The Fragile Fraternity of China and Russia

When Putin landed in Beijing, his hand was practically already outstretched. But Xi, like Stalin 75 years ago, has reservations. Yes, Russia has its uses.

9 mins read
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a solemn welcome ceremony for Chinese President Xi Jinping at the St. George's Hall at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 21, 2023. (Xinhua/Xie Huanchi)

In a recent article, Nina Khrushcheva wrote about President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Beijing. Vladimir Putin’s recent state visit to Beijing – his first trip abroad since being inaugurated for a fifth term – was practically a mirror image of Mao Zedong’s visit to Moscow 75 years ago when Stalin looked down on his guest. There is little reason to think that the bilateral relationship will prove more resilient this time. Great-granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, Nina was not optimistic about the results of the visit. It is not known if President Putin had informed Xi Jinping of his impending invasion of Ukraine. She recalled that in December 1949, Mao Zedong flew to Moscow to meet Joseph Stalin.

The leader of the new People’s Republic of China, which had been created just a few months earlier, was eager to join his fellow leader of the world proletariat to celebrate both the victory of communism in China and the Soviet premier’s 71st birthday. But for Stalin, Mao was no equal. How times have changed. In Stalin’s view, Mao was useful because he would help spread communism across Asia. So, in February 1950, the two leaders signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. Mao wanted more – security guarantees against the United States and direct military backing – but Stalin was “noncommittal.” In his view, Mao was not only beneath him – a needy neighbor with delusions of grandeur – but also a liability. Closer ties with the PRC, he feared, could jeopardize the Soviet Union’s gains in Asia and lead to US intervention. Today, it is Chinese President Xi Jinping who is looking down on his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. In fact, Putin’s state visit to Beijing earlier this month – his first trip abroad since being inaugurated for a fifth term – was practically a mirror image of the Stalin-Mao encounter 75 years ago. Xi welcomed Putin in Tiananmen Square for a ceremony with all the pomp one would expect.


The visit, the writer reported, did not skimp on symbolism – or propaganda. Beyond marking 75 years of diplomatic relations, the event kicked off the “China-Russia Years of Culture,” during which 230 “cultural and artistic” events will be held in dozens of cities in both countries. Touting such people-to-people ties, Putin declared that the Russians and the Chinese are “brothers forever” – a reference to a song that was composed for Mao’s visit to Moscow – and claimed that this has become something of a “catchphrase” in Russia. Even for the Kremlin’s propagandists, the claim was rich. In fact, the song has long been ridiculed in Russia, given repeated failures in China-Russia relations, starting with the Sino-Soviet split. Some may argue that Nikita Khrushchev, the writer’s great-grandfather, was responsible for destroying the bilateral relationship by denouncing Stalin in 1956. But Stalin was never a loyal ally to China. As Khrushchev recalled, in 1951, when the Korean War had reached a stalemate, the Soviet dictator derided Mao as a talentless guerilla fighter. In any case, Putin was not in Beijing just for the show. Since he launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago – and the West responded with unprecedented sanctions – Russia has become highly dependent on China.


So, when Putin landed in Beijing, his hand was practically already outstretched. But Xi, like Stalin 75 years ago, has reservations. Yes, Russia has its uses. As Xi noted at the recent summit, he views the bilateral relationship as a “factor in maintaining global strategic stability and democratization of international relations.” That helps to explain why, as Putin pointed out, the two countries have created a “weighty portfolio” of 80 major investment projects. There are, however, clear limits on what China is willing to sacrifice for Russia. Start with the economy. In recent months, Xi has met with several Western leaders, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. All of them relayed the same message: if China keeps supplying “dual-use” materials and technologies that can bolster Russia’s war effort, its firms will face secondary sanctions. Xi made sure to come across as unmoved. But it is probably no coincidence that Chinese exports to Russia have declined, falling by 14% in March alone. Moreover, since the beginning of this year, China has steadily reduced direct deliveries of machinery, equipment (including electrical equipment), mechanical parts, and accessories to Russia. Given that China is Russia’s largest source of imports – accounting for about 45% of the total last year – this is a major cause for concern in the Kremlin. In addition, China has been dragging its feet when it comes to the Power of Siberia-2 gas pipeline, which will transport Russian gas to China. Well aware that he has the upper hand, Xi expects Russia to foot the entire bill for the pipeline’s multi-billion-dollar construction while continuing to offer China steep discounts on energy. This year, China paid just $300 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas pumped through the Power of Siberia-1 pipeline, while Europe and Turkey paid more than $500 per 1,000 cubic meters. Progress on the Power of Siberia-2 pipeline is so important to Putin that he brought Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, who is responsible for energy relations, with him to Beijing. But all Novak could offer after the meeting was a vague assurance that a contract will be signed “in the near future.”


Putin’s Mao-like bid for a full-fledged military alliance, including commitments to mutual defense, also seems to have failed. Though China has held joint military exercises with Russia, it has sought to position itself as a proponent of “win-win cooperation,” in contrast to the “Cold War mentality” that assumes the world’s division into competing blocs. Why would Xi jeopardize his position as a kind of conduit between Russia and the West? Xi is not interested in quarreling, at least not overtly, and Putin’s agenda includes nothing but quarrels. With the two leaders’ interests diverging so sharply, one wonders whether the Chinese-Russian relationship is doomed.


One, however, must remember the limitless friendship between Russia and China. The days of the Rape of Nanking and the US help to China in the early years of World War II are lost in the pages of history. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration of war against China after the Chinese attack on Pearl Harbor is of recent memory. As is the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which forced Japan to surrender to the allied forces. Today, China wants its place at the table of the so-called “rule-based” world that the Western powers have been enjoying for about fifty years. The enmeshed world has also changed with China producing ultra-modern trains and cars, replacing the West. China’s initiative to build infrastructure in developing countries is a need that these countries have but do not have the funds for. Russia-China friendship also encompasses their promise to the developing countries to reach the goods to the needy faster than the democracy-loving Western powers can deliver. The world has to wait and see which camp will be more appealing to them.


In an article she wrote, the summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics came amid yet another crisis in Russia’s relations with the West. Putin and Xi had not met since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the meeting highlighted a common desire to deepen cooperation. The major takeaways were in geopolitics and energy. China demonstrated a strong understanding of Russia’s security concerns over NATO, but there were no fundamental developments. China voiced its endorsement of Moscow’s policy vis-a-vis NATO and the West – primarily due to shared concerns about US policy. The Russia–China joint statement declared that the relationship surpasses an alliance and that there are no prohibited areas of cooperation.

The two states demonstrated diplomatic and political support for each other to amplify their international standing against the background of turbulent global and regional dynamics. On balance, the summit was indicative of growing alignment between Moscow and Beijing, but it fell short of bringing about a drastic change in the relationship. Rhetoric of opposing military alliances, exclusive blocs and institutions, and rules and norms articulated by a chosen few – as well as the US missile defense system – is hardly new for Russia–China joint statements. Neither is the not-so-veiled criticism of the United States for acting as a hegemon and its Indo-Pacific strategy. Following this logic, it is unsurprising that Moscow and Beijing articulated their concern about AUKUS, which they view as aggravating regional security, triggering an arms race, and creating serious risks to the non-proliferation regime. The joint statement also included a clear mention of Russian support for the ‘one-China’ policy, stating that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. But this position has precedent dating back to joint declarations of the 1990s and the 2001 Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation.

What was really new was China’s support for Russia’s stance against NATO enlargement. The statement says that China respects and supports Russia’s proposals for long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe, a clear reference to the document that Russia handed to the United States and Europe in December 2021. Although such a step by China’s leadership clearly indicates a greater level of diplomatic support for Moscow, it is unlikely to evolve into anything deeper. As Moscow and Beijing feel pressure from the West simultaneously, they tend to be more supportive of each other. Yet this falls short of transforming the relationship into something more formal. Rather than entering a full-fledged military alliance, it seems more likely that Moscow and Beijing may upgrade their security cooperation and improve interoperability without any formal obligations.

Russia has no desire to become engaged in China’s numerous conflicts in Asia and prefers to maintain a neutral stance. The same is true for China regarding Russia’s conflicts with NATO – Beijing values its economic cooperation with Europe and the United States and has no desire to become entrapped in the conflict over Ukraine. The military crisis in Ukraine puts China in a difficult position as it tries to avoid endorsing or condemning Moscow’s actions by highlighting peaceful resolution, refrains from criticizing Russia or calling its actions an invasion, opposes Western sanctions, and puts the blame on the United States for failing to implement the Minsk agreements. These statements represent China’s understanding of Russia’s actions but are not signs of direct support or anything other than diplomatic goodwill.

It remains to be seen how much economic support China will be willing to provide Russia and how it will deal with Russian entities under American and European sanctions considering the much larger importance of its economic cooperation with the West and the challenge of secondary sanctions that it would prefer to avoid. On the other hand, there is a view that with an increasing number of Chinese companies targeted by American sanctions, China might be more comfortable cooperating with Russia, including importing more natural resources and exporting its manufactured goods to fill the market vacated by European and American companies. The economic agenda of the visit, with two energy deals, should not be overlooked. One deal between Rosneft and China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) entails Russia exporting 100 million tons of oil over the next 10 years via Kazakhstan. The oil will be processed in the northwest of China. The second contract, between Gazprom and CNPC, focuses on Russia’s export of 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas from the Russian Far East.

Together with the Power of Siberia gas pipeline, it will amount to 48 billion cubic meters of natural gas exports per year. These deals are the result of long-standing negotiations that reflect an expanding energy partnership and Russia’s policy to diversify its exports to make Asia one of its major customers. China, with its rising energy demand and proximity, makes a natural energy partner. In turn, Beijing is more than happy to diversify its own sources of energy imports. Exporting oil and natural gas to China is proving to be even more important to Russia because its exports to Europe are bound to contract following the military conflict in Ukraine. As Xi mentioned during the talks, trade turnover between Russia and China in 2021 amounted to US$140 billion – a new record compared to the pre-pandemic US$110 billion. It is also a 35 percent rise from 2020. But despite the positive rhetoric, economic relations still have a long way to go. While the two energy deals will help both states achieve the goal of US$200 billion in trade by 2024, they are hardly helpful in changing the unbalanced character of economic relations.

The increase in trade turnover in 2021 follows the rise of energy prices. Despite Russia’s attempts to ‘de-dollarize’ bilateral trade, only about 30 percent is conducted in national currencies, with the Euro taking the bulk of it (48 percent in 2021). Currently, the financial transactions between Chinese and non-sanctioned Russian banks are proceeding in a regular manner. However, American and European financial sanctions and the difficulty of ruble-dollar and ruble-euro conversions are stimulating the banks of both Russia and China to employ national currencies in a greater way than before. Restructuring economic cooperation and initiating advanced value chains and high-tech ventures will not be an easy task given the latest Western sanctions against Russia.

Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a retired Bangladeshi diplomat. During his tenure, he worked in several countries as the ambassador of Bangladesh including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Germany

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