Contrary to popular opinion, argues Brian Wong, the China-Russia alliance has not soured after Xi’s meeting with Putin at the SCO summit in Samarkand last week. China is simply continuing their balancing act of affirming Western culpability for the war whilst remaining seemingly neutral on the geopolitical stage. What has changed is the extent to which this ambiguity has been picked up by Western observers.
The Sino-Russian relationship has taken on added importance in the aftermath of Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022. Read-outs from meetings between leaders and diplomats of both countries over recent years have emphasised the “no-limits” friendship – and partnership – between China and Russia. What is notably missing – and that merits further analysis – is that neither Beijing nor Moscow has termed their relationship an “alliance”, a fact that hints at the underlying complexities and dynamics.
The distinction between “friendship” and “alliance” would prove to be vital, in reflecting the fact that despite their strong economic ties, China and Russia are far from natural, seamless partners. Indeed, when taking into consideration the two countries’ precise regional and security interests, the alignment between the two states remains strained by fundamental incompatibilities.
A core dimension to the resilience of the present bilateral relationship is the personal and personalistic bonds between the leaders of two respective states. President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin place significant emphasis upon their personal ties. The former has repeatedly referred to his counterpart in the Kremlin as his “best friend” – one that shares his conviction that the nebulously defined West is on perennial and irreversible decline, and that the equally amorphous East is “on the rise”.
Putin’s personal willingness to rhetorically and decisively repudiate perceived Western advances in the Middle East and United Nations (with the veto playing a crucial role in the latter) also coheres vastly with Xi’s desire to thwart Western hegemony and press for a more multi-polar world order, one in which Russia has a role to play.
Driven himself by a mixture of revanchist tendencies and nostalgia for the Soviet Union, Putin sees symmetric appeal in Xi’s resolve to accomplish “civilisational rejuvenation” – though as compared with Russia, for China, such rejuvenation comes in distinctively more economically and materially oriented terms. Both leaders are strong personalities, with Putin leaning into personal charisma and Xi a blend of formal institutions and informal authority over the party.
Any support from Beijing for Russia’s military ambitions – if any – has been vastly limited to moralising rhetoric and the economic dimension
There are structural reasons why the Chinese and Russian governments would have incentives to get along: Russia’s primary trade partner – by far – is China, with such reliance increasing in the aftermath of sanctions launched by the West since February. According to official sources, Sino-Russian trade in the first half of 2022 rose 29% year-on-year. Russia is vastly dependent upon Chinese electronics, textiles, and vehicles; China, on the other hand, enjoys cheap Russian oil and wheat. Such economic co-dependences are only one half of the equation.
The second half, is that the precipitously hostile approach adopted by members of NATO against China, has rendered the foreign policy establishment in Beijing increasingly sceptical of the prospects for rapprochement and normalisation of relations with the West. “The China Trap”, as political scientist Jessica Chen Weiss noted, is one where the American discourse of zero-sum competition has empowered Chinese hawks in making the case for greater alignment between their country and Russia, especially in terms of defence and security agreements.
Yet China has yet to offer Russia any military aid over Ukraine. Indeed, the divergent economic trajectories and structures of the two countries render it unlikely that Beijing would move any closer to Moscow on the front of committing aid or support over Ukraine. As compared with Russia, China is significantly more embedded and integrated within global supply chains, financial, and consumer-good systems. It could ill afford to undergo the very sanctions that have devastated portions (though not the entirety) of the Russian economy.
There exist potent concerns amongst the Chinese – as acknowledged by Putin in his remarks to Xi at Samarkand last week, where the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit was held – that China would be dragged into the cascade of secondary sanctions following on from the Western encirclement of Russia. Pivoting to domestic consumption and resource-based rentier economy is not an option for the Chinese leadership. Thus any support from Beijing for Russia’s military ambitions – if any – has been vastly limited to moralising rhetoric and the economic dimension.
More fundamentally, there are systemic incongruences that render Russia and China unlikely to formulate a cogent and enduring alliance. First, ethnonationalist, racist elements in the Russian population view China as a subpar candidate for partnership to the country’s political elite. Whilst both Chinese and Russian nationalists share mutual distrust of “Western colonialism and hegemony”, that is also where their similarities end. Far-right Russian jingoists perennially warn of the dangers of “Chinese takeover” via settling in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Some amongst Chinese nationalists, on the other hand, warn of Russian imperialism and aggression – citing the latter’s behaviours during the Eight Nation Army’s sacking of Beijing in the early 20th century.
The cause for Chinese concern over Russian aggression is perhaps best exemplified by Central Asia – a region in which Russia has significant, and China has rapidly increasing, stake. As I have argued elsewhere, Kazakhstan has sought to distance itself from the Kremlin in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion, opting to condemn the actions of and comply fully with Western sanctions implemented against Russia. A subsequently deleted and ostensibly “hacking-produced” post by former Russian President and long-standing Putin ally Medvedev openly declared Kazakhstan to be an “artificial state”.
The recent setbacks to Russian war efforts in Kharkiv, on the contrary to popular opinion, have not fundamentally altered China’s position on bilateral relations
In contrast, in his high-profile and first in-person foreign visit since early 2020 to Almaty (previously Nur-Sultan), President Xi openly affirmed Beijing’s commitment to helping Almaty secure “national independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and in taking reform measures to preserve national stability and development”. To Beijing, counterbalancing against Russian dominance in Central Asia is of paramount importance; to Moscow, Central Asia remains a crucial chip and sphere of influence over which its grip has steadily waned.
The recent setbacks to Russian war efforts in Kharkiv, on the contrary to popular opinion, have not fundamentally altered China’s position on bilateral relations. Those who read China as pivoting away from express support of Russia, tend to both over-exaggerate the volume of support and backing from the highest echelons of Chinese government for the Kremlin’s rash, unilateral decision in February; as well as place excessive emphasis upon the settings and language deployed by Xi over his meeting with Putin in Samarkand last week.
I do not share the view that Xi’s views on Putin’s military move have soured – China might well have been taken aback somewhat by the scale and extent of Russia’s military deployment, but its foreign policy establishment has since cautiously pursued the dualist strategy of affirming the validity of Russia’s concerns over NATO and Western aggression, and substantively committing largely to neutrality in geopolitical and security matters between the West and Russia. To characterise Xi’s statement as a ‘snub’ would require some rather generous and deliberate, selective reading of the politician’s public statement last week.
Indeed, one of the most oft-cited talking points is that Xi made no mention of supporting Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, or that he did not repeatedly refer to Russia as a “partner without limits” at the SCO summit – yet nor did he do so in many of the prior calls since the outbreak of war. In the readout for the June 15 call, for instance, Xi called for “world peace and stability” and “settlement” of the Ukraine crisis, as opposed to affirming Putin’s decision to wage war on the country. Beijing’s strategic ambiguity on Russia vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine has not changed over the past months – what’s changed, if at all, is the extent to which such ambiguity has been recognised by external observers.
On September 21, Putin declared partial mobilisation of Russian troops – a move that indubitably paves the way to legitimise his further escalating of the conflict. For Putin, this is a matter of both national and personal survival. Escalation, on the other hand, would certainly pose a concern – albeit manageable – for China. It would tip the scales in favour of applying more pressure on Russia to de-escalate; China may view it as aligned with its incentives to pursue collaboration with the European Union in facilitating this.
Yet a détente with America over potentially nuclear escalation in Eastern Europe remains unlikely: a core sticking and talking point in Chinese argumentation is that the US-driven NATO is ultimately to blame for the tragedy that is the war in Ukraine. This framing is unlikely to change notwithstanding recent events.