Russia and China: friends with benefits or a dangerous marriage?
With recent events in Ukraine, it is now undeniable that the Russian Federation’s foreign policy is fundamentally a platform of expansionism – an attempt to reclaim Russia’s old spheres of imperial and Soviet influence. A combination of factors have enabled this. Primarily however, it is because of Moscow’s newfound flexible strategic partnership with Beijing that Vladimir Putin has been able to hedge against the West and invade a sovereign country. The Russian President has been biding his time and the relationship with his new “best friend”, Chinese President Xi Jinping, has helped to ensure that he will more easily weather the storm of international outrage over his decision to invade Ukraine.
What reaction has this relationship produced in the West? Many have clung to the idea that “relations between Moscow and Beijing would always remain an axis of convenience”. That is, while they have an intense dislike and distrust of the United States, evidenced through verbal agreements and pacts, the two states are not engaged in a formal security alliance. Instead, many commentators have recognised that they have a ‘friendship with benefits’ - an arrangement wherein there is no loyalty or substance beyond what is beneficial for the respective countries at the time, and where neither party is diplomatically obliged to support each other on any particular issue.
Another common suggestion from Western commentators has been that Russia “is very much the junior partner in this relationship – an asymmetry that will only grow over time”, causing it to “hedge against the risk of dependence” on China. While these arguments have some merit, given recent history and the statements that the “bonds between the two countries [and leaders] had no limits” , it is dangerous to underestimate the relationship. Indeed, Putin has made it abundantly clear that he considers China to be Russia’s natural ally, stating that “we have developed a strategic partnership with China…A high level of trust and cooperation, at all levels [exists]…we do not believe that China is a threat to us…it has not declared us an enemy like the United States has.”
The situation in Ukraine
In relation to Ukraine, Xi and Putin put forward a joint statement during the Beijing Winter Olympics which called on the West “to abandon the ideological approaches of the cold war” – i.e. NATO’s security architecture. It also highlighted Moscow’s and Beijing’s opposition to the further expansion of NATO “as well as their desire for other states to respect the sovereignty, security, and interests of other countries.” Whatever the irony of these sentiments (given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine), it seems clear that China is prepared to support Russia in these difficult times. Additionally, in the weeks leading up to the current crisis in Ukraine, China’s “wolf warrior diplomats and state media personalities” utilised online forums and media avenues to emphasise instability and the schisms within Europe, NATO, and the trans-Atlantic Alliance. They also dismissed Western media coverage of the Ukraine crisis and disinformation. More recently, Chinese diplomats and foreign affairs spokespeople effectively blamed the US and NATO for the crisis in Ukraine while simultaneously overlooking Putin’s iniquities entirely, asking “those parties who were busy condemning others, what have they done? Have they persuaded others?” Further, China has refused to recognise that Russia’s actions in Ukraine amount to an invasion and instead have backed “a Russian conspiracy theory that the US has been funding chemical and biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine.”
At the same time, China has called for both Russia and Ukraine to return to the negotiating table and avoid further military conflict. It has also not yet fulfilled Russia’s pleas for military equipment and assistance in the war against Ukraine - and instead has been in negotiations with the United States, discussing the potential ramifications for its direct military support to Russia. Perhaps most significantly, it has refused to “co-sponsor a Russian proposed resolution on Ukraine in the UN Security Council.”
It seems that Beijing is walking a tightrope. On the one hand, it is trying to save face internationally, conceivably due to its own relationship with Ukraine, and also because it does not want to risk sanctions being imposed on it by the West. Not to mention the fact that, if it were to align itself with Russia’s military directly at this time, China would escalate its own conflict with the United States. Nevertheless, it wishes to maintain its partnership with Moscow - and has signalled that it is prepared to overlook Putin’s actions. In a sense, it wants to have its cake and eat it.
Perhaps the most significant consequence of these events is the fact that the bond between Russia and China has become so strong that Xi has not yet formally condemned Putin and is willing to risk losing face in the eyes of the international community for his “best friend.” The question must therefore be asked, is the relationship between Russia and China really a ‘friends with benefits’ situation as many commentators in the West have articulated? Or is it more complex? One would expect that a shallow or non-committed diplomatic relationship would immediately break down under these circumstances. Instead, China “approved imports of wheat from all regions of Russia” just before sanctions were imposed by Western countries. Moreover, the fact that Putin would even consider asking Xi for military aid, is arguably indicative of a bond that goes beyond mere pragmatism. Instead, these recent diplomatic actions by both Russia and China reflect a relationship that has gone from strength to strength in recent years.
Pivoting towards Beijing
Since its invasion and occupation of Crimea in 2014, Russia seems “to have turned to China…[as] its bonds with many western capitals declined.” However, even before this, Russia had its eye on China’s markets. After the GFC in 2008, it quickly moved away from the EU and the United States, looking for economic opportunities in Asia. While Europe is still Russia’s largest trading partner, the EU’s trade with Russia declined from 41% in 2014 to 37.3% of Russia’s total trade in goods by 2020. Concurrently, Russia’s trade with China has increased exponentially. Even before 2014, China replaced Germany as Russia’s main trading partner, and in 2018 China accounted for 15.5% of Russia’s total trade.
While it is certainly true that Russia is more economically dependent upon China than the latter is upon the former, with China being responsible for 15.5% of Russia’s total trade compared with Russia’s share of just 0.8% in Chinese markets during 2018, Putin may prefer this to a more heavily European-saturated trade portfolio. After all, dependence on China is a small price to pay for the Russian President’s dream of restoring his country’s imperial and Soviet legacies.
In addition to the current volume of trade between the two countries, the institutional architecture between Moscow and Beijing has continued to support and facilitate a high level of economic integration, demonstrating the strengthened bonds in their relationship. In 2015, Putin and Xi signed an agreement “that established cooperation between their countries’ transnational political economic projects” - China’s Belt and Road (BRI) Initiative and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Agreements between the two bodies allow both parties to come together and “work on joint projects in infrastructure and trade facilitation.” Infrastructure projects such as the Power of Siberia 1 and 2, long pipelines that carry gas from Russia to China, are just some of the results of this.
Moreover, this level of coordination was thought to not only offer a “mere transit for Chinese goods via the territory of the EAEU to Europe” but also to provide greater “access for EAEU goods to the Chinese markets.” In this way both China and Russia’s trade flows are becoming more closely interlinked. While EU and NATO countries still retain their significance where sanctions are concerned, given that much trade passes between these countries and Russia, Russia’s diversification eastwards has significantly altered the West’s capability to leverage any geopolitical situation through sanctions.
Greater military cooperation
In addition to economic ties are serious Sino-Russo military associations. In 2014, after the invasion of Crimea, Russian arms sales in the West dipped. To pick up this slack, Moscow “reversed its policies on trading military technologies” with Beijing and began exporting military equipment and technologies to China. This shared military technology and trade has assisted both states to build military interoperability to some degree. However, it is important to note that technical interoperability seems to be low on the list of priorities for both states. Instead, Moscow and Beijing seem to have prioritised senior level military ties and relationships which have created mutual trust and respect. Nevertheless, these connections have been strengthened by combined military drills. Just last year, large naval drills were held off the Russian Far East. This military cooperation (especially at such a high level) signals that there is more substance to the relationship than a mere ‘friends with benefits’ diplomatic partnership would normally entail.
It is also worth noting that Russia has a lot to offer to China in terms of military capabilities, which adds to the likelihood of a more developed and serious bond in light of Russia’s recent expansionism. While Russia’s armed forces today are smaller than those of the Soviet era, its “conventional military capabilities are now at their highest since…1992” and they have gone through a number of recent reforms. This would provide a powerful asset to the Chinese military in the event of any open confrontation with the United States. Moreover, despite international pressure, Putin has continued to deploy his conventional capabilities against Ukraine demonstrating their devastating effects. While recent analysis seems to suggest that due to logistical and intelligence failures, Russia’s military has woefully failed to “mount a lightning strike on Kyiv and quickly replace” the Ukrainian Government, it is also true that this military incursion into Ukraine will provide the Russian army with ‘hands-on experience’ that many countries do not have.
Finally, Russia’s nuclear payload of weaponry continues to be its “ultimate [military] guarantor” and complements China’s own. Continued military cooperation between the two global powers is therefore beneficial for both Putin and Xi. No doubt for Putin, China’s powerful military and the resources at its disposal, as well as its nuclear deterrents, are very reassuring while he executes his expansionist foreign policy.
While the West has previously trivialised Moscow’s and Beijing’s diplomatic relationship, emphasising its flaws and describing it as a ‘friendship with benefits,’ this strategic partnership has clearly been a major influence on Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. The fact that President Xi, the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world and Putin’s so-called ‘best friend, has not yet condemned the Russian President’s military actions despite growing international outrage, and instead has signalled support or overlooked those distasteful aspects of the invasion while strengthening existing economic and military ties with Russia, indicates that this relationship is anything but a ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement. It is instead a dangerous marriage that has provided an opportunity for Putin to realise his expansionist foreign policy. For those in the West who are facing down this new axis, every attempt to dis-align these two countries should be made. The question is, is such a move too late?
Ryan Davis is currently completing his Bachelor of Arts & Advanced Studies at the University of Sydney. His interests include Australian foreign and security policy in the Indo-Pacific, Australia-US relations, US soft power capabilities and R&D.