The Chinese and Russian leaders greeted each other like the old friends they are on a red carpet in front of the cameras in Beijing. “I’m very glad to see you,” Xi Jinping told Vladimir Putin, who is the first world leader he has met in person in more than 400 days. Putin praised the “truly unprecedented nature” of their relationship and referred to Xi as “my dear friend.” Every aspect of the meeting was clearly designed to signal unity.
With Russian troops still massed on the border of Ukraine, China could play a critical role in any attempt to mount a meaningful international response or to isolate Putin in the event of a new conflict. The message from Xi was that he and the Russian president are aligned in their view of the world and their shared opposition to the US. They released a 5,300-word joint statement to underline that point.
“The [two] sides oppose further enlargement of NATO and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideologized cold war approaches,” the statement said, according to the Kremlin’s translation. While this does not go as far as the Russian demand for the alliance to pull back its forces to their 1997 positions, it was the clearest signal yet that Beijing will at least offer political cover to Moscow in the event of a Russian offensive in Ukraine. The leaders also criticised the “negative impact of the United States” in Asia and complained about the “formation of closed bloc structures and opposing camps.”
To be clear, China does not want a war in Ukraine. The two countries have decent relations, bilateral trade is growing, and they signed a major investment deal last year. Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, has positioned his country as a potential “bridge to Europe” for China and exchanged congratulatory messages with Xi in January on 30 years of Sino-Ukrainian relations as they vowed to strengthen their “fruitful” co-operation.
The Chinese government would also be unlikely to welcome a major conflict in Europe that could tank global markets, spike energy prices and drag down the international economy, particularly when the Chinese economy has enough difficulties of its own to contend with. Those concerns will be especially acute ahead of an important Chinese Communist Party congress this autumn when Xi is expected to seek a third term in power. The priority is meant to be stability and ensuring that absolutely nothing goes wrong, not navigating the fallout from a conflict between Russia and the West.
Then there is the issue of the Winter Olympics, which Xi has promised will be “splendid” but have already been overshadowed by a diplomatic boycott and the global pandemic. While China’s foreign ministry has vehemently denied a report that Xi asked Putin to hold off on an attack until after the event, officials will remember that Russia has form on this front, having invaded Georgia during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.[See also: Dispatch: Putin’s answer to the Ukraine crisis may lie in Georgia]
For Xi there are larger geopolitical issues at stake here, most notably his country’s intensifying rivalry with the US and the vision he shares with Putin of a world order no longer dominated by the West. In December, with Russian forces already massing on the border of Ukraine, Xi complained to Putin that “certain forces in the world”, by which he meant the US and its allies, were “trying to meddle in the internal affairs of China and Russia” and “grossly trample on international law”. He called for the two countries to “launch more joint actions” as they renewed the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Co-operation.
The conventional wisdom has long held that their “history with geography”, as the Russian expression goes, will preclude a full-scale alliance. Tensions over their shared border, influence in Central Asia and the perennial purported threat of a Chinese land grab in the Russian far east have been viewed as barriers to a grand China-Russia axis. But while the prospect of a formal military alliance looks remote, the significance of their growing alignment should not be underestimated, particularly when it comes to the threat of an invasion of Ukraine and any efforts to isolate Putin in the aftermath.
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, China hedged its bets. Its diplomats blocked UN sanctions, but Beijing also declined to recognise Crimea as part of Russia, and still doesn’t. Nor does it recognise the Russian-backed separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. At the same time, Chinese state-owned banks have quietly complied with international sanctions, as they have with the measures imposed on Carrie Lam, Beijing’s handpicked leader of Hong Kong, who has complained that she can’t open a bank account and has to collect her salary in cash.
But the world looks very different now than it did in 2014. Russia and China are closer than they were back then, and the relationship extends far beyond the two leaders’ burgeoning bromance. Trade flows between the two have increased markedly, and while the volume is lopsided and China is by far the bigger economy, Russia plays an important role in Chinese energy security as a reliable source of natural gas, coal and crude oil. New Western sanctions will only solidify that bond and strengthen Beijing’s negotiating position, driving more trade not less.
It will also not be lost on Xi that the reason President Biden has sought to stabilise his relationship with Putin is so that he can refocus American attention on China. So, while he will not want this to escalate into a full-blown war, the Chinese leader will have little incentive to demand an end to the current crisis.