China and Russia are united in their confrontation with the West, but are they really after the same thing?
The differences between the two countries were in the spotlight as Chinese President Xi Jinping met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a security summit in Uzbekistan on Thursday. It was Xi’s first trip outside China since the start of the pandemic, and the presidents’ first sit-down since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Xi has a longstanding relationship with Putin, whom he has met in person 39 times throughout his decade in power. (By contrast, Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden have only spoken on phone and in virtual calls since Biden took office.) And the last time they met at the Beijing Winter Olympics, the two leaders announced a strategic partnership that has “no limits.”
But it has become increasingly clear their bilateral cooperation is anything but limitless. In fact, there are many areas where the two don’t seem to agree on—including the new international order they’re trying to establish.
“China is operating under this delusion that Russia’s war and main goal going forward is to bring down Western dominance in Europe,” said Niva Yau, a senior researcher at the OSCE Academy, a foreign policy think tank in Kyrgyzstan. “But China is starting to realize this narrative is not true. In the region, most of the countries think of the war as Russia’s way of regaining regional hegemony.”
Sitting across from Xi at a large table at the Shanghai Cooperation Organizations summit in Samarkand of Uzbekistan, Putin acknowledged that Xi has “questions and concerns” about the situation in Ukraine, but thanked him for his “balanced position” on the conflict. Xi stressed that as great powers, the two countries should “inject stability” into a chaotic world.
China, which appeared to be caught off guard by the war in February, has been put in an awkward position. It repeatedly insisted it is neutral and respects all countries’ territorial integrity. Yet it could not cut ties with Moscow due to their strategic alliance.
Commenting on the exchange, a White House official said it’s “striking” that Putin openly admitted Xi’s concerns, but they are not surprising as the assault stood against China’s purported principles. “President Putin, it’s very clear, is looking for every conceivable lifeline he can find,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a press briefing on Thursday.
It was only last week, when Li Zhanshu, China’s No. 3, offered the country’s most explicit endorsement of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, blaming the U.S. and its NATO allies for putting Russia in an impossible situation. “We fully understand the necessity of all the measures taken by Russia aimed at protecting its key interests,” Li said on a recent trip to Moscow. China has also refrained from calling the Russian invasion an invasion, instead adopting the Kremlin’s term “special military operation.”
However, wary of international sanctions or being dragged into the conflict, Beijing has done little to back up its word, whether it is providing military aid or a lifeline to Russia’s crippled economy. “China is not a party to the crisis, nor does it want the sanctions to affect China,” China’s top officials have repeatedly stressed. Chinese tech companies quietly curtailed exports to their northern neighbor, while Chinese state banks have abided by the Western sanctions.
China has, however, benefited from the war in indirect ways. For instance, as the West shuns imports from Russia, Beijing has snapped up gas and oil on the cheap.
“If there is anyone who is winning in this war, it would be China because it gets the West distracted from the confrontation with itself and Russia, who is weak and doesn't have any other alternatives other than getting closer with China,” said Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But even for all the benefits it reaped, Beijing did not approve of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. “What Russia is doing is too radical,” Umarov said. “China doesn’t want to cut off its ties with the world because it gains a lot from the current international world order.” Despite deteriorating ties with the West and an increasing emphasis on self-sufficiency, China still relies on foreign trade and investment to drive its economic growth, which is crucial for Xi to maintain social stability and his political control.
In a telling sign that China is not fully on board with Russia on Ukraine, Chinese state media and official readouts omitted both Putin’s and Li’s remarks about the country.
Another area where the two countries are at odds with each other is Central Asia, where they have been vying for influence. In the wake of the invasion, some Russian hawks have suggested Kazakhstan is next.
These threats to Kazakhstan have served as a wake-up call for China, Yau of the OSCE Academy said. “It is not in China’s interest for Russia to really make a move on Kazakhstan.”
Some analysts suggest it is why Xi, who was venturing out of his COVID bubble for the first time in two years, kicked off his trip with Nur-Sultan, where he offered a strong word of support to his Kazakh counterpart. “No matter how the international situation changes, we will continue to resolutely support Kazakhstan in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Xi said, according to a readout from Kazakhstan.
That said, despite all the issues that are straining their relationships, China cannot afford to abandon its strategic partner—just yet.
“China-Russia relations are looking bullish at this point, not because they are closely integrated or share common ideology, but because they share the same threat perception about the U.S. being their primary threat,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.
“The bottom line for China and Russia now is that disagreement does not equate to opposition,” she added.