While many western leaders stayed away from last week’s opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics, China’s president Xi Jinping still managed to attract a star guest: Russia’s Vladimir Putin. After talks and dinner, a more than 5,000-word joint statement by the two leaders denounced American interference in their affairs and opposed further enlargement of Nato — Russia’s number one bugbear with the west.
The meeting showed how the growing threat of war over Ukraine is accelerating a major realignment in geopolitics, pushing Moscow and Beijing into a closer embrace. Russia will look to China to alleviate the impact of western sanctions that might follow an assault on Ukraine. China will now demand Russian support for its own regional ambitions over Taiwan and elsewhere.
One crucial glue in the relationship is hydrocarbons. Russia has abundant oil, gas and coal, and — for now at least — some military technologies that China lacks. Beijing has capital, machinery and other sorts of technology that Moscow needs.
Beijing still buys only a fraction of the Russian gas that Europe does. But the fact that pipelines now exist, after mutual suspicion for years blocked progress on such links, is symbolic of how broader ties have solidified. It is hardly coincidental that a 30-year, $400bn gas supply agreement, paving the way to construct the Power of Siberia gas pipeline between the two countries, was signed just weeks after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea provoked a rift with the west.
The deepening partnership since then reflects a convergence of interests between Beijing and Moscow. Both are authoritarian states that chafe at a “unipolar” US-dominated world and western efforts to spread liberal democracy. Both believe America is intent on undermining them: Moscow sees Washington’s hand in Ukraine’s pro-western revolution in 2014, and Beijing accuses “foreign forces” of orchestrating Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests in 2019. Both crave a global order that better reflects their own interests.
Both, too, are more boldly pushing back against US influence. China has long opposed expansion of military alliances. But Xi’s joint statement with Putin that the two countries “oppose further enlargement of Nato” was more specific than China’s leadership has been before. Showing unusual assertiveness on an issue beyond China’s vicinity, it also said Beijing was “sympathetic to and supports” Russia’s proposals for legally-binding security guarantees in Europe.
Yet here the friendship bumps up against its constraints. Though Russia reaffirmed its stance that Taiwan is part of China, the statement made no direct mention of Ukraine. Beijing, which has long made respect for territorial integrity a foreign policy principle and has pursued trade and political links with Ukraine, may have little interest in a Russian military invasion that would provoke a global crisis and galvanise Nato and the US. The current stand-off, by contrast, arguably suits China well by tying Russia and the west up in protracted diplomatic wrangling.
Moreover, while they are now clearly geopolitical partners, the likelihood of China and Russia becoming full military allies — and concluding a mutual defence pact — remains slim. The two still vie for influence in former Soviet central Asia. Beijing maintains an obsessive secrecy around its own security interests. Moscow is wary of being a distinctly junior partner to a country with a population and an economy 10 times the size of its own. The Sino-Russian rapprochement is far-reaching, and one to which the rest of the world should pay close attention. But it is not, despite both countries’ recent assertion, “without limits”.