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A bad bromance? Implications of the war in Ukraine for China-Russia relations

The start of the year heralded the emergence of a comprehensive partnership between China and Russia. However, Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has increasingly made the future of this bilateral relationship unclear. Western administrations should now pay close attention to changes in various sectors if they are to profit from such uncertainty.

December 19, 2022 - Hugo Jones Leon Hartwell Lukas Fiala - Articles and Commentary

Russian and Chinese presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in 2019. Press office of the Presidential Administration. wikimedia.org

At the close of the recently concluded G20 meeting, Emmanuel Macron made the ambitious proposal that “China can play… a more important mediating role in the coming months.” China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, and Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, also met at the summit and promised to “release the full potential of China-Russia relations”. But what exactly does that entail? Ten months have passed since Vladimir Putin’s February escalation in Ukraine, and yet debates continue about the extent to which we can account for variation in the China-Russia relationship. But have there been any visible changes? And importantly, what might be the game changers that could upset the “no limits” partnership? 

Despite claims of neutrality, China has consistently aligned its public messaging around the war with Russia’s official narrative. China has vocally criticised western sanctions against Russia and continues to accuse NATO of both provoking and prolonging the conflict in Ukraine. Some pundits predicted that the war would create a rift between Beijing and Moscow, particularly as it became apparent that Putin’s goal of taking Kyiv within days would not be met. Unsurprisingly, this did not come to fruition. In the early stages of the war, in March, Wang Yi described the China-Russia partnership as “rock solid”. Then, in September, Putin and Xi Jinping met in Uzbekistan and reaffirmed their support for each other’s core interests. Chinese officials without exception refuse to condemn Russian actions – including the massacre at Bucha and the crisis at Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

At the same time, China’s support is qualified in that Beijing is aware of the costs that Russia’s war has on global supply chains, food security, nuclear proliferation, and a host of other issues that disrupt a stable international order which China largely benefits from. These challenges have placed Beijing in an uncomfortable position where it fundamentally does not want to see Putin’s regime collapse (especially given that they share a border of 2,615 miles), but equally finds the pursuit of its own interests hampered by Putin’s long war.

An increasingly unbalanced relationship

Politically, both China and Russia have constructed national identities and corresponding nationalisms based on very similar understandings of world history. They both harbour a common sense of past humiliation at the hands of the western powers, NATO and particularly the US. They both view December 26th 1991 – the day of the dissolution of the Soviet Union – as a lesson regarding the importance of maintaining national power, fighting western liberal thought, and strengthening regime authority. They both regard the “colour revolutions” of the 2000s as a prime example of western interference and subversion in sovereign countries. And they both proclaimed the common future of a “just multipolar system of international relations” in their joint statement on February 4th 2022. This declaration seemed to be the peak convergence of China and Russia’s visions of a changing world order.

On the economic front, since the February escalation, China and Russia have deepened ties. In the first nine months of 2022, China-Russia bilateral trade increased by 32 per cent to 136.09 billion US dollars. But some striking imbalances exist within this economic relationship: China is Russia’s largest trading partner, whereas Russia does not even rank amongst China’s top ten. Roughly half of Russian exports to China are crude petroleum, whereas China exports manufactured goods to Russia which increasingly cannot be obtained due to severed trading ties with western countries. As such, Russia is rapidly finding itself in a peripheral position vis-à-vis China, a trend that was only sped up by the February escalation.

Since then, Russia’s relationship with China has significantly changed, not only because the two partners worked out a relationship to bypass international SWIFT payments, but also because Chinese businesses have reorganised themselves into smaller companies. The second measure was Beijing’s attempt to shield Chinese companies from possible secondary western sanctions. That said, in the first seven months since the February escalation, approximately 19,500 new Chinese corporations were established listing “Russia” on their trade licences.

But there are certainly limits to China and Russia’s economic ties. The war has likely reinforced a growing sentiment amongst Beijing’s leadership that its future prosperity should not depend upon relationships with other powers, and that across all boards it should seek to engineer a greater degree of economic self-reliance. China may increasingly look to the Global South for partnerships rather than investing heavily in its great power relations – including with Russia. The slogan “new type of great power relations” was notably dropped from Xi’s 20th Party Congress report. Russia isolated itself from international markets, and China is determined not to fall into the same trap.

A new era of defence cooperation?

In the security domain, some observers were concerned that the war would usher in a new era of alignment between China and Russia, characterised by growing military and defence cooperation. However, when adopting a longer-term perspective, there seems to be more continuity than change in the China-Russia relationship since the start of the war.

Moscow and Beijing certainly have a long and relatively close relationship in the defence-industrial and military domains. In the 1990s and 2000s, China was the largest customer regarding Russia’s defence industry, supporting the sector’s transition after the collapse of the Soviet Union. At its peak in 2005, China accounted for around 60 per cent of all Russian deliveries of major weapons. As China aimed for more self-sufficiency in defence-industrial development and Chinese systems moved up the value chain, procurement shifted from complete systems towards individual components such as Russian jet engines. By the 2010s, China’s share of Russian arms exports had plummeted to about ten per cent after having dropped to below 25 per cent between 2007 to 2009.

Nonetheless, as procurement evolved, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) decided to strengthen cooperation with its Russian counterpart. Building on frequent bilateral exchanges, the PLA has closely studied Russia’s post-2008 “New Look” military reform, elements of which informed the PLA’s modernisation and restructuring under Xi Jinping over the past decade. Since 2003, China and Russia have further jointly participated in at least 78 military exercises, with more than half taking place since 2016. From initial counterterrorism exercises, both countries have begun to hold joint drills outside their immediate neighbourhood, conducting naval drills and exercises in the Mediterranean and even off the coast of South Africa.

Military exercises have obvious benefits for Russia and China. Apart from being used as a confidence building measure to de-securitise their extensive joint border, military drills also signal resolve to the US and its allies. This has continued over the past six months, as seen in a joint Chinese and Russian aviation drill near Japan in May and China’s participation in Russia’s Vostok 2022 exercise in September.

For the PLA, these exercises have also presented a useful opportunity to enhance readiness and simulate operational experience. As a military that has not fought a war since a border skirmish with Vietnam in 1979, the PLA is thus certainly watching the performance of Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine closely.

As is the case for the broader diplomatic and economic relationship, military cooperation increasingly mirrors China’s status as the more senior partner in the bilateral relationship. This can be seen in the growing use of Chinese equipment in bilateral military exercises and the structural shift in defence-industrial ties. The Russo-Ukrainian War has not yet visibly changed these dynamics but may further signal Russia’s miliary and defence-industrial decline relative to China, as seen in the obvious shortcomings of Russian logistics and maintenance. Furthermore, Russian military equipment’s lack of performance on the Ukrainian battlefield may accelerate China’s move away from obtaining Russian military goods, but that is something to watch out for in the medium term as military procurement notoriously takes a long time. 

The transatlantic alliance should closely monitor security cooperation between Moscow and Beijing to understand whether Russia’s distress heralds a closer alignment between the two powers. Washington and Brussels must clearly signal red lines to Beijing, including, for instance, the potential for China to supply advanced military equipment such as unmanned aerial vehicles to Russia. Deterrence can only be effective with clear communication.

Additional pieces of the Sino-Russian jigsaw

Two important actors that could impact substantially on the Sino-Russian relationship include Ukraine and India. With regards to Kyiv, Beijing’s relationship with the beleaguered state is frequently overlooked by analysts who attempt to understand Sino-Russian relations. Before the February escalation, China and Ukraine shared a fairly good relationship and Beijing was an important economic partner of Ukraine. Geoeconomically speaking, Ukraine is strategically situated on the map of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is why Ukraine presented itself as China’s “bridge to Europe”.

The relationship between Beijing and Kyiv may become frosty as influential Ukrainians like Oleksandr Merezhko, chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, increasingly perceive China as siding with the enemy rather than being “neutral”. Should this perception deepen, this may throw a spanner in the works regarding Macron’s suggestion at the recent G20 Summit that China should play mediator, as such a role may be unacceptable to Kyiv. Still, China remains Ukraine’s largest trading partner, which makes it hard for Kyiv to simply go cold turkey, especially in light of the dire economic situation that looms over the country. Slowly but surely, Taiwan is however starting to step in to support Ukraine, and it could play a vital role in helping the country with reconstruction.

As for Russia-India relations, the triangular relationship between New Delhi, Beijing and Moscow could potentially shift, with major implications for the global system. Thus far, New Delhi has remained neutral on the Russo-Ukrainian War. This is despite Russia’s imperialist actions and atrocities in Ukraine and India’s experiences with colonialism. An important factor holding back a punitive response from India is the fact that Russia continues to be its most important military supplier. Between 2017 to 2021, India imported 46 per cent of its total arms from Russia. The heavy dependence on Russian arms means, for some time to come, that Moscow will continue to carry weight in New Delhi.

Having steady arms supplies is important for India, especially given its ongoing border dispute with its main rival China, with whom it shares a 2,167 mile border. That said, Indian policy makers were becoming increasingly concerned about the cosy relationship developing between Russia and China even before the February escalation. If the perception grows that Moscow has become too beholden to Beijing, it will certainly jeopardise Russia-India relations, with major impacts on Russia’s economy. Between 2018 and 2021 alone, India spent a whopping 5.51 billion US dollars on Russian arms, making it the world’s biggest buyer of Russian weapons. The Kremlin will have to tread carefully as Russia suffers from a lack of credibility in India. Six decades ago, the Soviet Union led by Russia, chose Beijing’s side during the Sino-Indian War. In the face of closer Russia-China relations, or in a border dispute between India and China where Russia sides with its rival, India may change its stance and play a more active role in multilateral organisations – such as the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the US) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) – that may be more favourable to Ukraine’s interests rather than those of Russia.

Other game changers

Course correction in diplomacy often takes a long time. Still, there are several game changers that may alter Beijing’s relationship with Moscow. One exigency that could change China’s approach towards Russia is the potential use of nuclear weapons. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz returned from his recent visit to Beijing claiming that he and Xi Jinping had “reached an understanding… that there can be no escalation through the use of tactical nuclear weapons”. The Chinese readout of the meeting was less forthcoming, but does mention that both parties “exchanged views on the Ukraine crisis” and opposed the threat or use of nuclear weapons. When Biden met Xi on November 14th, both parties agreed that a nuclear war should “never be fought”.

Secondly, given that the Russo-Ukrainian War is continuing much longer than expected, combined with western responses to it, China may have to recalculate the expected returns of its partnership with Russia. China’s economic cooperation with the US and EU remains far more important than its relationship with Russia. Last year, 17.2 per cent – 521 billion US dollars – of China’s total exports went to the US, more than any other destination in the world. China was also the third largest exporter of goods to the EU (10.2 per cent) and the largest importer of EU goods (22.4 per cent). 

Both China and Russia overestimated the divisions between the US and Europe over the Russo-Ukrainian War. In reality, their differences are much smaller than expected, and transatlantic unity ensured a rapid and strong response by virtue of sanctions against Russia and NATO support for Ukraine. Over the last few months, Beijing’s language of being “very aloof and elusive” became much more moderate. 

Finally, in the event of a putsch in Moscow, or if Russia is to suffer the most compelling military defeat in Europe since the Second World War, the extent to which China and Russia’s futures can continue to closely align may fall into question. A defeated Putin would become less valuable as a confidant in the “China story”.

Speaking China’s language

These weak points in the Sino-Russian partnership have to some extent moderated the shared vision set out on February 4th. China and Russia will continue to blame NATO for escalating tensions in the region and starting the war, and this common ground is unlikely to disappear. But when 2022 is written into China’s history books, Russia’s “special military operation” will likely be a side-story – not the main event. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) begins the challenge of finally reopening the country after COVID-19; tinkering with the stalled engine of its economic growth model; and charting the path towards its two centenary goals; it has its own battles to fight.

Appeals from American and European security actors for China to pick a side can and will not work. The US, Germany, France and the UK should instead communicate with China by referencing Beijing’s own diplomatic concepts. Both the global development and security initiatives recently proposed by Xi Jinping are couched in the ambitious rhetoric of sustainability and global stability, framing devices that the US and EU can deploy to remind China of its responsibilities as a major stakeholder in the global order. Engaging Beijing in the context of its close relationship with Moscow in a meaningful way will not be an easy task. Yet, reiterating joint commitments such as avoiding nuclear war contributes to at least finding a common language – if not position – on the war’s worst potential outcome, one that China certainly wants to avoid.

Lukas Fiala is a PhD International Relations candidate at the London School of Economics and the Project Coordinator of China Foresight at LSE IDEAS. He holds master’s degrees in International Relations from LSE and in China Studies from Peking University.

Dr. Leon Hartwell is a Senior Associate at LSE IDEAS and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C. @LeonHartwell on Twitter. 

Hugo Jones is a Programme and Research Associate at LSE IDEAS, the foreign policy think tank at the London School of Economics. He holds an MSc in International Relations from LSE.

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