The Sino-Russian Relationship: It’s Complicated
The Sino-Russian relationship is in the news—big time. The last time the twists and turns of this relationship were followed with such interest and concern in the West was when Beijing and Moscow stood at the brink of a military confrontation (in 1969) and when they drew together to form the Sino-Soviet alliance (1950). Just as then, there is now a commonplace view that the direction this relationship takes has grave implications for the international order and for regional conflicts: from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, to (potentially) East Asia. There is no shortage of commentary on the relationship that is sometimes viewed as an emerging, if not an actual, alliance, though it is equally common to read skeptical commentary on what could perhaps be termed a pragmatic alignment by two powers each looking after their own interests. Whether one explores the ideological underpinnings of the rapidly evolving Sino-Russian relationship, or takes a look at their economic cooperation, or their coordination and divergences from Ukraine to Central Asia, it is clear Beijing and Moscow present a serious challenge to the United States. But what exactly this challenge is requires further elaboration.
This article does this by, first, exploring the ideological underpinnings of the relationship. It then proceeds to analyze different aspects of the economic relationship between China and Russia. It concludes with offering an overview of their coordination in Central Asia and Ukraine.
China and Russia: A Shared Worldview?
The idea that China and Russia are, in fact, ideological allies, became more defensible with the publication of the joint Sino-Russian statement of February 4, 2022. The statement arguably articulated a shared worldview, a basis for an ideological rather than merely a pragmatic alignment. Yet at closer examination, their ideological critique of the West betrays staggering inconsistencies and a certain confusion about what a more “just” world would look like.
For example, China and Russia have decried the unilateral diktat of a “minority” (a code word for the West) in world affairs. Putin has repeatedly and scornfully referred to “the golden billion” to highlight the gap between the haves and the have-nots. At the same time, China and Russia continue to insist on the centrality of the United Nations, and its Security Council (where they exercise the right of veto), and, indeed, the February 4 statement included a reference to the “central and coordinating role” of this organization. Other international organizations or groupings that have received positive coverage in the statement are the G20, BRICS+, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and WTO (while negative commentary was reserved for groupings like NATO and AUKUS, i.e. those that conspicuously exclude China and Russia). Many other regional and functional organizations that exclude both Western nations and China and Russia received no mention at all.
Beijing and Moscow resent their respective positions in the global hierarchy (which they see as inferior to that of the US and its allies). They resent not so much the international order as such but only those elements of the international order that they perceive to be conducive to American power, for example, military alliances such as NATO, or instruments like the US dollar, or standards, such as those pertaining to Internet governance, or norms insofar as the power to define these norms rests with the West. One may argue, of course, that without these elements the existing international order would simply not exist. This seems doubtful, however. International orders tend to be resilient. If one element fails or declines in importance, the order itself does not usually collapse. If anything, contemporary history (since 1945) has shown how even the failure of structural underpinnings of the international order (the Bretton Woods system, for example) need not lead to a general meltdown.
It is important, however, to consider the question of the erosion of norms. It is here that the proponents of an “ideological alliance” between China and Russia are arguably at their most convincing. Beijing and Moscow portray themselves and are in turn often portrayed as representing radically different norms compared to “Western” norms of international order. Both countries, as evidenced from their various joint statements, have been promoting notions like “democracy” and “human rights” that seem to be starkly at variance with how these terms are commonly understood in the West. Thus, in their February 4 statement, China and Russia claimed to have “deep traditions of democracy, based on a thousand-year-old experience of development.” In a later joint statement (March 21, 2023), they claimed to have internalized “such universal values as peace, development, equality, justice, democracy, and freedom.”
Now, it is important to understand what is happening here, and why. The Chinese and the Russians are attempting to retain the Western language but substitute the meaning of the relevant terms. They do not, for example, reject democracy as irrelevant and argue that it is, in fact, dictatorship that is a better form of governance. They do not reject human rights out of hand by arguing that they do not exist, or that slavery is better than freedom. This cannot be for any other reason except that they accept the relevant language and the associated norms as self-evidently legitimating. This is a good thing for Western norms because if it is not the norms that are being questioned but, rather, their interpretation, then the real question is not whether China and Russia are trying to overturn a world order based on Western norms but, rather, whether their attempted erosion of the meanings of these norms represents a grave challenge.
The answer to this question is “no.” It is important to note that such a reinterpretation of norms is hardly a new phenomenon. Even Stalin held “elections” in the USSR. Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe were called “people’s democracies,” but labels did not confuse anyone. George Orwell predicted a dystopian world where the erosion of meanings would underpin totalitarian control, but such a world has not materialized. If anything, China and Russia’s attempts to misrepresent democracy are no more successful today than Stalin’s earlier attempts. Indeed, endowing terms with unfamiliar, vague, or blatantly opposite meanings only serves to highlight a high degree of anxiety in Beijing and Moscow, as well as their hypocrisy.
Nothing shows this better than Russia’s brave advocacy of national sovereignty and territorial integrity even as it finds itself waging a brutal war of aggression against a neighboring country (with the evident intent to crush its national sovereignty and infringe upon its territorial integrity). China’s uncomfortable balancing between helping Russia, on the one hand, while publicly adhering to the principles of the UN Charter serves to expose inconsistencies in Beijing’s policies, without necessarily undermining the norm of non-aggression.
Similar observations can be made about China and Russia’s criticism of US interventionism and coercive economic policies. Russia, despite its claims to the contrary, is not opposed to interventionism but, rather, it is opposed to US interventionism. The Kremlin feels quite unconstrained in intervening where and when it deems fit (its intervention in Kazakhstan and the war against Ukraine are but two recent examples). By the same token, despite repeatedly criticizing US economic sanctions, both Beijing and Moscow have in fact themselves resorted widely to economic sanctions and other forms of economic coercion when doing so suited their purposes. Russia, for example, has tried (with mixed results) to manipulate its energy supplies to Europe to gain political leverage, and has resorted to import bans and similar measures to punish countries like Georgia for pursuing policies deemed at odds with Russian national interests.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government has applied economic sanctions to countries that it believes to have crossed its red lines, ranging from Mongolia in 2016 (after the Mongolian government invited the Dalai Lama to visit the country), to Lithuania in 2021 (after the Lithuanian government permitted the establishment of de facto Taiwan embassy in the country).
In other words, both the Russians and the Chinese can be accused of living up to the dictum of “do as I say, and not as I do.” Such foreign policy behavior cannot be described as a serious normative challenge to the existing international order.
Fears of Democratic Contagion
In his speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies on September 13, 2023, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken advanced the proposition that “Beijing and Moscow are working together to make the world safe for autocracy through their ‘no limits partnership.’” The “no limits partnership” will be addressed below. But to what extent is it correct to argue that Beijing and Moscow are working together to “make the world safe for autocracy,” and what does this mean, exactly?
In their joint and separate statements China and Russia have expressed alarm over so-called “color revolutions” that threaten their respective regimes. Although “color revolutions” are most immediately associated with Putin’s various anxieties, it is the Chinese leaders that have been consistently worried about what they call “peaceful evolution.” Their overriding concern with not repeating the fate of the Soviet Union (or, in the party parlance, “not following the tracks of an overturned cart”), and their preoccupation with external (mainly, American) meddling in Hong Kong and in Xinjiang point to real insecurities in this regard. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning has routinely referenced these concerns, such as when she argued, recently, that the US Central Intelligence Agency has “organized, carried out, directed and supervised transboundary covert actions, and secretly conducted ‘peaceful evolution’ and ‘color revolution’ around the world.”1
Russia’s case is somewhat more complicated. Putin has also repeatedly accused the West of promoting democratic “color revolutions,” leading at least some observers to conclude that he must be very worried about a democratic contagion that would destabilize his regime. For instance, Robert Person and Michael McFaul (among many) have argued that what Putin fears most is a democratic Ukraine: “He cannot tolerate a successful and democratic Ukraine on Russia’s border, especially if the Ukrainian people also begin to prosper economically. That would undermine the Kremlin’s own regime stability and proposed rationale for autocratic state leadership.”2 This, in fact, is what arguably led to the invasion.
However, this argument is not unimpeachable. For example, it is certainly plausible to argue that Putin invaded Ukraine not because he feared that it was so strong and dangerous, but because he deemed it weak. The Russian policy elites proved to have a very flawed understanding of the Ukrainian domestic context; among their misperceptions was the idea of Ukraine as a semi-failed state—not in spite of its unruly democracy, but because of it. While Putin’s domestic system of personal rule is unquestionably autocratic, it is also less brutally dictatorial than Xi Jinping’s system. In fact, a degree of flirtation with democratic sentiment has been an indispensable tool for Putin, as a far-right populist, in maintaining political legitimacy of his regime, which rests both on state-perpetrated violence but also on the willing and highly exploitable acquiescence of the toxically nationalistic public.
One might argue in this connection that what Putin truly fears is not a democratic contagion from without but the loss of Russian influence among what he still regards as Russia’s satellites or its “near abroad.” A good example of this thesis is Mongolia, a neighboring democracy (however flawed) of more than thirty years’ standing. It is instructive that neither China nor Russia has deemed it necessary to invade Mongolia to crush its democracy. This is no doubt because the land-locked country is so dependent on its two neighbors that it cannot possibly escape their influence. (However, when Western policy makers recently highlighted Mongolia’s democratic credentials, Beijing and Moscow deemed it necessary to make public threats about the danger of the country succumbing to Western influence.3)
In short, while Blinken is correct to argue that China and Russia are trying to make the world “safe for autocracy” (i.e., for themselves), this need not translate into a policy aimed at overturning democracies. Indeed, Beijing and Moscow are just as keen to engage with democratic states as with autocratic states, if doing so serves their purposes. Their policy here is guided mainly by pragmatic considerations (i.e., the openness of these states to their approaches) rather than ideological principles centered on “democracy” versus “autocracy.”
Finally, one could argue that China and Russia share not just an outlook on the world but also a system of governance, and that this “autocratic” essence serves as yet another reason for viewing them as “ideological allies.” Although superficially appealing (especially to those who emphasize the centrality of personal rule), the argument falls apart on closer inspection, for China and Russia are in fact vastly different as systems of government.
China is a party state. The party’s membership exceeds 100 million. Party structures reach to every locality, making it a reasonably effective instrument for transmitting information and for governing. Xi Jinping has been able to consolidate an immense bureaucratic power in his hands, in a sense rising above the party, but he has not been able to escape its strictures entirely. Meanwhile, state structures—from government ministries, the military, to state security—are all beholden to the party, and not the other way around. Of course, there are also informal structures in China, including various regional cliques. Though important, they do not represent an independent source of political power except insofar as they can highjack the party.
The state benefits from a well-oiled propaganda machine that does not allow contrarian opinions to surface. A massive censorship apparatus and information firewalls filter out the unwanted information. State security is all-pervasive and any challenges to the party’s authority are immediately and brutally put down. This does not mean that protest as such cannot exist in China. Localized protests are in fact relatively common, as the COVID-19 protests across China aptly demonstrated. But manifestly political protest is extremely rare, and its perpetrators are severely punished.
China also benefits from a state ideology. While some aspects of this ideology are mind-numbingly opaque and potentially mutually-contradictory, and while it is very difficult to argue that China is guided by Marxism-Leninism in any shape that either Marx or Lenin would have recognized, there is at least a shared corpus of party texts that trace their lineage to the early years of the People’s Republic of China.
In other words, if Xi Jinping disappears from the scene, China’s party and state apparatus can quickly recover; the system will go on much as before, with the same ideology, same structures, just a different leader.
Russia, by contrast, is much more unruly. The major pro-regime party, United Russia, numbers a mere 2 million people. While substantial, it is certainly not a latter-day equivalent of the Soviet Communist Party, nor does it penetrate state structures like the CCP does. It does not have a clear ideology beyond adherence to Putin’s leader cult and a vague commitment to Russia’s “greatness.”
Since his rise to power in the late 1990s, Putin has attempted to consolidate political control in his own hands by cracking down on regional autonomy. But he lacks the institutions required to maintain continuity and national unity in the long term. Putin instead relies on the personal loyalty of his regional clients. In some cases—notably Chechnya—the arrangement is very unstable and hinges on the Kremlin’s ability to provide financial inducements to preclude separatism. Putin also relies on competing and overlapping security services. These services—the so called siloviki—pose a long-term threat to Russia’s political stability. Putin’s decision to permit the operation of private military companies—Wagner being the prime example—has already backfired against him when Wagner staged a mutiny. Though suppressed, the mutiny called into question the extent of Putin’s political control.
Such systemic instabilities are likely to worsen with time. Russia, which is already being run like something of a feudal fiefdom, may well succumb to instability or even warlordism, not unlike what China experienced in the 1920s.
Ideologically, too, Russia offers an eclectic mix of religious fundamentalism, toxic nationalism, populism, and statism. In a vague sense, there is an overlap here with China, insofar as both peddle some form of resentment politics based on alleged humiliation by external forces. But Putin’s ideology has much more in common with autocratic populism of the likes of Viktor Orban and Recep Tayyip Erdogan than with “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The state propaganda machine, while effective, operates on very different underlying principles than that in China or, indeed, the Soviet Union. The Russian propaganda machine permits a certain pluralism of opinions but works tirelessly to discredit rival viewpoints. Repressions exist but (a number of high-profile cases notwithstanding) they are relatively mild. Censorship is noticeable but it is much less pervasive than in China.
Fundamentally, Russia is a deeply personalistic regime that will not outlast Putin. With his departure, it is entirely conceivable that the new Russian leadership will sharply alter the domestic and foreign policy course and will not be institutionally constrained in doing so. Russia also runs the risk of outright fragmentation.
In short, behind the cliché that China and Russia are two autocratic regimes that work together to undermine democracy, stands the reality that China and Russia are two vastly different regimes. Neither of course is, or likely to be, democratic but this discovery explains very little about their respective domestic and foreign policies and takes us nowhere in terms of theorizing the Sino-Russian alignment.
As is evident from the discussion above, on the continuum between a pragmatic alignment and an ideological alliance, China and Russia stand much closer to the former than to the latter. But this is not a bad thing for their relationship, quite the contrary. It is what makes the relationship more resilient than it would otherwise have been. This is because the absence of a common ideology obviates the need for an ideological hierarchy, which (if the Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s is taken as an example) can fuel tensions and poison the relationship. If, by contrast, China and Russia can choose which areas of their relationship can be cooperative, and which competitive, and where they can simply ignore each other, they can make this relationship more sustainable over the long term, which is why the current alignment has already outlasted (by a wide margin) the much closer alliance of the 1950s.
Concord and Tensions
Ever since it became apparent, in the early 2000s, that the Sino-Russian rapprochement was not a passing phenomenon, Western observers have speculated how long it might last, how close the alignment would become, and whether underlying tensions in the relationship would eventually drive the two countries apart. (In recent years—in response to the West’s deepening strategic predicament—a separate strand of analysis has emerged: how to drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow, which would help the West either with confronting Russia in Europe or China in Asia). This section reviews areas where the Sino-Russian relationship is becoming stronger and whether emerging tensions pose a long-term threat to the resilience of this relationship.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
Numbers tell part of the story. In the first eight months of 2023, Sino-Russian trade turnover exceeded $155 billion, which adds up to a 32% increase on the previous year. Broken down for imports and exports, the numbers are even more telling: a 13.3% increase in China’s imports from, and a 63.2% increase in China’s exports to Russia.4 These increases follow a record bilateral trade turnover of over $190 billion in 2022 (an increase of 29.3% over the previous year).5 2022 was the year when Russia for the first time in recent history entered the ranks of China’s top ten trade partners (as No. 10). China has been Russia’s No. 1 since 2010, displacing Germany.
The resilience of Sino-Russian bilateral trade is partly explained by long-term structural factors (in particular, considerable complementarity of the two economies), but its breathtaking growth in 2022-23 owes a great deal to the imposition of Western economic sanctions on Russia, following its invasion of Ukraine. Observers have long noted the considerable substitutability of Chinese and European exports to Russia, so there was not much unexpected in what transpired, nor has China been the only beneficiary (Turkey, among others, has also handsomely benefited from Russia’s turn to non-European markets).6 But China is by far the greatest beneficiary. The following statistics lay bare the differential dependency of the Sino-Russian trade: in 2022 trade with China accounted for over 22% of Russia’s entire trade turnover (a jump of about 5% year-on-year), whereas Russia made up just over 3% of China’s external trade in the same year.
If one were to take into account the structure of Sino-Russian trade, Russia’s dependence on China appears even more staggering. The bulk of Russia’s imports from China is machinery and electric and electronic equipment. For example, Russia’s import of Chinese cars reached $6.78 billion in the first eight months of 2023 (four times the number imported in all of 2022). Russia’s import of Chinese electrical machinery (a broad category that includes anything from television sets to mobile phones) exceeded $10 billion over the same period (on top of over $13 billion in 2022).7 Given the extent of Russia’s dependence on imports of Chinese consumer electronics and other machinery (a dependence that is further underlined by Moscow’s limited access to other markets), one is bound to conclude that any interruptions of these logistical chains would cause dire consequences for the Russian economy.
Meanwhile, Russia’s exports to China have long been dominated by hydrocarbons and other mineral resources. In 2022, mineral fuels and oils, and products of their distillation (which includes crude oil, pipeline gas and LNG) amounted to nearly 75% of Russia’s exports of $114 billion. The bulk of this was, as usual, crude oil. Western sanctions on Russia (including a ban on crude oil, in force since December 5, 2022, and a ban on refined products, in place since February 5, 2023, and of course the price cap of $60 per barrel) have slightly reduced demand for Russian oil with the result that China has enjoyed a substantial discount on its imports. These exceeded 17% of China’s total in July 2022 but have since fallen back to an average of 9.02% for the first eight months of 2023. This is not an insignificant number. Indeed, seeing that prior to the war China did not enjoy any discount at all, its gains on imported crude alone between April 2022 (the first month with a major discount) and August 2023 already stand at over $8.9 billion.8 China has taken advantage of Russia’s precarious situation, though it has not been the only one (India, among Russia’s other trade partners, has also profited handsomely from Moscow’s sanctions-induced difficulties). However, the crude discount may have been a one-off affair: a result of self-sanctioning by market participants and the oil price cap. As Russia adapts to Western sanctions, such discounts may become more difficult to obtain.
Meanwhile, Sino-Russian trade in natural gas demonstrates the limitations of the energy partnership. The most important breakthrough here came just two months after the Russian annexation of Crimea, on May 21, 2014. After lengthy, difficult negotiations over price, and only after Putin’s personal intervention, the Chinese agreed at last to a long-term contract, which would lead to the construction of the Power of Siberia pipeline. The 30-year contract is worth an estimated $400 billion. The first gas was delivered in December 2019, and since then Russia has rapidly increased exports through the pipeline. With Power of Siberia, Russia has increased its share of China’s pipeline gas market from zero before 2019 to over 22% in 2022 to over 33% in the first eight months of 2023 (calculations based on price, not volume).
However, this increase in the export of Russian pipeline gas to China (which stood at just under $4 billion in 2022, and has reached nearly $4.5 billion in the first eight months of 2023) is but a small fraction of the approximately $55.5 billion in pipeline gas Russia exported annually until 2022.9 Even at full capacity of 38 bcm per year, Power of Siberia will deliver just over one third of the Nordstream 1 & 2 combined volume of 110 bcm (neither pipeline is currently in service). With Russia’s pipeline exports to Europe plummeting by nearly 80% between March 2022 and January 2023,10 it is hardly surprising that Putin has sought to compensate by increasing exports to China. But Beijing has acted in a predictably self-serving manner by refusing to sign a long-term contract for an additional pipeline, Power of Siberia 2.
This new 50 bcm / year pipeline, which would take gas from deposits in Yamal in northwestern Siberia, through Mongolia, and into China has long been advertised by the Russians as a done deal. Already in March 2021 Gazprom’s deputy chairman Vitalii Markelov was in Mongolia, surveying parts of the trans-Mongolian gas route. Mongolian Prime Minister L. Oyun-Erdene even declared that construction would begin in 2024.11 Russia’s Deputy Premier Alexander Novak declared in September 2022 that the two sides were on the verge of signing. But months went by without a breakthrough. Even Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow in March 2023—for all of its outward camaraderie—failed to deliver the much-hoped-for contract. Putin’s visit to Beijing in October 2023 (to participate in a BRI summit) also produced no breakthrough. The failure to sign a contract points to China’s reluctance to even further increase its dependence on pipeline gas from Russia (or perhaps a realization that, with Russia in dire straits, it holds all the cards, and can therefore wait until Putin offers a better price). Regardless, this failure is a reminder of Russia’s limited economic leverage with China, and of Beijing’s willingness to drive a hard bargain. In the meantime, in January 2023, China and Russia signed an agreement to permit the export of gas from the Russian Far East to the Chinese northeast: the volume, once realized, will add 10 bcm per year to Russia’s overall exports; the details of the contract remain secret.12
China’s overall investments in Russia are estimated to exceed $60 billion, with the major investments in the energy sector, including the CNPC’s and CNOOC’s stakes in the Novatek Arctic LNG project (10% each), CNPC’s 20% stake in Novatek’s Yamal LNG project, and Sinopec’s 49% in Udmurtneft.13 China has extended a helping hand with sanctions relief, for example, by supplying the necessary turbines to the Arctic LNG project.14 Yet, concerned with running afoul of the US sanctions regime, Beijing has not aggressively pursued new investments in Russia, and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs even reportedly discouraged Chinese majors from making any major new commitments to Russia, which has resulted in the suspension of Sinopec’s talks on petrochemical investments.15 In a major development in late 2022, Huawei closed down its Enterprise Business Group division in Russia (which was responsible for the sale of telecommunications equipment to corporate clients), transferring its 2,000 employees out of the country.16 This decision stemmed directly from Huawei’s concern over potential secondary sanctions. In June 2023 it transpired that the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) decided to drop Russia from the joint venture to develop a widebody passenger aircraft, CR929, in what appeared to be a sanctions-motivated decision.17
China’s caution is nothing new: its investments in Russia have always lagged far behind grand proclamations of the political leaders. Russia’s opaque regulatory framework has been a major disincentive even before the full impact of Western sanctions became felt. However, it is likely that some of this caution will be put aside as Chinese investors digest the impact of sanctions and become more familiar with the Russian market, and as the Russian government works to encourage investments from China to partially compensate for the exodus of Western firms.
Russia’s growing reliance on trade with China had the predictable result of increasing the role of the Chinese yuan in the Russian economy. In February 2023 monthly trade in the yuan on the Moscow exchange for the first time exceeded trade in the US dollar and reached as high as 44.7% in August 2023.18 The share of the Chinese yuan in Russian exports went from zero percent in February 2022 to 29% in August 2023. The respective share in Russian imports went up from 4% in February 2022 to 38% in August 2023.19 Much of this reorientation happened at the expense of the US dollar and the euro, which are now officially called “toxic” currencies by the Russian Central Bank. Thus, de-dollarization of the Russian economy has in reality led to the yuanization of the Russian economy.
Russia’s exceedingly one-sided dependence on Chinese trade clearly gives Beijing a substantial leverage over Russia. This leverage is sometimes taken to mean that Russia has effectively become China’s “vassal.” The term is imprecise. It is far from clear, for example, how, and under what circumstances, Beijing can or would use its economic leverage for political gain. It is not at all clear to what extent Vladimir Putin would deem himself constrained by the prospect of Chinese economic sanctions in the unlikely event that he has to resort to measures opposed by China (such as, for instance, the possible use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, or some contrarian policy in Central Asia or in other theaters). One can speculate that Putin is aware of Russia’s economic dependence on China, and that this awareness could potentially serve to deter him from pursuing policies that Beijing would deem contrary to its interests. However, it is impossible to quantify this deterrence effect. By the same token, it is difficult to imagine how or under what circumstances Beijing would seek to impose economic sanctions, while being aware that any such sanctions will have a detrimental political effect on a relationship Xi Jinping unarguably treasures. Thus, Xi will find it difficult to translate his leverage into influence over Putin’s Russia.
On the whole, developments since February 2022 suggest that China is an indispensable economic partner for Russia, one that can be relied upon in times of need, occasioned by the unprecedented Western sanctions, whose effectiveness was severely undermined precisely because of Beijing’s willingness to extend a helping hand. Nevertheless, it is also clear that Beijing can, and has, used its economic leverage to drive a hard bargain with Russia in trade and investment negotiations, its ability to obtain an oil discount, and its reluctance to sign a new gas pipeline contract serving as but two of the most obvious examples.
China and Russia in Central Asia
The notion that Russia and China are fiercely competing in Central Asia, that this is where their tensions are most pronounced, and where one would expect serious fissures to emerge is perhaps one of the most widely held assumptions about the Sino-Russian relationship. The theory holds that Russia, as a declining regional power, has been retreating, while China has been in the ascendancy, certainly since the unveiling of the Belt and Road Initiative, which links back to Xi Jinping’s visit to Kazakhstan in 2013. In the intervening 10 years, so goes the theory, Putin became increasingly apprehensive of China’s geopolitical maneuvering in Central Asia, all the more so given his own interest in promoting a regional integration scheme—the Russia-centered Eurasian Economic Union. Nevertheless, Russia has managed to maintain a role as a security provider since China is more interested in trade and investment than it is in bases and projection of military power.
The actual picture, however, is more complicated. China has indeed invested significantly across the region. China’s estimated FDI in Kazakhstan stands at nearly $40 billion, Turkmenistan at $15 billion, and Uzbekistan at $10 billion.20 One recent estimate places Chinese FDI in Central Asia at $15 billion in 2022 alone.21 Chinese bilateral trade with Central Asia has surged in recent years, reaching $70 billion in 2022, to Russia’s $40 billion. These numbers obscure significant regional variations. Russia’s bilateral trade with the largest Central Asian economy—Kazakhstan—still exceeds China’s, though by a small margin (19.9% of overall trade turnover compared to China’s 17.9% in 2022). Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, experienced a surge in trade with Russia, at least in part due to Russia’s sanctions evasion.22 Thus, China’s trade positions in Central Asia do not add up to overwhelming dominance over Russia. Moreover, as Alexander Gabuev and Temur Umarov have pointed out, China’s and Russia’s trade profiles are very different: they are not competitors for Central Asian markets.23 Russia exports food and energy. China—manufactured goods. Indeed, to some extent, Russia and Central Asia are competitors for China’s markets. This is especially the case in Turkmenistan’s case (its 45 bcm gas pipeline is a direct competitor to Power of Siberia). China paid more than $10 billion in 2022 for the import of Turkmen gas—a substantial share of its trade turnover with the entire region.24
A mere comparison of trade figures does not do justice to the complexity of Russia’s relations with Central Asia. Russia remains the key destination of Central Asia’s labor migrants (over 10 million in 2022), and for students. Remittances from Russia to Uzbekistan contributed 11% to the country’s GDP in 2022; in Kyrgyzstan’s case, the number is 26%.25 Russia continues to exercise influence through linguistic and cultural ties, and benefits from close relationships between its own elites, and those of Central Asia. Putin is on fairly close terms with all of the Central Asian leaders, including even Kazakhstan’s astute President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who has had the temerity to signal to Putin his dissatisfaction with Russia’s occasional bullying. The fact that all of Central Asian countries are (to different degrees) autocratic, as well as highly corrupt, indicates that Russia and Central Asia operate within a shared normative framework, which helps, rather than hampers, their cooperation.
Moscow can—and sometimes does—leverage shared infrastructure (including pipelines) to signal its displeasure (as it did when it temporarily shut down the Caspian oil pipeline in July 2022, to pressure Kazakhstan). It also has military assets across the region, including a military base in Tajikistan, and an air force base in Kyrgyzstan. Shortly before the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Russia deployed a force to Kazakhstan to successfully put down an uprising against Tokayev’s regime. These political, economic, and military capabilities suggest that Russia retains considerable influence in Central Asia, and that for all of China’s increasing economic importance, Russia’s regional positions are not in any danger.
What is often lost in the discussion of the alleged Sino-Russian contestation in Central Asia is the increasing agency of the regional players, and their evident ability to embrace both China and Russia even while engaging with the West. One example of this balancing act was the attendance by all five Central Asian leaders at the Russian Victory Parade (May 2023), followed by their collective pilgrimage to Xi’an (May 2023) for the first China-Central Asia summit, followed by their collective meeting with President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (September 2023). What these leaders worry about most is having to choose between China and Russia, on the one hand, and the West on the other.
China and Russia, far from clashing in Central Asia, appear to work swimmingly side-by-side. No evidence has yet emerged of any serious friction between Moscow and Beijing as they work hard to coordinate their policies towards the region on the premise that what frictions may emerge will only serve the West’s interests. Multilateral mechanisms like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization exist primarily as forums for this kind of coordination. This does not mean that there are no disagreements between the two. Occasionally, Beijing registers frustration with Russia (as, for example, during Moscow’s unexpected interference in the Kazakhstan unrest). Putin, who has spoken of his “jealousy” of China’s economic performance, may well be jealous also of Beijing’s economic inroads into what many in the Russian elite still consider Russia’s backyard. However, these frustrations and jealousies are yet to translate into tensions. Indeed, the most salient aspect of the Sino-Russian relationship in Central Asia going back to the early 2000s is just how little friction there has been—and how much cooperation. Both are fundamentally much less concerned about each other’s designs on the region than about keeping the West—especially the US—out.
China and Russia in Ukraine
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was evidently not coordinated with Beijing despite Putin’s talks with Xi Jinping on February 4, 2022—just weeks before the war. The extent of Chinese foreknowledge remains unclear. Beijing adopted a fairly duplicitous position after the outbreak of war. Its position paper—issued on the first anniversary of the conflict in February 2023—lists sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity as the very first principle for settling the conflict. Other points include Beijing’s complaints about “Cold War mentality” (the usual barb directed at the United States), and the requirement that “legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously and addressed properly” (which is a code phrase for precluding any move towards Ukraine’s NATO membership).26
China has repeatedly indicated its interest in peace talks, and even appointed a high-level envoy, Li Hui, who, in May 2023, travelled to Kyiv, Moscow, and four other countries to probe for “common ground” and seek a settlement to the war.27 Unsurprisingly, he was unable to achieve any breakthroughs, and it is probably fair to say that China’s mediation has aimed more at raising Beijing’s profile as a responsible party, rather than at achieving an actual breakthrough. In any case, China has not evidenced any intention to use its considerable leverage over Russia to bring Putin to the negotiating table. Instead, China has continued to serve as Russia’s lifeline, a key market for Russia’s hydrocarbons, and a source of dual-use technologies.
However, this is not to say that Xi Jinping is thrilled about the direction of the conflict. Putin’s inadvertent remark—during his meeting with Xi Jinping in Samarkand in September 2022—that he understood China’s “questions and concerns” about Ukraine—indicates that the two leaders have certain disagreements on the issue.28 Xi has dropped hints of opposition to Russia’s use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine—most importantly, perhaps, in his conversation with German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz in November 2022.29 It is unclear to what extent Xi’s hints influenced Russia’s decision-making. In recent months, Russia’s nuclear threats have indeed diminished, but this may well have as much to do with the stabilization of the frontlines as with any external pressure. China’s May 2023 move to approve a UN resolution that spoke of “the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine” was surely not an accident (prior to this resolution, China consistently abstained on resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression). But it is not clear what this move represented: an effort to signal displeasure to Russia or an attempt to disguise China’s duplicity.
In his conversations with Chinese representatives, Putin has invariably stressed Russia’s interest in peace talks, blamed Ukraine for its unwillingness to negotiate, and highlighted the threat of NATO enlargement in Ukraine at the expense of alternative explanations for Russia’s invasion (including his own various irredentist pronouncements).
When it comes to Russia’s war against Ukraine, Beijing finds itself in a dilemma. It is certainly not interested in further horizontal or vertical escalation of the conflict, which would have knock-on economic effects across the region and globally. The Chinese clearly worry about the impact of secondary sanctions, and are pursuing a carefully differentiated policy towards Europe, aimed at reassuring European policymakers that they are not in fact supportive of the war in Ukraine. Hints of Sino-Russian disagreements over Ukraine, and Beijing’s concerns with entrapment in an open-ended conflict it neither desires nor controls, have probably been the key factors behind the quiet but nevertheless conspicuous disappearance of the term “partnership without limits” from the two sides’ diplomatic vocabulary after February 2022 (even if, as noted above, Secretary of State Blinken is unaware of the change).
But nor is Xi Jinping interested in seeing Putin defeated in Ukraine, if by defeat one means Russia’s complete withdrawal from the Ukrainian territory. It is evident from various Chinese pronouncements that their interest in a ceasefire is real. Beijing stands to benefit from a frozen conflict: Russia’s reliance on China will continue to deepen, largely because Putin has no other options left. Even a low-intensity conflict would not necessarily be a bad thing from Beijing’s perspective, as it would serve as a strategic distraction for the United States.
This article has reviewed the direction of the Sino-Russian relationship since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. The general tendency of recent months is the intensification of the relationship in political and economic terms. The Russian invasion of Ukraine served as a catalyst for this ever-closer alignment, but it was not the fundamental cause. The trajectory towards alignment has been clear since the mid-1990s and predates Putin and Xi Jinping. The underlying factors for this alignment are economic, strategic, and historical. Economically, Russia and China are highly complementary, and it is not surprising that their bilateral trade has grown by leaps and bounds. Of course, it proved enormously helpful to this trade relationship that Russia was placed under Western sanctions, and China proved willing to step into the breach. Strategically, Beijing and Moscow share a resentment of the United States and understand that it is in their interest to coordinate their policies in order to push back against US power and influence. Meanwhile, their shared history of needless confrontation with one another serves as a reminder of the importance of navigating this relationship with care and patience for fear of creating fissures that can only allow the US to play its two rivals against one another.
The Sino-Russian relationship is not an alliance. It is an alignment, which allows the two countries to agree in areas where their interests overlap while agreeing to disagree in areas where they develop certain divergences. For all the hubris of their joint statements, the alignment is generally unimpeded by onerous ideological constructions, which is a positive factor for the relationship, since the ideological “glue” may also lead to frictions, as it did during the tumultuous years of the Sino-Soviet alliance. However, Beijing and Moscow have developed certain common terms to describe their respective worldviews and have worked to pose a normative challenge to the West by substituting the meanings of recognizable terms like “democracy” and “human rights” with their own preferred interpretations. As this paper has argued, such substitution does not pose a critical challenge to the international order.
The most interesting developments in the Sino-Russian relationship are occurring in the economic sphere. These include Russia’s increasing dependence on China for critical technologies, as well as on the Chinese market as a destination for Russia’s hydrocarbons. This dependence, while real and very quantifiable, has not necessarily translated into an increase of China’s political leverage over Russia. Meanwhile, as the paper has shown, China and Russia continue to coordinate their policies in Central Asia. China, while possibly disagreeing with the thrust of Russia’s policy towards Ukraine, has nevertheless reconciled itself to the war, and is providing Moscow with critical support in the conflict.
1. “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning’s Regular Press Conference on May 4, 2023,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, May 4, 2023, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/202305/t20230504_11070508.html. The author is grateful to Carter Hanson of SAIS for working out the footnotes, and to James Nixey of the Chatham House for inspiring the idea of this article.
2. Robert Person and Michael McFaul, “What Putin Fears Most,” Journal of Democracy 33, no. 2 (April 2022): 18–27, https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/what-putin-fears-most/
3. Tuvshinzaya Gantulga and Sergey Radchenko, “Mongolia’s Search for a Third Way,” Foreign Affairs, October 6, 2023, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/mongolia/mongolias-search-third-way.
4. The numbers are based on the Chinese customs statistical data (Russia has stopped publishing customs statistics). “China’s Total Export & Import Values by Country/Region, August 2023 (in USD),” General Administration of Customs People’s Republic of China, September 8, 2023, http://english.customs.gov.cn/Statics/c860ca6d-30da-4ea0-ad79-18db3ffcb092.html.
5. Olesya Pavlenko, “Товарооборот России и Китая достиг рекордных $190 млрд,” Kommersant, January 13, 2023, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/5761392.
6. On this, see Alicia Garcia Herrero and Jianwei Xu, “The China-Russia trade relationship and its impact on Europe,” bruegel 4 (2016): 1–13, working paper, https://www.bruegel.org/sites/default/files/wp_attachments/WP-2016_04-180716.pdf.
7. “Online Query Platform for Custom Statistics,” General Administration of Customs People’s Republic of China, accessed November 11, 2023, http://stats.customs.gov.cn.
9. Russian custom statistics, https://customs.gov.ru/storage/document/document_statistics_file/2022-02/07/z3a8/WEB_UTSA_01.xlsx.
10. Henrik Wachtmeister, “Russia-China energy relations since 24 February: Consequences and options for Europe,” Swedish National China Centre and Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies (November 2023): 21, https://www.ui.se/globalassets/ui.se-eng/publications/sceeus/russia-china-energy-relations-since-24-february.pdf
11. “Сила Сибири 2: первое монгольское предупреждение,” Expert.ru, July 18, 2022.
12. “Россия и Китай договорились о поставках газа по дальневосточному маршруту,” RIA Novosti (Moscow), February 9, 2023, https://ria.ru/20230209/gaz-1850742318.html; “Обзор Рисков Финансовых Рынков,” BankofRussia 78, no. 9 (September 2023): 1–15, https://cbr.ru/collection/collection/file/46388/orfr_2023-09.pdf
13. China Global Investment Tracker,” American Enterprise Institute, accessed November 11, 2023, https://www.aei.org/china-global-investment-tracker/; Wachtmeister, “Russia-China energy relations,” 22.
14. Malte Humpert, “China to Supply Key Turbines to Novatek’s Arctic LNG 2,” High North News (Bodø, Norway), May 22, 2023, https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/china-supply-key-turbines-novateks-arctic-lng-2.
15. Wachtmeister, “Russia-China energy relations.”
16. Olga Lebedeva, “’Коммерсант’: Huawei распускает одно из подразделений в РФ,” DW News (Berlin), December 19, 2022, https://www.dw.com/ru/kommersant-huawei-raspuskaet-odno-iz-podrazdelenij-v-rossii/a-64146559
17. Jens Flottau, “Russia’s Exit from CR929 JV Underlines Sanctions Impact,” Aviation Week, August 22, 2023, https://aviationweek.com/aerospace/manufacturing-supply-chain/russias-exit-cr929-jv-underlines-sanctions-impact.
18. Artem Terentyev, “Юань обогнал доллар в России: почему это произошло,” Forbes, April 7, 2023, https://www.forbes.ru/investicii/487236-uan-obognal-dollar-v-rossii-pocemu-eto-proizoslo.
19. “Review of Financial Market Risks,” Bank of Russia.
20. “China Global Investment Tracker,” American Enterprise Institute.
21. China’s investment in Central Asia has reached US $15 billion by the end of 2022—Chinese Minister for Trade,” News Central Asia, April 18, 2023, https://www.newscentralasia.net/2023/04/18/chinas-investment-in-central-asia-has-reached-us-15-billion-by-the-end-of-2022-chinese-minister-for-trade/.
22. Ivan Timofeev, “US Sanctions Against Companies from Kyrgyzstan: A New Trend?” Valdai Discussion Club, August 14, 2023, https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/us-sanctions-against-companies-from-kyrgyzstan/.
23. Temur Umarov and Alexander Gabuev, “Is Russia Losing Its Grip on Central Asia?” Foreign Affairs, June 30, 2023, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/china/russia-losing-its-grip-central-asia.
24. Chinese customs statistics: “Online Query Platform for Custom Statistics,” General Administration of Customs People’s Republic of China, accessed November 11, 2023, http://stats.customs.gov.cn.
25. “Russian direct investments in Central Asia exceeded $3.6 billion in 2022,” News Central Asia, May 16, 2023, https://www.newscentralasia.net/2023/05/16/russian-direct-investments-in-central-asia-exceeded-3-6-billion-in-2022/.
26. “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, February 24, 2023, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202302/t20230224_11030713.html.
27. Dewey Sim, “Chinese envoy’s Europe trip a ‘search for common ground’ on Ukraine war, analysts say,” South China Morning Post, May 31, 2023, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3222450/chinese-envoys-europe-trip-search-common-ground-ukraine-war-analysts-say.
28. Mukhammadsharif Mamatkulov, “Putin says Xi has questions and concerns over Ukraine,” Reuters, September 16, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/putin-xi-set-meet-thursday-samarkand-2022-09-15/.
29. “President Xi Jinping Meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, November 4, 2022, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_