In 1969, China and the Soviet Union seemed on the brink of war.

They fought a deadly border clash in March of that year and another in August. Kremlin dropped suggestions of a nuclear strike. Over the next few years, they traded beards. Mao Zedong warned, “You piss on my head, and I will have my revenge!” The Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev called Mao “treacherous”. An alliance that Moscow and Beijing had previously announced as unbreakable quickly unraveled.

So Mao reached out to his declared enemy the United States. Mao, a sharp critic of what he called American imperialism, suddenly referred to President Richard Nixon as “the number 1 good guy in the world”, and by 1972, Nixon appeared in Beijing. It was a geopolitical earthquake that changed the course of history.

Currently, Vladimir Putin is Xi Jinping’s best man, because the two countries are making a common cause against the United States. But the Russian leader – his authority bruised after the failed uprising by the Wagner militia group in June – would be wise to remember China’s record. As Mikhail Kapitsa, top Soviet foreign minister, put it in 1982, “The Chinese never make friends with anyone for a long time.”

The Chinese Communist Party’s approach to geopolitics is rooted in an ancient strategic culture of playing other nations—sometimes dismissed as barbarians during China’s imperial days—against one another for China’s benefit. Mao’s abrupt turn toward the United States showed how quickly Chinese loyalty can crumble when the usefulness of a strategic partner declines.

In 1975, Geng Biao, a senior Chinese foreign policy official, explained to other party leaders the reason for the switch. It was not because “we have good feelings towards the United States”, he said, according to the minutes of a party meeting. “We take advantage of their conflict”, referring to the Soviets and the Americans. He added, “We can use them.”

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping continued to cozy up to America, in part as a way “deal with the polar bear” — the Soviets — as he said. The American ambassador to the Soviet Union at the time, Thomas J. Watson, saw that, warning President Jimmy Carter in 1980 that the Chinese “are jumping from bed to bed. And I think we need to make sure they are glued to our bed before we take actions that we might regret later.”

Even the Soviets warned America about Beijing’s reliability. The West “may now be in a euphoric mood about China,” Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko saidbut would come to regret it.

China benefited greatly from its pivot to the United States, gaining access to Western technology, investment, and the vast American market, all of which proved essential for China to eventually make the great leap toward modernity and global power it now enjoys.

But from the early 1980s, Deng cagily began to play the barbarians against each other again.

Sino-Soviet relations grew closer during the rest of the decade, driven in part by a shared resentment of American global dominance and the belief that the Americans intended to promote the overthrow of their governments.

Mr. Xi, perhaps sensing diminishing returns from deeper engagement with America, has once again stepped things up during the Putin era, embracing the Russian leader and denouncing the United States.

The West is right to be worried. Turning back the clock to the days of Sino-Soviet brotherhood, Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi undoubtedly took each other with them to challenge the Western-led world order. The combination of Mr. Putin’s vindictiveness and military aggression and China’s economic power is dangerous.

But Mr. Putin made a potentially grave mistake, burning bridges with the West to go all out with China in reckless disregard for Beijing’s track record of instrumentalizing its friendships.

Despite offering diplomatic cover for Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, China has largely avoided opposing Western sanctions against Russia, essentially putting its own interests ahead of those of its embattled client. Russia’s deepening isolation gave China access to discounted Russian energy products. Much of the trade between China and Russia is now done in the Chinese yuan, which reduces Russia’s exposure to Western economic pressure but also furthers Beijing’s goal to undermine the dominance of the dollar as the world currency. At the same time, China has been able to present itself to much of the world as a responsible global player with its half-hearted calls for peace in Ukraine while the war continues.

Mr. Putin, on the other hand, made his country a junior partner to China Looking weakened and less secure after the Wagner uprising last month, he risks becoming even more dependent on China for political and economic support.

Mr. Xi will no doubt take note. Like past Chinese leaders, he respects strength but knows how to exploit weakness, and Russia will remain useful to him as he continues to challenge the United States. Mr. Putin can still make important strategic choices for his country, as long as they coincide with China’s interests. But will China support him if those interests diverge? Or if Russian elites lack patience with his bad decisions and try to expel him? Or if the global costs of standing with him prove too onerous for China?

China remains the same secretive, self-serving Communist Party state it was in Mao’s time, with an outlook on global politics in which alignments are seen as temporary. There are no “good feelings,” as Mr. Geng said five decades ago, just cold calculation.

The West, today so preoccupied with this newly united front between China and Russia, remember that.

So should Mr. Putin.

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