Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on February 4, 2022 (this was the 38th meeting between both of them after 2013). Putin and Xi met hours before the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Putin was in China to attend the Olympics and his presence was important in symbolism given that a number of countries – including the US, the UK, Australia, and India announced a diplomatic boycott of the games.
Both sides forcefully pitched for further enhancing their bilateral relationship and referred to the need for a ‘no limits partnership.’ Putin and Xi are also supposed to have agreed on the need for finding common ground in areas like artificial intelligence, technology, and climate change. A statement issued by the Kremlin after the meeting between Xi and Putin said that Beijing was opposed to the US aim of expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe (both Xi and Putin argued that NATO was promoting a ‘cold war’ ideology). During the meeting, Putin also made it clear that Russia endorsed China’s stand on Taiwan and opposed Taiwanese independence in any form. The Russian President was critical of the US for creating blocs in the Indo Pacific. Both sides expressed concern with regard to the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) security partnership.
The joint statement made two interesting points; first, that the China-Russia relationship is ‘superior to political and military alliances of the cold war era’ and second, that both Moscow and Beijing were firmly committed to multilateralism.
The steady deterioration between the US and both Russia and China have resulted in Moscow-Beijing relations further strengthening in recent years.
A number of US strategic analysts have argued that Washington needs to work with Moscow and find common ground on certain global issues, and to ensure that Moscow is not compelled to move closer to Beijing.
There has been high level engagement between both sides in recent months, and they have found some common ground on the Iran nuclear issue/JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). After his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had said that Iran nuclear deal was an example of how Washington and Moscow could work together. The threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine have ensured that ties between US and Russia remain strained in spite of high level interactions between both sides.
Russia-China ties and the impact of US sanctions
A day before the meeting between Xi and Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Chinese counterpart had met and are supposed to have discussed a number of issues, including Ukraine and Afghanistan. In response to the meeting, officials in the Biden administration had stated that a close economic relationship with China would not be enough for Russia to face the impact of US sanctions. Ned Price, Spokesperson of the US State Department, also warned Chinese companies in case attempts were made to circumvent US sanctions:
We have an array of tools that we can deploy If we see foreign companies, including those in China, doing their best to backfill U.S. export control actions, to evade them, to get around them.
Russia-China economic relations
There has been a growing thrust in both Moscow and Beijing on strengthening economic relations. After the meeting between Xi and Putin a number of trade and energy related deals were signed. Russia’s Rosneft also signed a 10-year deal with China’s state-owned CNPC to continue supplying 200,000 b/d of crude to China via Kazakhstan (shipments will flow from Kazakhstan’s Atasu-Alashankou pipeline to refineries in northwest China).
Will China support Ukraine at the cost of economic ties with the EU?
While it is true that in the current global world order, Russia-China relations are likely to further strengthen, there is also a belief that China may extend support to Russia on the Ukraine issue – only to a certain point — because Beijing shares close economic links with Europe and the US. While trade between China and the EU and US account for a significant percentage of China’s total trade, trade with Russia accounts for only 2% of China’s total trade. At a time when China’s growth rate is slowing down considerably due to a number of reasons – such as some of Xi Jinping’s economic policies seeking to prevent ‘disorderly expansion of capital,’ a serious real estate crisis, and a drop in consumer spending – China would not like its economic links with the EU to be adversely affected. Apart from this, as mentioned earlier, the US has warned China that it will be affected by the economic and security challenges arising out of any further Russian aggression vis-à-vis Ukraine.
In conclusion, while there is no doubt that Russia-China bilateral ties, which are already robust, are likely to expand in a number of areas. And in a changing global world order there is likely to be growing convergence on important geopolitical issues. It is important, however, to bear in mind that interests are not always identical and China’s economic interests – especially its economic links with the EU – are important in this context.