Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Russian President Vladimir Putin on a state visit to Moscow and pledged to strengthen the two nations’ already-robust relations. Calling Putin his “dear friend,” Xi neither condemned Russia’s war on Ukraine nor even expressed concern over it. Instead, the two leaders signed economic and developmental planning documents, showing their intent to build an even closer relationship. Putin threw Xi a lavish dinner before Xi jetted home.
On the surface, this may seem odd, for China has been trying for decades to win over the international community, while Xi’s new ally is persona non grata in the West following his invasion of and hideous war against Ukraine. Why would the dragon share this bear’s cave?
What’s in it for Xi?
Before the war, Ukraine exported energy to China on a large scale. Plus, Xi has no obvious strategic interest in Putin’s attempted conquest. Putin is also running roughshod over respect for sovereignty, which Beijing normally claims as a sacrosanct principle in foreign policy. Senior Chinese Communist Party officials obsessively reiterate that “sovereignty and territorial integrity” are the cornerstones of international order.
This is, of course, substantially true, although the Chinese make the point for cynical reasons: to deflect criticism of their own abysmal human rights record, to deter support for Taiwanese independence, and to blunt complaints about Beijing’s wholly bogus claims of ownership over most of the South China Sea. So, China’s rhetorical and material support for Russia exposes its supposed principles as a charade, a cynical fraud, utterly hypocritical.
There are more tangible reasons why one might think China’s interests would prompt it to side against Russia and align itself with the respectable international community.
Take China’s trade interests. European Union members imported $672 billion of goods from China in 2022 and exported $247 billion in the opposite direction. Compare this with total China-Russia trade of only $190 billion. China’s trade with Europe is nearly five times as important and lucrative as its trade with Russia.
And China’s looming demographic crisis and economic mismanagement already combine to put unprecedented pressure on Xi’s rule. Why risk the dislocation of the EU-China trade relationship? It would be disastrous. If Europe were to stanch the flow of trade revenues to China to punish it for its complicit support of the biggest land war in Europe since 1945, Beijing would have a serious problem.
It is in part to fend off any European backlash that Xi tries to portray himself as an international statesman who wants to bring durable and just peace. He recently unveiled a staggeringly shallow proposal for Russia and Ukraine, but it allows the Chinese to present a simulacrum of impartiality and decency and so helps a little in deflecting hostile international action.
But the clear truth is that China is giving Russia cover, especially at the United Nations and other forums, shielding it from the condemnation it deserves. In April last year, China joined a motley crew including Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and Syria in voting against a U.N. General Assembly resolution to remove Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council. Last November, China opposed a U.N. resolution calling on Russia to pay reparations over the war in Ukraine. Last month, China abstained in another U.N. vote calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine.
Beijing’s criticisms of Russia never go beyond inane and platitudinous assertions that nuclear war would be a bad thing. Xi’s apparatchiks sometimes even actively endorse Russia’s war. And China lends clear material help by importing significantly more Russian oil and other energy supplies than it did before. Thus, Xi helps Putin overcome sanctions and make up for Russia’s much-reduced energy exports to Europe.
So why is China on the side of the bloody Russian bear? Beijing is too strategically canny to risk its valuable relationship with Europe without a nice calculation of the pros and cons.
Part of Xi’s calculation, sadly, is that he can get away with his support for Russia without losing European trade. Europe humiliates itself by kowtowing to Beijing despite its insouciant support for Putin’s hostilities on the EU’s eastern doorstep. The actions of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron make this abundantly clear. Visiting China last November with German car manufacturer executives, Beijing’s Global Times newspaper saluted Scholz. It observed that the chancellor’s “pragmatic approach will surely bring [German businesses] more dividends of China’s development, which will help them get a head start in competition with other foreign investors in China.”
Or consider how Macron and Xi sang from very similar hymn sheets at last year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. While Macron observed that “we don’t believe in hegemony, we don’t believe in confrontation, we believe in stability,” Xi used his speech to say nations must “jointly reject the Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation.” Coming just prior to his state visit to Washington, Macron was offering Xi a wink and a nod. Macron then emphasized his rhetoric during that state visit. Asked by CBS’s Bill Whitaker about China’s territorial ambitions regarding Taiwan, Macron offered an answer so indecipherable that Whitaker interrupted to ask, “What does that mean?”
Rather than challenge Xi over his diplomatic cover for Russia’s war on their continent, these leaders pretend to take Xi’s fictional peace diplomacy seriously. Xi knows they will keep doing this because China, explicitly behind closed doors and implicitly in its propaganda and public statements, makes it clear that European nations’ access to its investments and market depends on their political obedience. The result is that Scholz’s and Macron’s rhetoric on Taiwan, Beijing’s genocide against the Uyghurs, and its repression of democracy in Hong Kong is a masterclass in using big words to say nothing. Xi is completely confident that he can continue indefinitely to have it both ways. Even the closest of U.S. allies are hesitant to endorse Washington’s efforts to restrain Chinese imperialism.
A case in point is the submarine deal between Australia, Britain, and the United States — AUKUS, as the trio is known. Recent AUKUS celebrations in San Diego looked like a demonstration of military resolve in the face of Beijing’s threats. Beyond the photographs and submarine announcements, however, both British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese are far less hawkish toward China than Washington would like. Each has indicated recently that he will cede political ground to China to achieve economic ends.
But trade and economic cynicism account for only part of the story. The other, bigger reasons why China is happy to have a deepening partnership with Russia are diplomatic and military in nature.
On the diplomatic front, Putin echoes Xi’s rhetoric, lending it at least marginally greater global credibility.
In an essay welcoming Xi to Moscow this week, Putin echoed Xi’s anti-American narrative by claiming that the U.S. is “persistently striving to split the common Eurasian space into a network of ‘exclusive clubs’ and military blocs aimed at curbing the development of our countries and infringing on their interests.”
Russia also guarantees China a second U.N. Security Council veto vote to hold in reserve for future controversies such as Xi’s prospective invasion of Taiwan. Russia has reciprocated China’s support at the U.N. on matters including the human rights situation in Myanmar and Afghanistan. Beijing has close relations with both the Myanmar junta and the Taliban. Russia also supports China’s push for a truly multipolar world in which America’s democratic leadership is no longer dominant. China leverages relations with African nations and others, such as Pakistan and the Solomon Islands, to present itself as a powerhouse with multinational support. Undermining American leadership and luring less powerful nations into its sphere of influence is vital to Beijing at a time when Washington is trying to rally international forces on the side of democracy against China’s rapidly rising power.
Put simply, China needs all the friends it can get. Russia’s forces are struggling in Ukraine, but Moscow’s nuclear arsenal, global intelligence capabilities, and diplomatic influence in far-flung corners such as Venezuela mean Russia remains a great power. Great power support is highly valuable to Beijing. It advances China’s interests. Russia and China might spy on one another, but they are far more interested in colluding and spying against the U.S.
China also enjoys its partnership with Russia because of their combined military might and the way this could further enable Beijing’s deployment in the neighborhood of Taiwan.
To understand how important Taiwan is to Xi and the CCP, imagine how Washington would feel if Japan had somehow taken Hawaii and still controlled it all these decades after World War II. It would be a constant running sore, and Washington would regard it as a deep national humiliation that had to be reversed. That is how the Chinese ruling elites regard a democratic Taiwan that they do not control. They yearn, they itch to retake it.
As the People’s Republic of China approaches its 100th anniversary in 2049, the existence of Taiwan will transition from being a bleeding stain on the CCP’s credibility to that of an arterial hemorrhage. Xi has told his People’s Liberation Army to be ready to seize the island nation by 2027. The Russian alliance helps significantly in this plan.
Russia now regularly deploys its navy alongside China’s in exercises around Japan. These displays of raw military power allow China to put pressure on the U.S. and its allies while also presenting China’s aggressive intentions toward Taiwan as having multilateral support. While the Russian navy struggles with maintenance and readiness, it has experienced crews in command of advanced weapons systems, especially its submarines, which are highly competent and capable of evading even the U.S. and British forces.
The People’s Liberation Army knows it can learn much from Russian experience against U.S. submarine forces in the Barents Sea and North Atlantic Ocean. The Russians know how to mitigate risk of detection by U.S. sonar and other surveillance systems. They know how the U.S. Navy operates, gathers intelligence, and trains to fight. This is prized knowledge for China. If the PLA is forced to fight the U.S. Navy over Taiwan, it must be able to fend off American submarines. If it does not, its troop transports would be annihilated. If that happens, Xi’s destiny and perhaps also CCP rule would drown in the Taiwan Strait.
Russia would probably not join a war with China against Taiwan. Putin is unlikely to risk his depleted forces in such a high-risk campaign, and its outcome has little bearing on his notion of Russian strategic interests. But Russia still provides significant value in assisting China against Taiwan. Putin’s nuclear, air, and naval forces in Europe and off Alaska would also allow him to tie down at least some U.S. military forces if China did attack Taiwan.
But the most basic premise for why China is willing to stay close to the stinking Russian bear is also the simplest. Facing an increasingly complex geopolitical environment, each of these two rogue nations is willing to put historic enmity and territorial disagreements aside. They see overwhelming advantages in cooperation. And the costs of that cooperation, largely thanks to European appeasement, are as yet marginal.