Twenty days before the start of the invasion of Ukraine, Russia and China proclaimed a “limitless partnership”. The hope of a strong rear, if not military-industrial, at least political, was constantly nourished by Russian propaganda, especially internal. Russian propagandists have consistently exaggerated “support” for China, which abstained when most countries in the UN General Assembly condemned the Russian invasion.
Experts from the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington, DC, gathered for a discussion: “Russian-Chinese Relations: A Partnership of Convenience? (Russia-China Relations: Partnership of Convenience?), we are sure that the war in Ukraine has both strengthened and exacerbated relations between Russia and China. While China has generally remained silent on Russia‘s aggression, “some observers believe Xi is tired of the cost Putin’s war is taking on China’s economy and reputation.”
“A year after Russia and China signed a borderless partnership agreement, the war has revealed the clear limits of the so-called borderless friendship,” he said. Bobo Lo (Bobo Lo), CEPA Senior Scientist. – The war has shown that the interests of China and Russia do not coincide, and life itself has refuted claims that this is some kind of new alliance of autocracies or an axis authoritarian. What is particularly striking is that the Sino-Russian partnership is an absolutely unsentimental relationship, based on strategic calculation, not shared ideals or values.
“The war has shown that China and Russia have a fundamentally different attitude towards the existing world order,” continues Bobo Lo. – If Russia wants to destroy it, then China wants to exploit the current international system. China is a revisionist power, it is interested in orders.
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In this context, Russia “could be called an anarchist force,” Lo says politely, avoiding the “destructive” label. “Russia‘s interest lies in global disorder because anarchy is actually a powerful lever.”
Careful analysis of the facts shows that ‘contrary to popular belief, Beijing and Moscow’ do not act as some sort of coordinated force in international politics, with the possible exception of voting in the UN Security Council “, quips the expert. “In fact, their influence on each other is very limited.”
Experts have long drawn attention to the vastly different attitude of Russians towards China. The further east you go from Moscow, the more the rejection of China, whose population is ten times greater than that of Russia, and the fear of it: the fear of the economic and territorial expansion of “great friend” are strong. These feelings reach their maximum in the regions of Russia where the population is most closely in contact with the real China, and this is not just an abstraction of propaganda.
“The war has exacerbated the inequality of relations, continues Bobo Lo. – Russia‘s geopolitical and economic dependence on China today is greater than ever in the history of their relations. Nevertheless… Putin’s persistent strategic ambitions and elite willpower should not be underestimated. The partnership is too important for either side to fail, especially since Beijing and Moscow have very few allies in the world. It is this mutual need that gives stability to their relationship. Therefore, the expert assesses the “tactical attempts of the West to divide China and Russia” not only as “useless, but also counterproductive”.
However, the long-term strategic outlook for relations between Beijing and Moscow is still “pretty bad”. “The biggest challenge for both sides will be the growing disparity between them. Over time, there will be fewer and fewer common interests and key disagreements will come to light: for example, in Eurasia and the Arctic,” says Lo.
Angela Stent (Angela Stent), Senior Advisor, Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, Georgetown University, points out that personal characters played an important role in shaping today’s Russia-China relations Putin and Xi Jinping “They have a common set of grievances against the West. It cemented their relationship.”
According to Angela Stent, China fears that “if a leader comes to power in Russia who does not want to put all Russian eggs in one China basket and does not want to throw away 300 years of relations with Europe, focusing only on Asia, then it will be very difficult for oneself to imagine what will happen to Russian-Chinese relations. This is why, from the Chinese point of view, Russia should not lose this war: Beijing does not want a new leader to come to power in Russia, which will undoubtedly happen in the event of a military defeat in Ukraine.
Sergei Radchenko (Sergey Radchenko), a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, points out that Russia and China don’t really have common military interests and plans, even despite occasional token joint exercises: It’s not a covenant at all. There is no notable military component in their alliance, there is no common strategy.
China has no desire to intervene in Russia‘s war, just as it is quite unimaginable that Russia will intervene “if a war breaks out, for example, in the Taiwan Strait”. Or maybe “do the Chinese expect the Russians to come to their aid, for example, in a war with india or elsewhere in Southeast Asia?” – Radchenko asks a rhetorical question.
“Sometimes we hear calls for more intense military relations from certain circles in Russia and also in China,” continues the expert from Johns Hopkins University. “But they tend to come from fringe political figures and don’t reflect the views of the country’s leaders.” In fact, China and Russia prefer to have “freedom of action from each other: strategic autonomy”, formulates Sergey Radchenko.
Thinking back to the middle of the last century, the expert recalls: “The Soviet-Chinese alliance in the 1950s had a stronger military component, but that didn’t work either when China and india entered at war in 1959 and had skirmishes on the border. The Soviets, who were then trying to establish good relations with india, proclaimed neutrality, which greatly upset Beijing, which spoke of “betraying its allies”. If tensions resurface tomorrow between China and india, Russians can simply abstain from voting: “Sorry, we would like to express our regrets about what is happening, but we do not support either side.” In this sense, I do not see any major changes in Russian-Chinese relations since that time. And what is very important – I do not see any purchases of Chinese military equipment by Russia at the moment, ”concludes Sergey Radchenko.
Elizabeth Vishnik (Elizabeth Wishnick), Senior Research Scholar, Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University, completes the picture with a look at trade and economic relations between China and Russia: “Trade between these countries reached a record $190 billion in 2022, but it is very unbalanced. Russia has doubled its exports to China, and now almost a quarter of Russia‘s foreign trade is with China. China is a major buyer of Russian oil, which no longer goes to Europe. On the other hand, China has increased its Russian volumes by less than 10%, and Russia still accounts for less than 3% of China’s foreign trade. China is therefore much more important for Russia than the other way around. And Russia is also interested in india, a competitor of China: “Before the war, it bought less than one percent of its oil from Russia. There are now more than 20.
Elisabeth Vishnik adds: “China fears that it has become more dependent on Russian raw materials. It has therefore just signed an agreement with Qatar on the supply of liquefied natural gas for a long period. Beijing has good relations with Saudi Arabia, negotiations are underway with Turkmenistan on the fourth line of the gas pipeline. China is therefore very, very concerned about maintaining the diversification of its economic portfolio. After all, the war between Russia and Ukraine teaches Beijing a good lesson: you always have to lay your eggs in different baskets.