With Vladimir Putin’s offensive in Ukraine largely stalled and his forces sustaining heavy losses of soldiers and weaponry, the military exercises being held in the Russian Far East this week will be on a smaller scale than in previous years. Yet they are designed to send an important message: Moscow is not as isolated as the West might think.
China and India will send troops to take part in the Russian “Vostok” (“East”) drills from 30 August to 5 September, along with contingents from other countries including Belarus, Mongolia and Tajikistan. The exercises take place every four years; China’s defence ministry insists that its involvement is merely part of its ongoing security cooperation with Russia and “unrelated to the current international and regional situation”. But the decision to send Chinese forces at all, at a time when Russia is waging an unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine, clearly signals that Beijing has no intention of distancing itself from Moscow.
Similarly, while only a small contingent of Indian troops will travel to Russia – as few as 75 according to media reports – the symbolism is powerful. Like China, India has declined to condemn the Russian invasion, despite Western pressure to do so and its membership of the Quad grouping, alongside Australia, Japan and the US. Its prime minister, Narendra Modi, also signed up to a joint statement with Putin and the leaders of China, Brazil and South Africa at the Brics summit of emerging economies in June. The statement stressed the importance of respect for the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states” and their commitment to the “peaceful settlement of crises”, ignoring the fact that Russia was bombing Ukrainian cities and occupying Ukrainian territory at the time.
Both Beijing and New Delhi rely on arms sales from Russia, including advanced weapons systems and fighter jets, and both also import Russian oil. In fact, since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russia has overtaken Saudi Arabia to become India’s second-largest supplier of oil. The country’s external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar recently defended the decision to continue buying oil from Russia by arguing that he had a “moral duty” to secure the best deal on energy prices for Indian citizens given its developing economy.
China’s relationship with Russia goes much further. On 4 February, three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping held talks in Beijing and declared that there were “no limits” to the Sino-Russian partnership. They proclaimed their relations “superior” to an alliance. Xi has called Putin his “best and bosom” friend; the two men have celebrated their birthdays together and met dozens of times over the past decade.
Despite the hyperbolic rhetoric, there are clear limits to the relationship. Xi has provided Putin with diplomatic and economic support since the start of the war, with Chinese imports from Russia reaching a record high in April, up more than 50 per cent on the previous year. Chinese exports to Russia have fallen, however, as Beijing appears to have abided by international sanctions and export controls on shipments to Russia, reluctant to risk triggering secondary sanctions on Chinese companies. The Chinese government has also avoided openly providing military aid to Russia since the start of the war, according to US officials.
This is consistent with Beijing’s approach to Moscow over the past decade. Since Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the international sanctions that followed, China welcomed the increase in bilateral trade with Moscow, but reportedly drove a hard bargain on energy prices and refused to recognise Russia’s claim to the Black Sea peninsula (and still has not done so). Likewise, while China condemned Western sanctions on Hong Kong officials after the introduction of the territory’s national security law in 2020, Chinese companies largely abided by them. So much so, that Hong Kong’s former leader Carrie Lam later complained that she had to collect her salary in cash because she could no longer hold a bank account.
The economic relationship between the two authoritarian powers is increasingly unequal. China is Russia’s biggest single trading partner and accounted for an estimated 18 per cent of Russia’s total trade in 2020, whereas Russia was only China’s 14th largest trading partner and constituted just 2 per cent of its trade in the same year. That asymmetry only looks likely to increase as the Kremlin’s actions deliver it further sanctions and European countries shift away from their dependence on Russian energy supplies. Alexander Gabuev, a scholar of Sino-Russian relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has called Russia “China’s new vassal”, warning that Beijing could soon control more than half of Moscow’s trade. If the Chinese government seeks to exploit that leverage, Gabuev wrote, it could pressure Russia for access to its most advanced weaponry, along with concessions in the Russian Arctic, and perhaps limits to its arms sales to India. Hence New Delhi’s determination to maintain good relations with Moscow, despite the disapproval of its Western partners.
Yet above all else, China values Russia as a partner in their shared push back against the US, which both countries view as their most important challenge. Scholars in both countries have studied the causes of the Sino-Soviet split that let to deadly border clashes in 1969, and they understand the importance that the perceived asymmetry in the relationship played then, with China bristling at being treated as the “little brother” by the Soviet Union. The current leaders have been careful not to highlight their growing disparity and repeat those mistakes again now. Thus, Xi and Putin will continue to praise their close ties, China will send its troops to train in the Russian Far East, and Beijing will continue to hold its careful line – not distancing itself from Moscow, but not sacrificing the Chinese economy on the altar of Putin’s military ambitions either.
[See also: The perils of autocracy]