This article has been updated March 20, 12:00 p.m. CST
Long before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping were growing closer. China’s goal? To revamp the current world order, significantly weaken the West and its leaders, and to become the world-dominating figurehead over and above the United States.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has become an essential element of this plan to destabilize the global situation.
When the West began imposing stringent sanctions on Russia, China instead chose to economically support Putin and left its markets open to accept raw materials from Russia. But don’t think this means China is Putin’s lapdog. Quite the contrary: Beijing has never helped Moscow to its own detriment, not wishing to fall under the punitive measures of the U.S. and Europe.
The fundamental dynamic has not changed ahead of Xi Jinping's arrival on Monday for his first visit to Moscow since the war began. Beyond the photo ops and pleasant words that Xi and Putin are sure to share, the Russian-Chinese alliance continues to be looked at skeptically amongst the elite in both Beijing and Moscow.
China was not expecting Russia’s plans to occupy Ukraine in a matter of days to fail and as a result, China’s aim to destabilize the West alongside its Russian partner failed.
Add to this the various alliances in the West emerging against Beijing and fears for China’s economy on home turf is beginning to grow.
So, why is Beijing still in league with Moscow? And what are the consequences of Chinese cooperation with Russia after one year of Russia’s war?
Putin the puppet
One of the turning points in the Cold War between the U.S. and the USSR was Beijing’s pivot against Moscow towards Washington (recall ping-pong diplomacy and U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972).
Now, though, China’s desire to become the main player on the world stage forces it to not just desire America’s weakening and its own control of Asia, but completely rehash the political and economic playing field.
Russia’s aggression in recent months is playing into Xi Jinping’s hands.
To do this, Beijing had to concede an alliance with Moscow. The reason is rather pragmatic: to acquire guarantees that Russia would not participate in the strategic encirclement of China alongside the Americans, that its northern borders would be safe. So, eight years ago, Xi Jinping began to develop a strong “friendship” with Vladimir Putin and since then, Russia has become China’s junior, dependent partner.
Russia’s aggression in recent months is playing into Xi Jinping’s hands. With US eyes and resources firmly fixed on Ukraine, China hopes to grow and develop out of sight. Seeking to create an alternative economic system to the Western one, China attempts to weaken the dollar by only transferring payments with certain countries in Chinese Yuan.
A new economic vision
At the same time, the Putin regime fully supports the Chinese vision of a new economic center in Beijing, support which has been bolstered since Feb. 24. Now, sanctioned Russian banks that are no longer able to use the Euro or Dollar for international payments can use the Yuan. The gaps left by Western corporations who exited the Russian market are being filled by niche Chinese companies.
Furthermore, Moscow has become a vast resource annex for China, selling to Beijing at significant discounts. China has been able to obtain valuable military technologies and weapons from Russia including missile attack warning systems, engines for helicopters and airplanes, air defense systems as well as countless other components that aid the Chinese Air Force and Navy.
In 2021, 21% of Russian military exports went to China (in turn, 81% of Beijing’s military imports are Russian).
Moscow has also provided Beijing with access to space technology. For example, the manned Chinese spacecraft “Shenzhou” is in fact a copy of the Soviet-Russian “Soiuz”. Moreover, in June 2021, Russia and China agreed on the construction of a bilateral research station on the moon, as well as on joint exploration of deep space, something which caused Washington grave concern, fearing the militarization of space.
Beijing vs. the West
Xi Jinping diplomatically and economically supports Moscow because he understands that the strategic defeat of Russia in Ukraine and Putin’s displacement would be a threat to his ambitions, both in terms of acquiring Taiwan and more generally as a primary political leader in Asia.
Beijing spreads Russian propaganda in its own media, emphasizing the West as antagonist, and takes a neutral or pro-Russian stance in UN votes. In turn, Russia supports China informationally, especially on issues regarding Taiwan.
At the same time, Beijing has tried to avoid Western sanctions by not sending (at least openly) weapons or sensitive products to Russia. It knows that its largest economic partner (40% of all Chinese trade) is the West itself. Secondary sanctions against China would severely damage any future economic designs, which helps to explain why China has continued to publicly refute reports that it is sending weapons to Moscow.
Today, Beijing is under huge pressure from Washington to back down in the Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. is constantly increasing Taiwan’s defense capabilities (in 2022 alone, the US sold more than $2 billion worth of military equipment to Taiwan, and plans to provide the island with an additional $12 billion in the coming years).
The US is also continually forming anti-Chinese alliances in the region, such as Japan. In turn, China’s military and political partner in the region has become Russia. British political commentator and author Owen Matthews writes that during his pre-invasion visit to China on Feb. 4, Putin won Xi’s consent to an NATO Article 5 level deal, agreeing that their countries would come to each other’s aid militarily, with Xi insisting on the prescient proviso “in the case of foreign invasion”.
If Beijing annexes Taiwan, Moscow will be fully on China’s side. For Xi Jinping, this is an incredibly important fact.
Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping before the start of their bilateral meeting just weeks before Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin Pool / Planet Pix via ZUMA Press Wire
Cooperation with Russia is situationally advantageous for China, but it sees Russia as nothing more than a weakened and temporary junior partner.
Not only is Beijing unsure if Moscow is really an effective partner in global and regional confrontation with America, Russia’s image as a serious military-political player has entirely disintegrated after almost a year of failed full-scale war against Ukraine. If China can instead find ways of cooling confrontation with the US in the near future, what need does China have for Russia?
China has no desire to modernize Russia out of its own pocket.
Moreover, economic relations between Russia and China remain asymmetric. China, the second largest economy in the world, has no desire to take big financial risks with smaller, rocky economies and limits its investments in the Russian market at less than $10 billion per year, a figure that has only decreased since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with fear of high-risk, low returns.
In comparison, China’s yearly investment in the US reaches just shy of $40 billion.
China, it would seem, has no desire to modernize Russia out of its own pocket. On the contrary: Beijing wants to buy cheap resources and technologies from Russia.
If anything, once Washington ceases to be the biggest threat and irritant for Russia and China, cooperation between them will go astray. The two “partners” are natural competitors and are wary of each other’s critical strengthening. In the case of Chinese-Russian relations, it appears to be a case of convenience, rather than any deep-set friendship.
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