This article previously appeared in the South China Morning Post, on September 29, 2022.
This month’s meeting between the Chinese and Russian presidents on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan has led to renewed scrutiny of the scope and depth of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership.
Xi Jinping referred to Vladimir Putin as his “dear and old friend” but Putin admitted Xi had raised “questions and concerns” about Ukraine, though the Russian president also praised China’s “balanced position” on the conflict.
Many observers jumped to the conclusion that Xi has finally broken with Putin over Ukraine. This reflects a misunderstanding of what the “no limits” partnership between Russia and China really means.
Despite their many conflicts of interest in Ukraine and elsewhere, Russia and China continue to be bound together. Typically we focus on geopolitical factors such as perceived threats from the US and its allies, the need for security along their lengthy border and their growing energy partnership.
But, under Xi and Putin, the normative dimension has also been significant – both view regime security as their main priority and are determined to shape the international order in such a way that authoritarian states can be rule-makers.
Just 20 days before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Putin and Xi signed a statement proclaiming there were “no limits to Sino-Russian cooperation … no forbidden zones”. This does not mean the partnership has no parameters.
The “no limits” formulation suited the desire of both countries to avoid a formal alliance in the short term, leaving open the possibility of one in the long term, thereby increasing uncertainty for their opponents.
Regarding Russia’s war on Ukraine, Chinese support clearly has had limits. China supports Russia most strongly rhetorically. Chinese officials and state media blame the United States and Nato for “fuelling the fire” of war by arming Ukraine. Despite the claim by China’s ambassador to the US Qin Gang that Beijing’s bottom line for supporting Russia was the UN Charter, Chinese officials have not called Russia out for obvious violations of its terms.
On September 21, after Putin announced his decision to increase Russian forces in Ukraine through a partial mobilization, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin urged a ceasefire and dialogue but also reiterated Beijing’s oft-stated position that the legitimate security interests of all parties need to be accommodated.
Xi sounded upbeat about deepening economic cooperation when he met Putin on September 15 in Samarkand and spoke of moving forward in areas such as trade, agriculture and connectivity. Indeed, Sino-Russian trade in the first seven months of the year increased by 29 percent year on year, leading Chinese and Russian officials to predict that this year’s volume of bilateral trade would surpass US $146.87 billion – the all-time high reached last year.
Thus far, the Biden administration has accused five Chinese firms of violating sanctions and aiding Russia’s military-industrial complex. Despite Russia’s need for military equipment, Sino-Russian military cooperation has been confined to regular military exercises and patrols directed against US alliances in the Indo-Pacific.
Just after the SCO summit, the head of the Russian Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, met Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, in Beijing and they both expressed interest in continuing military cooperation. Yang noted that, under Putin and Xi, Sino-Russian relations “have always maintained a momentum of vigorous development”.
Despite the imposition of unprecedented sanctions on Russia, the Sino-Russian partnership has shown resilience.
There is little evidence of Xi’s distancing from Putin, so what questions and concerns might Xi have raised with Putin in Samarkand?
Xi may have been concerned that Putin could escalate in a way that would force China to respond – by using tactical nuclear weapons, for example.
But what Xi would probably have been most concerned about is Russia’s domestic stability in light of setbacks on the battlefield. Regime security is a top concern for Xi, as he noted in his speech at the SCO summit – his priority task for the organization was to guard against “color revolutions”.
As Xi awaits the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party next month, he is unlikely to distance himself from Putin as he has invested so much personal capital in the relationship and in China’s Russia policy more generally. The Samarkand summit was their 39th meeting and any questions or concerns Xi may have voiced would probably have been to make sure there would be a 40th.
Hopes in the US for greater daylight emerging between Russia and China will continue to go unfulfilled as long as the leaders of the two countries persist in prioritizing regime security and agree to disagree over the issues that divide them, not just in Ukraine but in the Arctic, Central Asia and Southeast Asia.
A more promising avenue for the US would be to concentrate on Russia’s increasingly nervous neighbors in Central Asia and develop a meaningful strategy to engage them.