In February, just weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing and said there were ‘no limits’ to their bilateral relationship. .
But the meeting between the two men at a regional security forum this week in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, clearly shows two things. First, there are, in fact, limits to their partnership. And, second, bilateral relations are becoming increasingly unequal as Putin’s reliance on Beijing grows.
China and Russia: from the absence of limits to “questions and concerns”
Beijing is indeed one of Moscow’s closest partners. Both countries have a common interest in challenging US power and dividing the US-led bloc of Western nations.
China and Russia oppose the West’s democracy promotion campaigns and its ability, due to US dominance of the global financial system, to punish nations with economic sanctions. Beijing and Moscow consider these geostrategic tools as challenges, even threats to the survival of their regimes.
Along with New Delhi, Beijing has provided essential economic and diplomatic support to Moscow since the invasion of Ukraine. China and India did not support United Nations resolutions against Russia this spring. They also increased oil imports from Russia, helping Moscow bear the brunt of international sanctions.
Yet Putin’s meeting with Xi at this week’s meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization shows that all is not well between the two powers. On Thursday, Putin said he understood Beijing’s “questions and concerns” about the war in Ukraine.
How the Russian War in Ukraine is Harming China
Neither Putin nor Xi has explicitly stated what those issues or concerns are. But the Moscow war changed the geopolitical landscape to the detriment of Beijing.
To begin with, it consolidated Europe as a geopolitical player and strengthened the transatlantic partnership with America. Western countries are accelerating their efforts to reduce their dependence on China and Russia for energy and rare earths.
Going forward, the growing possibility that Russia will indeed be defeated in the war against Ukraine may allow Western countries to focus more on China. And in the view of some observers, Western weaponry and intelligence support for Ukraine can provide a model that can help Taiwan deter or defend against a Chinese invasion.
Both China and Russia are authoritarian actors seeking to reshape the global balance of power. But they behave differently as geopolitical actors. Moscow acts like a bull in a china shop. And while Beijing’s diplomatic language is increasingly blustery, with its so-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy, it operates with much more patience and, for now, prefers to use non-military tools of influence.
To some extent, these behavioral dissimilarities are a function of differences between Chinese and Russian strategic cultures. But a more tangible driver is the economy: China is the world’s biggest trading nation, a manufacturing superpower and an emerging leader in cutting-edge technologies. The Russian economy has few strengths outside of the energy sector and specialized manufacturing industries.
Russia will rely more on China
Beijing has also benefited from Moscow’s losses since the start of the Ukrainian war. China is now Russia’s largest trading partner, eclipsing Europe. Russia is also keen to conduct this trade in Chinese yuan, which would boost Beijing’s efforts to internationalize its currency. Russian commodity exports also boost yuan-denominated bonds.
Moscow is also keen, if not desperately, to push forward a new pipeline deal that would bring gas from Western Siberia to China via Mongolia. The Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline, as it is called, would greatly help Russia offset its lost gas sales to Europe.
There are also signs that a beleaguered Russia could lose influence in its backyard to China. In meetings this week at the SCO with Central Asian leaders, China stressed a common interest in protecting its sovereignty. This language is not new. But it has taken on renewed importance given Russia’s unilateral invasion of a neighbor. To be clear, China is not a benign actor: the diplomatic and economic pressure it exerts on weaker countries has also been a form of interference.
Like Russia, China sees Central Asia as its backyard. For Beijing, the region is also a gateway to Europe. It used Xinjiang’s rail connectivity through Kazakhstan and Russia to send goods to Europe. And he is now exploring ways to circumvent Russia, with the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Railway.
While Putin may survive his costly war in Ukraine, Russian influence in its periphery has been hit hard. And its “ally” China could end up being a net beneficiary in the long run.