China’s alignment with Putin is uneasy. But its rivalry with the US makes him too useful to abandon

Russia makes a growing contribution to China’s economy. And the war in Ukraine helps Beijing undermine US diplomacy.

Expert comment Published 17 May 2024 3 minute READ

With his visit to China this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to show that he still has friends in high places. President Xi Jinping of China is the perfect candidate. 

Judging from the latest joint communique issued by Beijing and Moscow, China firmly views its relationship with Russia in the light of its protracted competition with the United States and the US-led world order. The People’s Republic, for the first time, openly reprimanded Washington in a joint statement with Russia. 

However, the communique tellingly omits any inclusion of the ‘no limits’ partnership first referred to in January 2021. Instead, China stressed their relationship is based on a ‘confluence of interests’. The removal of the no limits partnership almost certainly displays some sense of agonizing on Beijing’s part about its bilateral ties with Moscow.

As it is, China’s position on Russia’s war in Ukraine contradicts its defining diplomatic principle of upholding national sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

This position has significantly worsened relations with both the US and Europe – its main economic partners of the last three decades. But Beijing will not change its position, because its long-term struggle with the US takes priority.

Beyond the war 

China’s strong inclination to sustain its ties with Russia go well beyond the Kremlin’s military adventure. Its return on investments is still framed by its response to the US’s pursuit of a China containment strategy. Beijing believes its relations with Moscow might well bring a necessary (if imperfect) solution in dealing with US policy in both economic and diplomatic terms.

In 2023, Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as the largest oil supplier to China.

Russia’s invasion offers China a pointy lesson on its own economic resilience – a critical element of what President Xi referred to as ‘comprehensive national security’. In 2023, Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as the largest oil supplier to China. Since Beijing has placed energy security at the heart of its economic security, amid geopolitical rivalry with the collective West, these Russian supplies are vital.

Russia has also become a destination for many Chinese high-end manufacturing products, at a time when China’s weak domestic consumer demand and Western political elites’ advocacy of ‘de-risking’ have created a dangerous cocktail, hindering its economic recovery.

At the same time, trade volumes with Russia are increasing, albeit on a much smaller scale than with Southeast Asia. Beijing is running a pilot study to examine ways to develop its economic trajectory without being dependent on Western demand, so trade with Russia could take on greater importance.

Anti-US alignment

In diplomatic terms, Beijing’s long-term alignment with Russia is increasingly bound to their common resentment of US hegemony, not by shared values - something the NATO alliance has always struggled to comprehend. 

China’s position on the war has been adopted by many large Global South economies, such as India and South Africa.

Deepened bilateral cooperation in recent years has allowed the two countries to demonstrate great-power status on the world stage to counterbalance US dominance.

Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine has inadvertently created an opportunity for China to renew its push to strengthen ties with the Global South, which does not see the war in Ukraine in the West’s black and white terms. 

China’s position on the war has been adopted by many large Global South economies, such as India and South Africa, which have also continued to develop their respective warm relationships with Russia.

China’s continual talk of energy and food security also strikes a chord with developing countries that are hard hit by the war’s economic impacts and still attempting a post-COVID-19 economic recovery through revived trade and investment.

The transformation of the BRICS grouping to BRICS Plus, with the addition of four new members in January, and China’s growing prominence in the leadership of most UN related institutions, are all part of Beijing’s attempt to forge global partnerships in opposition to the US.

A united West, a divided world

Though Russia’s war has left the West more firmly united than it has been in years, it has also left it more divided from the rest of the world, particularly China. While China’s relations with the US have plunged to new lows, Xi’s recent trip to Europe was intended to prevent further damage to its ties with European capitals.

Article 2nd half

Yet its efforts are not well appreciated by the European audience. The more explanation Beijing offers, the deeper sense of mistrust develops. 

Isolation from the collective West looks like an unattractive option to China. But siding with the West against its nuclear neighbour in the north, with over 4000km of shared borders, is even worse for Beijing – at a time when the US is building a lattice of alliances to its south. 

Beijing’s ties with Moscow continue to test its diplomatic capability and economic resilience. 

As prickly as this alignment has always been, China’s ties with Russia are an example of how geographic and strategic necessity determine a country’s foreign affairs priorities. However, like any relationship – even one ‘without limits’ – this one was bound to have boundaries. 

Beijing must be clear how far those boundaries extend and for how long they will remain in place, if it is not to damage its own interests.