What the U.S. gets wrong about China’s relationship with Russia

Introducing Grid Health, our new weekly health and policy newsletter

What the U.S. gets wrong about China’s relationship with Russia, and Xi Jinping’s relationship with Vladimir Putin

On Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a clear sign that their ties remain strong despite the seismic shifts since their last meeting seven months ago. At that February summit, on the sidelines of the Beijing Winter Olympics, the two leaders said their countries enjoyed a “no limits” friendship, built upon a mutual resentment of Western nations. They issued a long joint statement that was a not-so-veiled attack on the U.S.-led global order, and — in language that was likely music to Putin’s ears — a full-throated defense of Russia’s hard-line stand against NATO.

Less than three weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

At Thursday’s meeting, held in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, the tone was slightly different — no doubt a consequence of how much has changed since February. Putin said, “We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis” — a note of thanks to China for standing with Russia in terms of financial support, U.N. votes, and continued condemnation of the U.S. and NATO. But Putin also acknowledged that China may not be as fully supportive of Russia now as it was before the tanks rolled in. “We understand your questions and concerns about this,” Putin said of the war in Ukraine.

“Questions and concerns” may mean many things; it has never been clear what exactly Putin told Xi in February about his planned invasion, but many have surmised that China would not have supported the widespread, full-on assault that followed. Thursday’s meeting also took place in the wake of a major Russian setback in the war, as Ukrainian forces launched a surprise counteroffensive and recaptured a large swath of territory in the Kharkiv region. Putin’s mention of these concerns is noteworthy, first, because Chinese leaders have made few public statements about such concerns; and second, because the Russian leader so rarely speaks of the war with anything less than full-throated bluster.

ADVERTISEMENT

For his part, Xi said nothing in his public remarks about the war in Ukraine, and while under-the-surface frictions may exist, the meeting underlined that the relationship itself remains valuable to China. “China is ready to work with Russia in extending strong support to each other on issues concerning their respective core interests,” Xi said during the meeting, according to a Chinese government statement.

The trip — Xi’s first outside China since the beginning of the pandemic — wasn’t just about Russia; the Chinese leader visited Kazakhstan before arriving in Uzbekistan for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a multilateral organization that includes Russia, India, Pakistan and four Central Asian countries. It was on the sidelines of that meeting that he met with Putin.

Among other things, Xi’s decision to attend the summit and meet with Putin, despite China’s ongoing strict covid policy, showed his commitment to building strong relationships outside the Western sphere of influence, at a time of increasingly strained relations with the United States. China is “keen to cement exclusive blocs of countries that will support it — or at least not support the United States,” Bonny Lin and Jude Blanchette, China experts at Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an August article in Foreign Affairs.

Grid spoke with Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, about the significance of the Putin-Xi meeting, the evolution of the China-Russia relationship since the war and how that relationship fits into China’s broader foreign policy aim of building alliances against the West.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ADVERTISEMENT

Grid: Why do you think that Xi has chosen to travel for this meeting — in particular after staying in China for so many months?

Yun Sun: I think a couple of factors. From a domestic politics point of view, Xi’s visit, actually one month before the 20th Party Congress [a key political meeting where Xi is expected to gain a third term], is certainly a demonstration of confidence that he has domestic politics under control and he has the results of the Party Congress under control.

Then in terms of Central Asia, of course, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is now seen as China’s foreign policy base — the strongest support that China can count on in global affairs, and that happened in the context of the deterioration of relations with the United States. As long as there’s no improvement in sight with Washington, China will continue to feel the urge to at least align its position with Russia.

Then coming to covid, we all know that China is still observing the zero-covid policy domestically, and to a large extent, it is because of the need for social stability in China before the Party Congress. So people expect broadly that by the time the Party Congress is over, China will gradually loosen its restrictions on travel and also loosen its [covid] restrictions, but you have to start somewhere. So for Xi Jinping to take the trip now is paving the ground for China to gradually abandon the zero-covid policy after the Party Congress. The message is: The top leader is already traveling overseas, so it must be pretty safe to do so.

G: What is the significance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for China and its vision of the world? Is this a group of countries that China can really count on?

ADVERTISEMENT

YS: Well, at a minimum, you could say it is a counter to the West. It is China’s answer to the Western definition that China is isolated and China is generally unappreciated by the world, and the SCO is China’s answer: that we have partners, we have solidarity among countries in the region, and we have alternative visions for international order, and also for our domestic political model, and it is as legitimate as the Western model. So that’s why I say the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is almost emerging as China’s face for its foreign strategy and its foreign policy.

G: About the meeting with Putin in particular, what do you think Xi wanted to get out of it? And what Putin might have wanted?

YS: I think for Xi, we already saw that the other Chinese leader, Li Zhanshu [the third most powerful leader in China], just visited Russia last week. We already saw some of those concrete commitments from China: economic cooperation with Russia, energy, infrastructure, education, healthcare, science and technology. I would not be surprised if we see a more concrete commitment on economic cooperation coming out of the summit.

But I don’t think that Xi Jinping or China will commit specifically to concrete military support or military aid to Russia, directly related to the war in Ukraine, because that is not a war that China supports. China may not oppose it. But it doesn’t mean that China supports it. So I think most of the things we will see coming out of China and Russia are going to be in the economic realm. Because so far in the past several months, the Chinese say, “Well, we have largely observed the U.S. sanctions on Russia. But moving forward, this is not sustainable. What is the legality of the U.S. sanctions, unilateral sanctions that do not have U.N. authorization?”

G: On that front, you’d see China increasingly push back against those sanctions and not necessarily abide by them?


YS: Well, these are unilateral sanctions, right? For China, unilateral sanctions without U.N. authorization are illegal to begin with.

G: But China has been basically conforming with them so far.

YS: Well, so far the U.S. does not have secondary sanctions on high-tech exports to Russia either. The Chinese have been concerned about the implications of U.S.-China decoupling, because they certainly do not want to see further decoupling between the Chinese economy and the American economy. But it looks like decoupling is happening anyway. And as long as there’s no sign of improvement of relations between China and the United States, the Chinese will have very little incentive to drop Russia or no incentive to drop Russia.

G: What does China get out of its relationship with Russia now?

YS: Strategic alignment, supporters of China’s agenda — or at least the supporters of China’s position, even without specific technical support to China’s activities.

ADVERTISEMENT

G: Would you say on the balance, though, that right now Russia is more dependent on China than China is dependent on Russia?

YS: Well, currently, if you look at the trading data, Russia has gained much more revenue from their energy commodities since the beginning of the war. So I guess the question is, what is Russia depending on China for? Does Russia need money? Russia probably has created more revenue for itself than anyone would have imagined when the war first broke out. So the West generally predicted that Russia’s economy is going to be destroyed. But in reality, the Russian economy has received this large infusion of cash because of the energy price hike. So I would say that Russia is not in a desperate position, that it has to depend on China for anything.

G: For now, at least.

YS: For now, at least, and we’ll see how the war evolves and how, for example, the energy crisis also evolves. Winter is coming. We know that Europe will need Russian energy resources.

G: Is there anything else that Russia may be looking to gain from China that it hasn’t received so far? That might be feasible for China to give?

ADVERTISEMENT

YS: What is Russia gaining? Well, we in the United States see China as a problem and see Russia as a problem, and we also do not want them to work together and align with each other. Well, that’s very difficult because they have a natural incentive to work together. So for us to say what is Russia really trying to gain, I would say the most important thing is that China and Russia are standing together, they may not support each other on everything that the other side is engaged in, like China does not really support the Russian war in Ukraine, but they’re not going to oppose each other either. And that is significant. That’s two votes on the U.N. Security Council. That means that any U.N. Security Council resolution would not be passed, that solidarity between two authoritarian regimes.

And these two authoritarian regimes also happen to be nuclear powers, Russia has the second-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, and that by itself carries tremendous political significance.

So instead of the technical support that Russia is trying, or not trying to gain from China, I think we should focus on the strategic landscape — that our policy is pushing China and Russia together. And maybe they don’t have an alliance, but the alignment that they have already formed is becoming increasingly like an alliance, and we claim that we don’t want them to work with each other. Unfortunately, that’s where our policies are pushing toward.

G: If you were advising U.S. policymakers, would you suggest a change in policy? How would you advise policymakers such that that convergence between Russia and China wasn’t as much in China’s interest?

YS: I would say that there needs to be a trade-off. Our logic seems to be we can walk and chew gum at the same time, so we can compete with China and confront Russia at the same time. But we also do not want China and Russia to work together. Well, guess what, they will work together and their cooperation has become increasingly close. So we need to prioritize. Which one do we identify as a bigger problem? Is it Russia? Or is it China? Well, we could say, it’s both. But the reality is that then both of them will work with each other and make it increasingly difficult or impossible for us to achieve our policy goals. So I would say that we have to define very clearly what our priority is.

ADVERTISEMENT

G: Going back to the status of the war, given the recent change of events and the success Ukraine has seen on the battlefield, how do you think that impacts how China is seeing the war, how it sees Russia and Putin’s future?

YS: I think that is another misunderstanding in the West — that somehow China’s policy toward Russia is dependent on the war or was a result of the war. Well, it really is not. China’s policy on Russia is dependent on U.S.-China relations. As long as there’s no sign of improvement of relations with Washington, China will side with Russia, regardless of whether Russia wins or loses in Ukraine. So to say that Russia is losing, therefore China may not support Russia or China may support Russia more, I think that is not how the Chinese would perceive or approach the issue. For China, if Russia wins, that’s great because China gains a stronger ally. If Russia loses, that is also great because China gains a vassal state, which is the second-largest nuclear power in the world. So I think people in the West, in Washington especially, want to see how China is going to lose in this. But in the Chinese framing, it’s about how China is winning in this.

Given the current state of U.S.-China relations, the Chinese are not going to have any choice but to seek a closer alignment with Russia. Because for them, things are only going to be worse, they will be deprived of another partner, and given China’s relationship with the United States, they don’t have a lot of partners that they can call close partners these days. So for the Chinese, they probably see no choice but to move forward with closer alignment with Russia. And if we think that can be reversed and stopped without somehow moderating or adapting our policy on China, we are really living in Wonderland.

G: What are the costs for the U.S. to have that Russia-China partnership continue and perhaps be strengthened?

YS: Well, I think to begin with anything that we want to do at the U.N., especially the U.N. Security Council, is not going to happen. The Chinese have the veto, the Russians have the veto, they can have a double veto. So that’s going to significantly sabotage our ability to promote our agenda at multilateral organizations such as the United Nations. Then China and Russia are working together within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the heartland of Eurasia. China and Russia are building their alignment and building their close circle of friends. If this is not the emergence or the rise of a bipolar world, I don’t know what is.

Correction

An earlier version of this article misstated the extent to which Chinese officials have commented on the Ukraine War. This version has been corrected.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Lili Pike
    Lili Pike

    China Reporter

    Lili Pike is a China reporter at Grid focused on climate change, technology and U.S.-China relations.