats, as both countries have been practicing joint exercise drills and have potentially been sharing weapons (although this has not been confirmed). Prolonged tensions with these two nations might precipitate a perilous escalation of armed conflict, an alarming prospect given their nuclear capabilities. Economic consequences of furthering such conflicts would also harm many, as trade sanctions, a common form of punishment between Western nations and China, typically hurt all parties involved. 

While nothing alarmingly new has yet been announced at the Moscow Conference, Li’s appearance has been particularly significant, highlighting the cooperation between the two Eastern superpowers. In order to avoid a tense build-up and its ensuing consequences, it is critical that Western leaders take concerns addressed at the conference seriously and discuss them with Chinese leaders in future meetings to resolve any potential conflicts.