In December 1949, two months after founding the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong travelled to Moscow to meet his Soviet counterpart, Joseph Stalin. Yet instead of welcoming the Chinese leader as a victorious comrade-in-arms, Stalin lectured Mao on how to run his nation. Then he made him wait for 17 days at a country house outside the capital before he granted him a second audience. “I got so angry that I once pounded on the table,” Mao later told a Soviet ambassador. He complained that he had been limited to three main activities during his two-month visit: “The first was to eat, the second was to sleep, and the third was to shit.”
Seven decades later, the balance of power has shifted. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China as an economic superpower, and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it is Beijing that has the upper hand in the relationship and on whom Russia’s future depends. When Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow for a three-day visit in March, Putin greeted him with an elaborate ceremony, complete with guards in imperial uniforms, in the most opulent hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace. The message to those watching in Russia and beyond was this: we are not on our own, China is still with us, and our friendship could not be closer. Putin all but fawned over Xi in his public remarks. “In recent years, China has made a colossal leap forward in its development,” he told him. “And we are even a bit envious of you.”
This was an understatement. By effectively cutting off Russia from the West through his war on Ukraine, Putin has plunged his country into a process of “reverse industrialisation”, Alexandra Prokopenko, a former Russian central bank official, told me. This means an ever-greater reliance on Beijing. “Before the war, China was still Russia’s major trading partner, but that relationship was balanced with trade with the European Union,” she explained. “Now China supplies 40 per cent of Russia’s imports – I think only North Korea has a bigger proportion – and this dependence will only grow.” Sergey Radchenko, a Cold War historian based at Johns Hopkins University and the author of the forthcoming book To Run the World: The Kremlin’s Cold War Bid for Global Power, put it more bluntly: “Russia has become not so much even a junior partner as an outright vassal to China.”
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Yet the global political outlook has changed too. Just as Stalin and Mao were drawn together by the supposed threat from Western imperialism to form the Sino-Soviet alliance in 1950, despite their differences, so Xi and Putin are now bound together by what both perceive as a new epochal struggle against the West. Russia’s war has hurt Chinese interests – galvanising Western alliances, complicating Beijing’s relations with Europe, slowing global economic growth, and spurring Japan’s rearmament – but these are secondary considerations for Xi. His greater concern is the competition with the United States and its allies, which he believes will determine the future of the global order. Before he flew to Moscow, he lashed out at what he called the “all-round containment, encirclement and suppression” of China by Western countries. He needs Putin, above all else, as a partner in that fight.
This time, there is no formal alliance between Putin and Xi, and the socialist ideo-logy that linked Stalin and Mao is gone. Yet, this may only make the new Sino-Russian alignment stronger. The two powers are no longer competing for the leadership of the global communist movement, and they have learned from their violent split in the 1960s – which culminated in border clashes between Chinese and Soviet soldiers in 1969 – that it is better to be good neighbours than bitter enemies. Despite the “no limits” partnership proclaimed by the two leaders in Beijing in February 2022 ahead of the Ukraine war, the past year has demonstrated that there are, indeed, limits to the relationship, and that it is profoundly unequal.
But it is also resilient. There is no reason to believe that Xi is preparing to distance himself from Putin or to pressure him to end his war against Ukraine. Even with Putin now wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, including the unlawful deportation of children, Xi shows no compunction about standing alongside him and lauding their personal friendship. At the end of the March summit, the two men were filmed walking together towards the Chinese leader’s car, where Xi made a point of addressing Putin in front of the cameras. “Right now, there are changes, the likes of which we haven’t seen for a hundred years,” Xi told him, smiling as they shook hands. “And we are the ones driving these changes together.”
The first official Russian expedition to Peking (now Beijing) in 1618 returned with admiring reports of “streets paved with grey stone” and markets filled with “fruits and vegetables such as we know not”, writes Philip Snow in China and Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord. But the early attempts at establishing relations with the Qing empire did not go well. When Fyodor Baikov travelled to the imperial capital as an emissary of the Russian tsar in 1656, he offended his hosts by refusing to kowtow before the emperor. “Your empire is great, but ours is not small either,” he is said to have remarked. In the stand-off that followed with the Lifan Yuan (Office to Administer Foreign Barbarians), Baikov was threatened with execution and then ejected from the city.
During the following century, the Qing empire reached the height of its power and territorial reach under Emperor Qianlong, who ruled from 1735 to 1796. By then, China and Russia had signed their first treaty and begun to trade, but Qianlong looked down on his northern neighbour, which he described in 1787 as “still savage and to be tamed”, according to Snow. Yet within decades, the Qing empire would begin its long decline and China would enter what became known as the “Century of Humiliation”.
Beginning with the Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), China was forced to cede territory to Britain and grant trade concessions to foreign powers including France in a succession of “unequal treaties”. The ignominy of this period would later form the basis for the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to power. As China’s current leadership tells this story, it was only with the Japanese defeat at the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the founding of the People’s Republic four years later that this era of national shame finally ended. As Mao declared in September 1949, days before proclaiming his new republic, “Ours will no longer be a nation subject to insult and humiliation. We have stood up.”
Russia played its own inglorious role in China’s suffering, helping itself to a million square kilometres of territory – approximately the size of Germany and France combined – at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860. The port city of Vladivostok, whose name translates as “Ruler of the East”, was built on land that previously belonged to China, an indignity that still stirs resentment among nationalist Chinese commentators. There were violent clashes along the border too. In 1900, during the anti-foreigner uprising in China known as the Boxer Rebellion, Cossack soldiers on the Russian side of the Amur River, which runs along the border, rounded up Chinese migrants, including women and children, and forced them into the water at gunpoint. Thousands are thought to have drowned.
The Soviet Union was established in 1922 after the fall of empire on both sides of the border (in China in 1912 and Russia in 1917). It had already become a superpower by the time China emerged, impoverished, from the ruins of the Second World War. Moscow provided much-needed economic aid and thousands of advisers to help build Mao’s new socialist republic after 1949. But the Sino-Soviet alliance was never as monolithic as it appeared from the outside, and it collapsed altogether in the 1960s under the weight of mounting grievances. When tensions between the two sides escalated into a months-long border conflict in 1969, Beijing feared that the Kremlin was preparing to launch a nuclear attack, prompting Mao to explore the possibility of thawing relations with the US. Three years later, in 1972, he welcomed Richard Nixon to China in what the then US president called “the week that changed the world”.
“The problem with the Sino-Soviet relationship was not that it was unequal, although of course it was,” said Radchenko. “It was that China was not willing to accept this inequality – and this potentially translates into problems for our own days.”
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The roots of the modern China-Russia rapprochement go back to the 1980s, when the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and his Chinese counterpart, Deng Xiaoping, signalled their interest in improving relations and settling their border dispute. In 2001, just over a year after becoming president and still looking distinctly awkward in his new role, Vladimir Putin signed the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation with then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. The full length of their 4,300-kilometre border was finally demarcated only in 2005, allowing both sides to demilitarise what had once been one of the world’s most heavily guarded frontiers.
The need to maintain peace along the border is one of three important elements driving the new Sino-Russian alignment, Alexander Gabuev, the director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre, told me. “There is economic complementarity – Russia has an abundance of natural resources, and it needs markets and technology, while China is the exact opposite,” he said. “Then there is the fact that these are two like-minded authoritarian nations on the UN Security Council who are obsessed with what they perceive as ‘US hegemonism’ and there is a desire to help each other on this.” As he summed it up, “the thinking among an increasing number of senior decision-makers in Moscow is animated by the mantra: ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’” Beijing also fears what would happen if Putin’s regime falls and a new government that is less hostile to the West comes to power on the other side of their long border. “If Russia turns towards the Western camp,” he said, “that’s a strategic nightmare for China.”
“Russia is a major partner in China’s push for a new international order,” Zhao Huasheng, a scholar at Fudan University and one of China’s top Russia experts, wrote in August 2022 as he outlined the case for maintaining the relationship despite the war. “There are many other countries that share China’s interests in these areas, but Russia is the most important.” He also argued that in the event of a confrontation in the Taiwan Strait, Russia could provide political, diplomatic and economic support. Unlike shipments of oil from the Middle East, which might be halted by a Western blockade, Russia could continue to supply China with oil and gas across their land border. “Thus, in the event of a major international crisis,” Zhao wrote, “Russia is the most important external source of energy, if not the only external source of oil.”
Moscow’s growing dependence on Beijing also benefits the Chinese government’s push to increase the use of its currency, the yuan, in international trade. An estimated 45 per cent of trade between China and Russia was settled in yuan in 2020, compared to just over 3 per cent in 2014. “As we heard during Xi Jinping’s visit, Putin is eager to use the yuan in payments with different countries, not only with China,” Prokopenko, the former Russian central bank official, explained. That, she said, is “a gift to China’s efforts to internationalise the yuan”.
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In their joint statement in Moscow on 21 March, Putin and Xi denounced “hegemonism” and US efforts to promote the “narrative of ‘democracy against authoritarianism’… as a political tool to exert pressure on other countries”. While these pronouncements might sound hollow and hypocritical given their own behaviour, there is an audience for this message beyond the West, especially in countries with a history of Western colonialism.
“China and Russia present a joint narrative to the Global South, and Africa in particular, about an anti-hegemonic, anti-US-centric world order,” said Maria Repnikova, a professor at Georgia State University and the author of Chinese Soft Power. “They present a more equitable vision of the world order, which involves engaging with countries in the Global South as equal partners, as opposed to forcing them to enact a certain kind of political governance.”
In recent months successive senior US officials – including the treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the vice-president, Kamala Harris – have travelled to Africa in an attempt to counter Chinese influence. But these belated efforts are up against more than 20 years of sustained Chinese engagement on the continent, including long-running educational exchanges, as well as a legacy of distrust. “I think that what is sometimes ignored in this conversation are the pre-existing perceptions of the West, and the US in particular, in many of these countries,” Repnikova said. “And that shapes how they perceive the messages coming from Russia and China, especially in the context of the war in Ukraine.”
It is striking how many countries around the world, including major democracies such as India and Brazil, have continued to trade enthusiastically with Russia despite the conflict. Thirty-two countries, including India, abstained from a UN vote to condemn the invasion. China has helped by amplifying Putin’s self-serving narrative that he was forced to act by Nato’s expansion and the West’s disregard for Russia’s interests. While the US has warned that Beijing is considering supplying lethal aid to Putin, Xi has attempted to position himself as a tireless advocate for peace, with his officials insisting that it is the West that is “fuelling the fire”, not least by supplying weapons to Ukraine.
China has also engaged more in international diplomacy in recent years, in line with Xi’s declaration in 2017 that it was time to “take centre stage in the world”. The foreign ministry characterised the Beijing-mediated peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia last month, which took US diplomats by surprise, as an example of how countries in the region could “get rid of external interference and take the future into their own hands”. Building on their anti-colonial narratives during the Cold War, Beijing and Moscow are pushing the message that they are the true friends of the Global South – able to provide the funds for new infrastructure, natural resources and private military contractors – while Western hegemony is the real problem confronting the world. A fairer international system is possible, they argue, if only US dominance can be overthrown.
[See also: How Xi Jinping views the world]
This does not mean that Putin and Xi agree on what exactly a new world order should look like. China’s rise has been propelled by its integration into global markets, whereas Russia’s approach to foreign policy is increasingly based on 19th-century notions of hard power. Beijing wants to reshape the existing system in its favour, not burn down the whole thing — and it is becoming harder to ignore the growing asymmetry between them.
“The big question is how far the Chinese are willing to push their advantage at Russia’s expense,” Radchenko said. Moscow has long been wary of Beijing’s claim to be a “near-Arctic” power, for example, and has also declined to supply the Chinese military with some of its most advanced weapons systems. But with reduced leverage Moscow could soon be forced to give ground on both issues. China has also bolstered its presence in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia over recent years. Xi launched his overseas infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative, in Kazakhstan in 2013, and China has built a security outpost in Tajikistan.
“There are clearly certain tensions between China and Russia in the region,” Raffaello Pantucci, the co-author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, told me from Singapore, where he is a scholar at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “But they have no interest in falling out over Central Asia.” In fact, he says, there is considerable overlap in their vision for the region. “They want it to be stable and not exporting problems that they have to deal with – from terrorists to Western democracy and ‘colour revolutions’ – and to be honest, the region likes that too.”
[See also: How long will the war in Ukraine go on for?]
Despite the clear limits to the relationship, both sides have an interest in managing their differences, at least in public. “If China uses its leverage in a respectful way, addressing Russia’s sense of prestige and pride, then the outside world won’t necessarily know how much China is pushing behind closed doors and the stakeholders inside the Russian system will be happy,” explained Alexander Gabuev. “This is not the preferred course of action, but because Russia doesn’t have many options, it will have to accept China’s growing role in the Arctic and Central Asia, as well as its increasing dominance over the technological landscape.” The real problems could start if China begins to flaunt its growing superiority over Russia and Putin’s regime is forced to make humiliating concessions to Beijing.
There are evident limits to the collateral damage China is prepared to sustain in the service of Putin’s imperialist ambitions. As was the case with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, China does not recognise Russia’s claim to have annexed four further regions of Ukraine in 2022. Similarly, while China has increased overall trade and exports of dual-use technology (which can be used in both civilian and military equipment) such as semiconductors to Russia, major Chinese companies have so far avoided openly breaching international sanctions. When Putin boasted during his summit with Xi that they were close to reaching an agreement on a new gas pipeline, known as Power of Siberia 2, Xi said nothing.
“China is driven by self-preservation,” said Yanmei Xie, a geopolitics analyst at the Gavekal Research consultancy. “Chinese state-owned oil and gas companies have been careful about entering projects that could be vulnerable to sanctions, or long-term contracts that could compromise China’s long-held policy of diversifying supplies of energy.” Xi might not want Putin to lose the war in Ukraine – concerned that a defeat might weaken his hold on power – but he is not prepared to sacrifice the Chinese economy to help Russia win.
[See also: Can Ukraine Win the War with Its Offensive?]
The bitter rivalry and the festering grievances that have since been unearthed about the Sino-Soviet alliance, including Mao’s fury at his treatment in Moscow, were not always apparent to Western policymakers at the time. In Washington during the early decades of the Cold War, US officials tended to group the two powers together as part of a communist colossus, and it was not until they openly split that the US understood the extent of the acrimony between them. It is important not to make the same mistake now and buy into the hyperbolic claims on both sides about the strength of their partnership. To paraphrase the former British prime minister Lord Palmerston, no country has eternal allies, only interests.
Yet it is for precisely this reason that the new Sino-Russian alignment looks increasingly durable – and dangerous. When I asked Sergey Radchenko what he thought Western commentators were missing about the relationship, he replied with one word: “history”.
Over the past four centuries, Russia and China have learned to value each other as neighbours and to understand the risks of falling out. Now, confronted with a common external enemy, both believe it is in their interest to manage their differences and maintain mutually beneficial ties.
This logic goes far beyond any personal bond between the contemporary leaders, and their assessment of their short-term interests. Both sides now view this alignment as a long-term, structural necessity that will endure. “There is a great continuity now to the relationship,” Radchenko said. “Even if Putin dropped dead today, or Xi disappeared from the scene, I do not see the next generation of Russian or Chinese leaders changing course.”
This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats