Author: Dea Ivaniadze
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit. 2019.
Since Russia launched its full-scale war in Ukraine, the Western sanctions-affected Russia has been left with China as its only important political and economic ally. It is in Beijing’s interest to support Moscow, and it does so, although the threat of Western sanctions has so far largely deterred it from helping Russia actively. This article will discuss how the dynamics of China-Russia relations continue against the backdrop of the Russo-Ukrainian War, why China’s partnership with Russia is beneficial for them, and whether their relationship is asymmetrical.
The interests of China and Russia
The common factor that pushes China and Russia to have a close relationship with each other is their opposition to the West, especially to the USA. That also was the case ahead of February 24, 2022. Despite some differences, both are big authoritarian regimes with expansive aspirations, and both aspire to change the rules-based, liberal international order.
Furthermore, in the face of Western consolidation, Russia and China realize that they also need a considerable ally on the opposite side. However, unlike the West, authoritarian regimes have almost no mutual trust, and the basis of the bond can be found in the regimes’ interests and pragmatism alone.
In relations with Moscow, it is particularly significant that Beijing considers Russia one of the most important sources of energy security. It is unlikely that, in relation to the Russo-Ukrainian War, China is worrying much about the reputational damage received by cooperation with Russia and its support. What Russia is doing in Ukraine today, China may do tomorrow, for instance, in Taiwan, not to speak of its current behavior, which is why US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that China possessed “the most serious, long-term challenge” to the international order. Likewise, if China finds itself in a difficult situation like Russia, it will also need partners, even in the future depleted Russia. Additionally, for China, no less important will be the benefits of what turning a weak Russia into its vassal can bring.
Russia doesn’t have a lot of choices in partners, and, among like-minded countries, it could not wish for a better partner than the second-largest economy.
While it is true that Beijing currently largely abides by the Western sanctions – China does not want to be sanctioned by the West because of Russia – this does not mean Beijing is not helping Moscow.
First, the benefits of Russia’s trade with China are noteworthy. According to China’s data, in 2022, China-Russia trade increased by 34.3% year-on-year and reached a “record high” of $190 billion. China’s exports to Russia jumped by 17.5%, and imports from Russia by 48.6%. By comparison, China’s total imports from around the globe increased by only 1.1%. According to a report by the Free Russia Foundation, in 2022, China became Russia’s “most important trade partner”, receiving about 20% of Russia’s total exports and serving as the source of 35% of Russia’s total imports.
In June 2022, Russia and China opened the first highway bridge over the cross-border Amur River.
Due to sanctions, the Chinese Yuan has also started to be used more and more actively in Russia. For example, in September, VTB Bank launched money transfers to China in Yuan without using the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT). At the same time, it was revealed that for its gas supply, China would pay Gazprom in Yuan and Rubles instead of US dollars. In Russia, the share of settlements in US Dollars decreased from 52% to 34% in nine months in 2022, in Euros from 35% to 19%, and for the Chinese Yuan this figure increased from 0.4% to 14%.
Also, according to the Free Russia Foundation report, China has become Russia’s most important source of semiconductors and integrated circuits. The organization also writes about the imports of drones to Russia from various countries, including China.
It is noteworthy that back in June 2022, for the first time, the US imposed sanctions on Chinese companies for providing support to Russia’s military. It is true that here the Chinese state was not blamed, but this was a clear message that the West would not leave military assistance to Russia unanswered.
At the end of January 2023, the US imposed sanctions on the Chinese company Spacety China for providing satellite imagery of Ukraine to the Wagner Group. Reports have since emerged about China’s alleged military assistance to Russia. According to Bloomberg news agency sources, the US has confronted China with evidence that some Chinese state-owned companies may be assisting Russia. According to the same report, US officials agree that “China is doing more than it once did in support of Russia”. Many Western media outlets are writing about the alleged economic and non-lethal military assistance of Russia by Chinese companies. And in early February, the Wall Street Journal, citing Russian data, reported that Chinese state-owned defense companies were shipping navigation equipment, jamming technology and jet-fighter parts to sanctioned Russian government-owned defense companies.
In late February, senior US officials, including the US Secretary of State, said China was considering providing lethal support to Russia in its aggression against Ukraine. Furthermore, the Washington Post, citing US officials, wrote that China was considering sending artillery shells to Russia. The US side explained once again that such assistance would have serious consequences. As of February 26, according to US officials, China has not yet crossed this line.
Parallel to the ongoing war in Ukraine, the two countries continue their military partnership. Since the start of the full-scale Russo-Ukrainian War, in May 2022, Russia and China held their first joint military exercises with bombers while US President Joe Biden was holding a meeting with the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) member states in Tokyo. The USA, Japan, India, and Australia are involved in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Created to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region, QUAD is believed to be aimed at resisting China in the region, and the Russia-China exercise has always been seen as a show of force against it. Last year, China took part in several military exercises held in Russia. A year after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, China and Russia conducted joint exercises with South Africa.
Furthermore, since the start of the war, China has been offering diplomatic support to Russia and repeating and spreading pro-Russian and anti-Western disinformation and propaganda on Ukraine.
In September, with Russia’s crimes committed against humanity in Ukraine already renowned, during his visit to Russia, a high-ranking Chinese politician, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Li Zhanshu said: “China understands and supports Russia on issues that represent its vital interests, in particular on the situation in Ukraine”. At the end of 2022, in a virtual meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Xi referred to Russia as being among the “progressive forces”. He also expressed his desire to advance cooperation in various fields, including economy, trade, energy, finance, and infrastructure. “The China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era has grown more mature and resilient,” Xi told Putin.
In this regard, the Chinese statement about the meeting between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Xi Jinping, which states that the international community should oppose the use of nuclear weapons, seems to be an exception. The main reason for this could be that, at the end of 2022, due to internal problems, China tried to be rhetorically more restrained with the West, but this only lasted a short time. Despite everything, it is noteworthy that Russia was not mentioned in China’s statement on nuclear weapons.
The war has not affected the personal communication between the two countries’ leaders. Since the start of the full-scale war, in addition to numerous phone conversations, Putin and Xi met in Samarkand as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit. At the time, Xi emphasized that China would work with Russia to extend “strong mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests.” Putin invited Xi to Russia in the spring: “We are expecting you, honorable Chairman, dear friend…” If Xi indeed goes there, it will be their 40th meeting. The leader Xi has met face-to-face most often is the Russian leader. For comparison, since February 24, 2022, there has not been even a telephone conversation between Xi and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, although the latter has more than once expressed the desire.
Furthermore, when Biden visited Ukraine and held a meeting with Zelenskyy, soon after, one of China’s highest-ranking officials, Wang Yi, met Putin in Russia. Wang Yi said that China was ready to work with Russia to deepen mutual political trust, strengthen strategic coordination, expand practical cooperation, and “defend the legitimate interests of both countries”.
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Vladivostok, Russia. 2018.
Although in their relationship China and Russia have common interests, China is the dominant partner. Russia’s dependence on China has grown over the past few years, and since 2022, against the background of the Western sanctions, this dependence has only increased further.
In 2022, the two countries’ bilateral trade accounted for only 3% of China’s trade volume. In 2021, this figure was 18% for Russian trade, and in 2022, it has likely increased, although it is not known by how much as, in April 2022, Russia suspended publishing the import-export data. At the same time, China is profiting by buying Russian energy at a discounted rate, and Russian energy resources have a significant share in trade with China.
The wide circulation of the Yuan is also a long-term interest for China, and Russia increasingly contributes to this, although, for Beijing, it is more significant that Russia’s dependence on the Chinese currency is growing.
China’s dominance in relations with Russia can be seen in a number of diplomatic statements. In December, during a virtual meeting between Xi and Putin, according to the Russian statement, Putin mentioned defense and military technology cooperation between the countries, while China’s statement did not mention anything of the sort.
With this trajectory, there is great potential for China’s influence on Russia to grow. In such case, China will have a chance to pursue its interests where previously it took Russia into account and might have been hindered by that, such as in the countries of Central Asia, where China’s influence has been growing, especially economically, although Russia remains the dominant power there as yet. Against the backdrop of Russia’s becoming China’s junior partner, a possible change in the balance of power in such matters cannot be excluded.
Overall, given the aspirations of Russia and China, their relations will continue smoothly for a long time. It is an illusion that Beijing will be able to play the role of mediator in the Russo-Ukrainian War, because Beijing’s position is clear and it is pro-Russian. That said, with China’s interests in mind, their current relationship may not be characterized as a “no-limits” friendship. China will likely use Moscow’s growing dependence on it in their asymmetric relationship; however, as long as both perceive the Western world and, in particular the US, as their main rival, the bilateral relationship will remain unbreakable.