https://www.csmonitor.com-By Ann Scott Tyson Staff writer
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Chinese leader Xi Jinping (right) talk during their meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Sept. 15, 2022. Mr. Putin acknowledged China’s “concerns” over Ukraine, but also said that China and Russia “jointly stand for forming a just, democratic, and multipolar world.”
Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin struck different tones in public remarks last week at their first face-to-face meeting since Russia invaded Ukraine – but left little doubt that their countries’ “no limits” strategic partnership is here to stay.
Despite major Russian battlefield setbacks and Mr. Putin’s mention of China’s “concerns” over Ukraine, the two leaders pledged to deepen strategic cooperation, support each other’s “core interests,” and join forces to promote regional and global stability. On Monday, senior Chinese and Russian leaders followed up with a new round of high-level security consultations.
Mr. Xi’s decision to meet Mr. Putin – during Mr. Xi’s first overseas trip since 2020 and a month before his expected ascent to a rare third term as China’s top leader – underscores the importance he places on the alliance with Russia, experts say. For the embattled Mr. Putin, the relationship with China is increasingly indispensable.
Why We Wrote This
China’s deepening ties with Russia are likely to grow even stronger in coming years as each country reaps key benefits from the other. Yet historical mistrust and differing global aspirations remain potential weaknesses.
“Russia is the only ally of consequence for China,” says Alexander Korolev, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. And for Russia, “China is like a lifeline,” he says.
The overarching force pushing China and Russia together – one unlikely to change anytime soon – is their shared hostility toward the United States and the West, say experts in Sino-Russian relations.
“In both capitals, there’s a view that the big … challenge, the long-term strategic enemy, is the United States,” says Joseph Torigian, assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service.
“They both think about the West as implacably opposed to them as great powers,” he says, and manage their differences so together they can confront that perceived threat.
Last February, Messrs. Xi and Putin inked a historic joint statement that created a special relationship between Beijing and Moscow – one with “no forbidden areas of cooperation.” It was designed as a global counterbalance to the U.S.-led system of alliances.
Under the pact, they pledge to support each other’s “core interests” – including China’s claim to the self-governing island of Taiwan, and Russia’s interests in Ukraine and other border regions. Beijing has not condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, instead blaming the conflict on the U.S. and NATO.
In part, the agreement reflected a convergence in the worldviews of Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin, who enjoy strong personal ties built on the 40 one-on-one meetings they’ve had over Mr. Xi’s decade in power, starting with his first foreign trip as China’s top leader in 2013.
“The closeness of the relationship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin is a historical anomaly,” says Dr. Torigian.
Mr. Xi drank in Russian culture in the 1950s, when his father, Xi Zhongxun, managed the program under which thousands of advisers and teachers from the Soviet Union arrived to bolster China’s building of communism, he says.
Today, Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin share the views that authoritarian political orders are needed to maintain stability and stave off chaos, that the democratic West is in decline, and that together they can shape the international system to advance their interests.
Economic ties are growing, as China turns to Russia for energy and food amid global shortages as Russia’s access to world markets is constrained by Western sanctions. Russia in recent months became China’s largest oil supplier, and China’s imports of Russian natural gas and coal are also rising. At the same time, Beijing is importing more wheat and other agricultural goods from Russia, having lifted import restrictions on Russian wheat after the invasion of Ukraine.
Military cooperation is also advancing, as China and Russia step up joint military exercises used for both training and signaling, experts say. “They have pretty robust military ties in terms of military exercises,” says Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“They’ve really used those to great effect, for example, by flying a joint air patrol [near Japan in May] on the day of the Quad summit in Tokyo,” he says, referring to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among Australia, Japan, India, and the U.S.
Historically, Russian sales of arms and engines have been critical for China’s military modernization. Moscow is reportedly helping Beijing develop an anti-missile air defense system, says Dr. Korolev. Meanwhile, China makes drones that Russia needs, he says.
Messrs. Xi and Putin also stressed that China and Russia intend to expand their diplomatic cooperation in multilateral organizations as well as the United Nations Security Council.
“We jointly stand for forming a just, democratic, and multipolar world based on international law and the central role of the United Nations,” Mr. Putin said, according to The Associated Press.
Mr. Xi responded that “China is willing to work with Russia to reflect the responsibility of a major country, play a leading role, and inject stability into a troubled and interconnected world,” according to the official Xinhua news service.
Potential pressure points
The united front presented last week doesn’t mean China and Russia have forgotten past grievances and betrayals.
Recent history includes long periods of tension and estrangement between the countries, particularly the decades from 1961 to 1989 known as the “Sino-Soviet split,” when ideological conflicts and territorial disputes put the relationship into a deep freeze. That divide created an opening for the U.S. to establish formal diplomatic relations with the Communist Party-led government in Beijing for the first time in 1979.
Mistrust between the two countries also lingers from past great power competitions between them, which saw imperial Russia as a party to several 19th-century “unequal treaties” that forced China to cede large portions of territory to European countries. Given Russia’s past dominance of China as the more powerful neighbor, some experts say China’s growing economic heft and Russia’s relative dependence could give rise to new conflicts.
Looking ahead, China seeks to maintain its strategic partnership with Russia while avoiding severe reputational costs, but this cost-benefit calculation could change – for example if the Ukraine war severely depletes Russia and further undermines China’s ties with Europe.
“If Russia becomes a major drag on China … or starts to obstruct China’s broader strategic interests, I think you’ll start to see a deterioration of that relationship,” says Mr. Hart of the China Power Project.
However, many experts believe the strategic alignment between Russia and China is unlikely to change fundamentally without a significant improvement in their respective relations with the U.S. and Europe.
“If you see a major easing of U.S.-China tensions, kind of a reversal of the recent trend, you might see less of a desire in Beijing to strengthen relations with Russia,” says Mr. Hart.