Sep 12, 2023

China’s Complex Relations with Russia: Tracing the Limits of a “Limitless Friendship”

Beijing and Moscow are aligned when it comes to fighting the US-led world order. But beyond this common aim, there are many points of bilateral friction.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a joint statement following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 21, 2023.
All rights reserved

“President Vladimir Putin is my closest foreign colleague and my best bosom friend, and I treasure this deep friendship with him.” Thus spoke Chinese President Xi Jinping, on a state visit to Moscow in June 2019, to describe his relationship with his Russian counterpart. US-China relations were then already at an historic low; Washington and Beijing were in the middle of a trade war. An alignment of Russia and China seemed reasonable. As an old Chinese proverb says, though, “a friend is never known till a man has need.” And a lot has happened since to put their “friendship” to a test.

Most importantly, in February 2022, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a country with which China had concluded a strategic partnership. Earlier that month, Putin had secured a written agreement with Xi, which declared that the Sino-Russian friendship knew “no limits.” Ever since, China has continuously replicated Russian propaganda arguing that NATO’s enlargement constitutes a legitimate security concern of the Russian Federation, which led to the war. In a position paper published in February 2023, China fell short of identifying Russia as the aggressor—though China’s perception clearly did not fully mirror Russia’s stance.

Almost exactly four years after Xi had made his remarks quoted above, Putin certainly needed good friends. The mutiny of the Wagner Group, a private military company with close ties to Russia’s military secret service headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, undermined Putin’s authority. However, China stayed silent at first before finally issuing a statement that called the “Wagner Group Incident” a matter of “Russia’s internal affairs.”

How close, therefore, is this friendship really?

The War Against Ukraine: A Balancing Act for China

China is surely more important for Russia than ever before. Faced with sanctions from the West, Moscow’s reliance on Beijing has drastically increased. In the first six months of 2023, bilateral trade with Russia grew by 40.7 percent compared to the same period in the previous year, surpassing the trade volume of the entire year of 2020. The largest share of Chinese imports from Russia are fossil fuels. China spent $81 billion on the imports of Russian oil, coal, Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), and pipeline gas in 2022, up from $52.1 billion in 2021. Russia remains an energy source for China and Chinese companies take advantage of the fact that the Russian Federation has lost most of its Western customers.

While such trade offers a lifeline for Moscow, China’s support is not without limits. To the best of our knowledge, China has not overtly supplied Russia with weapons or ammunition, though it appears to be secretly selling hi-tech dual-use goods that strengthen Russia’s military capabilities. The United States has sanctioned the Changsha Tianyi Space Science and Technology Research Institute for providing satellite imagery through the Russian technology firm Terra Tech to the Wagner Group. Reports suggest that China is exporting micro-electronics, most importantly semiconductors, to Russia. In 2022 alone, Russia’s defense industrial base received micro-electronics shipments worth more than $500 million. Of crucial importance are shell companies in third countries and Hong Kong.

Despite these and other examples of gray zone exports to Russia, China’s support, again, is not limitless. The People’s Republic walks a fine line. In particular first-tier Chinese technology companies that are active internationally are aiming to avoid (further) Western sanctions in reaction to their Russia business. For example, Huawei has stopped supplying base stations for Russian mobile operators and closed its Russian office selling data storage systems and telecommunications equipment. Second-tier technology companies from China with little or no international exposure, in turn, have exploited the market opportunity and are supplying the Russian Federation. However, these companies often provide less advanced technology, since they are not globally competitive. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Russian representatives have lamented the low quality of Chinese technology imports in exchanges with their Chinese counterparts. Reports further suggest that Russian officials are concerned that the dependencies on China could undermine the country’s security.

In light of this restrained support for Russia, what does China hope to gain from Russia? Where do China and Russia align and what demarcates the limits of Russia-China partnership?

Beijing’s calculations largely revolve around three dimensions: implications for the political order, implications for the geopolitical power competition, and implications for economic development. While the latter has been discussed briefly above, the first two dimensions revolve around the question of whether China and Russia can jointly erect an authoritarian world order.

“Brother in Spirit”: Toward an Authoritarian International Order?

The most important force holding the partnership between China and Russia together is their shared rejection of a US-dominated world that undermines not only their international ambitions but questions their domestic authoritarian regimes. The Sino-Russian Joint Declaration published in February 2022 is testimony of the shared attempt to erect a world order that protects authoritarian rule. This is less inspired by self-confidence but rather reflects the consciousness of both the Russian and the Chinese leadership of their vulnerabilities.

The discourse of the Western, primarily American, threat is characteristic of both the Chinese and Russian political environments. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China published a paper on “US Hegemony and its Perils” in February 2023, which states: “Since becoming the world’s most powerful country after the two world wars and the Cold War, the United States has acted more boldly to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, pursue, maintain, and abuse hegemony.” This is an indication of Beijing’s insecurity. In Russia, too, the sentiment of weakness in the face of the US and, by extension, NATO, is well-known and even embedded into the latest Concept of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation: "[The anti-Russia policy of the US] is aimed at weakening Russia in every possible way, including undermining its creative civilizational role, its power, economic, and technological capabilities, limiting its sovereignty in foreign and domestic policy, and destroying its territorial integrity."

Even in his 2022 Victory Day parade speech, which normally talks of Russian triumphs, Vladimir Putin described his motivation for attacking Ukraine in terms of weakness and being threatened: “We saw how the military infrastructure was being deployed, how hundreds of foreign advisers started working, regular deliveries of the most modern weapons from NATO countries were going on. The danger was growing every day, Russia gave a pre-emptive response to aggression. It was a forced ... decision.”

United in Perceived Weakness

China recognizes Russia’s position of weakness vis-à-vis the West and uses this argument to explain Russian aggression in Ukraine. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Hua Chunying, responding to a question asking whether China’s remarks and position on Ukraine contradict the principle of respecting state sovereignty, stated: “When the US drove five waves of NATO expansion eastward all the way to Russia’s doorstep and deployed advanced offensive strategic weapons in breach of its assurances to Russia, did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a big country to the wall?” It is therefore no wonder that China is largely echoing Russia’s anti-US and anti-NATO propaganda.

But more divergences exist than this might suggest; they had already become apparent before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. At the narrative level, there are significant disparities in the domestic discourses of Russia and China regarding crucial aspects of the cooperation between the two countries, including about Eurasian connectivity, China’s stake in the Arctic region, the extent of high value added bilateral economic exchanges, and contrasting perspectives on the historical significance of Russia's Far East. These disparities underscore the complexities of the relationship between the two nations. After Russia's attack on Ukraine, the gap has increased for several reasons.

Firstly, China’s ambitions greatly vary from those of Russia. The US Department of Defense's "Russian Strategic Intentions A Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) White Paper" states that Russia's global grand strategy aims to reclaim influence over former Soviet nations, to regain recognition as a “great power,” to portray itself as a regional powerbroker, to gain economic and military influence worldwide, and to influence and refine the current liberalist rules and norms that govern the world order. Due to a disconnect between its self-image and the scarcity of adequate economic resources to achieve its objectives, Russia is inclined to apply unscrupulous tactics. Its entitlement mentality drives it to defy the international system and assume the role of a spoiler, even resorting to military actions and making nuclear threats, which China's leadership strongly disapproves of.

China, on the other hand, is actively pursuing a stable and influential position in the international arena, which is interconnected with its aim to ensure the longevity of its current domestic political system. To this end, a little instability that challenges the US-led security order can be helpful, but too much chaos, including a real nuclear threat, is counterproductive. As is shown by the fact that China constantly reminded Russia before the war not to attack others, it was clearly concerned about Russia’s disruptive power.

Conversely, Russia is uncomfortable with Chinese domination. According to a Bloomberg report, some senior officials within Russia's Ministry of Digital Development, Communications, and Mass Media are apprehensive about the possibility of Chinese companies, notably Huawei, dominating the Russian market. There are worries that such dominance could pose a threat to the country's information security. This illustrates the fact that Russia and China may share common concerns and do cooperate—not least in times of Russia’s war of aggression of Ukraine. But such cooperation does not imply that the two countries trust one another.

In Search of Good Neighborly Relations

The roots of Sino-Russian distrust date back at least to China's concerns about Russian expansion during the Yili Crisis of 1871–81, when Russian troops took control of modern-day Xinjiang following a Muslim uprising against Qing rule. A similar sense of insecurity exists on Russia's side as well, pertaining to the Russian Far East. Mainstream political figures tend to avoid feeding into the "China threat" discourse, yet more vocal figures do not hold back. Oleg Matveychev—spin doctor, political scientist, and professor at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation— known for his controversial utterances, has stated: "We must develop Siberia, Transbaikalia, and the Far East. ... It is simply vital for us to develop these places because we may soon find ourselves without them. That is, we can simply lose them, someone else can, as they call it, take it for themselves. ... And China is in dire need of fresh water, timber, a huge amount of minerals, energy, and so on. And, as they say, how long will we be friends in peace, kiss, sign memorandums?"

The Aihui Historical Museum in Heilongjiang province, on the Russian-Chinese border, illustrates this point from the Chinese perspective. The exhibition there reinforces China's claims over the Russian Far East. What’s more, the narrative that the Russian Far East was unjustly taken away from China widely circulates in Chinese society. While Russia is actively trying to forget this piece of its history, the Chinese public is not willing to let go. When Russian authorities removed the sentence “Russia captured the Amur region” from a schoolbook in 2019, the move sparked outrage in China.

The dilemmas and complexities in Russia and China's relationship extend to Central Asia. The Yili Crisis remains a traumatic event in Chinese historiography. Russia perceives Central Asia as an integral part of its cultural identity, leading to patronizing attitudes and claims of being the region's primary external partner. Meanwhile, China, historically, often viewed the region as “the Other.” Both countries tend to see Central Asia as a strategic location for their security and economic interests, but also a pawn, venue, or source of resources.

As Russia aims to maintain its presence in traditional areas of engagement while keeping pace with China in emerging ones, the Chinese agenda is rapidly expanding, seemingly bypassing Russia in the process. One of the motivations of China’s expanding security agenda in Central Asia is also the anxiety over Russia's weakening and withdrawal, including possible spillover effects, which could lead to further instability on China’s border not only with Russia, but also with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and most notably Tajikistan.

Several private conversations with high-ranking Chinese contacts confirm that China’s leadership is concerned about a potentially disintegrating Russia were Vladimir Putin to lose power. The two countries share a border of around 4,300 kilometers. Chinese leaders are obsessed with stability. The mere risk of an unstable Russian neighbor that could serve as a refuge for terrorist groups is a horror scenario to the Beijing leadership. They fear such instability could spill over to China. While the personal friendship of Xi and Putin might be exaggerated for public consumption (though both strongmen clearly have a personal relationship), Putin staying in power seems to Beijing the best guarantee that Russia will remain a stable and reliable ally.

A Constructive Force?

Meanwhile, Russia’s war against Ukraine has confirmed once again that China and Russia are not in a military alliance. China has adopted a pro-Russian neutrality mostly to prevent the worst case: a failing Russia that might slide into civil war and regional secession. China would lose a close companion in its geopolitical rivalry with the United States. Worst from Beijing’s viewpoint, a pro-Western regime could replace Putin in the Kremlin. Also, in private conversations, Chinese officials characterize Russia’s economic model as unsustainable, further confirming concerns about Russia’s stability.

Before the war, China frequently reminded the Kremlin that it should not attack third countries. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has not been Beijing’s agenda. But China is not doing all it can to facilitate a peace deal. China’s above-mentioned position paper of February 2023 is not—as is often falsely claimed—a “peace plan.” It neither outlines options for a compromise nor does it present a roadmap to peace. Instead, the paper simply summarizes China’s view on the war.

For the time being, Russia’s defeat is China’s nightmare, not an ongoing war in Ukraine. The recent mutiny of the Wagner Group has reminded the leadership in Beijing that its nightmare could become a reality. And China might not be prepared for it.

Una Bērziņa-Čerenkova is head of Riga Stradiņš University China Studies Centre, and Head of the Asia program at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs.

Tim Rühlig is a China scholar and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Geopolitics, Geoeconomics, and Technology at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

Read more by the author

Tim Rühlig

A Sovereign Europe ... and China

Reducing strategic dependencies vis-à-vis Beijing, especially in the realm of technology, is easier said than conceptualized, let alone put in practice.